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Nigeria : The impunity of Tinubu’s war on the media

D 22 juin 2024     H 05:30     A PROMISE EZEJUNE     C 0 messages


The Tinubu administration took off where Buhari left : arbitrary arrests of journalists, indefinite detentions and even alleged executions. The logic of it defies reason – save for a new surveillance clause in a 2014 law.

Journalists march to demand the release of Daniel Ojukwu, Abuja, 9 May 2024. Photo courtesy : Adeyanju Deji.

Following his investigative report about emerging official corruption, Daniel Ojukwu, a reporter with Nigeria’s Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ), was arrested and detained in a police cell in Lagos on 1 May.

The police said that Ojukwu’s report, which was published in November last year, violated Nigeria’s cybercrime law, one which observers say is being used to silence journalists and other critics.

Ojukwu told African Arguments that a police team from Nigeria’s capital Abuja traced his location by tracking his device. He was handcuffed, bundled into a bus, and then driven to a police station in Lagos where he was held hungry and incommunicado for over 48 hours without charges, before being flown to Abuja on May 5 and detained in another cell.

While the Nigerian constitution states that it is illegal to detain a person for more than 48 hours without such person being granted bail or charged to court, the police evaded habeas corpus constitutional provisions by stating that his arrest was “in strict compliance with legal protocols and procedures.”

“I was abandoned in the Lagos cell until they were ready to move me to Abuja. I had no one checking on me. I slept on a hard floor. I have so much body pain. The conditions were horrible, not just for me but for other inmates,” said Ojukwu who was released after 10 days in detention following a public outcry. Down with the flu, he is preparing to challenge his detention in court.

Nigeria’s Declining Press Freedom

Ojukwu is not alone. Despite the Tinubu administration’s promises to protect journalists, there are now a growing number of arrests and cases of harassment and intimidation. Ojukwu was arrested barely a month after the Nigerian military arrested, detained, and tortured Segun Olatunji, former FirstNews editor, for a story alleging misuse of public funds by President Tinubu’s chief of staff, Femi Gbajabiamila.

While Nigeria’s constitution allows for press freedom, journalists in the West African nation have been intimidated, attacked and killed by state and non-state actors usually after reporting on corruption and bad governance.

In its 2023 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders ranked Nigeria 112th out of 180 countries for press freedom, stating that Nigeria is one of West Africa’s most dangerous countries for journalists.

According to the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development, a media think tank, there were 74 attacks against Nigerian journalists in the country in the first eight months of 2023 alone.

Cybercrime Act

The Cybercrime Act has quickly become the State’s favoured instrument for targeting journalists. Enacted into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015, it has been used to prosecute at least 25 media practitioners.

Ayisat Abiona, a lawyer in Nigeria, argues that despite its condemnation by an ECOWAS court and subsequent amendment, law enforcement agencies persist in using the law to target journalists.

This year, President Tinubu amended the Act with an eye on the Cyberstalking section. Known as Section 24, it criminalises the dissemination of false messages via the internet that may cause annoyance or give offence to others. This offence carries a prescribed punishment of a three-year jail term or a fine of not less than N7 million ($4,678).

“In 2022, the ECOWAS court ruled that Section 24 of the Act was inconsistent and incompatible with Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” Abiona told African Arguments.

Established as a sub-regional international court in 2001, the ECOWAS Court’s judgments are binding on all Member States. However, despite its amendments of the Cyber Crime Act, Abiona said that the “Act is ambiguous with no clear definition, which makes it easy for it to be weaponised to target journalists and dissenting voices in the country.”

“Another major concern is section 38 of the Act that allows law enforcement agencies to access and intercept data from any computer system or network without a court order, thus it could violate the privacy and confidentiality of journalists and their sources,” she added.

Abdullateef ‘Lanre Ahmed, chairman of the Kwara State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), told African Arguments that the Cybercrime Act infringes on the fundamental human rights enshrined in Nigeria’s constitution. Ahmed said that the NUJ has agreed that the Act should be jettisoned as it does not allow for press freedom. The NUJ has made its demands known to the government.

“Any law that infringes on our rights to hold the government accountable, we are totally against it. As far as we are concerned, there is a need to repeal such an Act. We are against it. It is obnoxious and does not represent the interest of the people. Of course, there is a need to fight cyber crime, but in this case, it is clear that this law, especially Section 24, is targeted at journalists,’’ he said.

Abductions

Amnesty International has expressed worries about how the Nigerian government uses security operatives to attack journalists and raid media organisations.

Media Rights Agenda says that over 60% of the 45 recorded attacks against journalists between May 2023 and April 2024 were orchestrated by Nigeria’s security operatives, infamous for human rights abuses.

For Gidado Shuiab Yushau, an Abuja-based editor of News Digest, a publication focusing on campus journalism, law enforcement agencies are used to silence rather than protect journalists.

Yushau was picked up from his home by armed police on the night of 29 October 2019 after publishing an investigative news article that concerns alleged cannabis use by workers at a grain processing firm owned by a former acting governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria.

He told African Arguments that five days before his arrest, his webmaster was arrested by the police in Lagos and brought to Abuja to identify him. He was eventually granted bail and charged in court where he was convicted of “criminal defamation and conspiracy” and would have spent at least five months in prison had the case not been struck out by a court after almost four gruelling years of legal battles.

“It was an attempt to intimidate us,” Yushau said, adding that he was never invited by the police before he was forcefully taken from his home.

There is now a growing countrywide trend of police arresting journalists without obtaining warrants at the behest of powerful, high profile individuals. To protest the repeated violations, media houses have taken to using the term ‘abduction’ in their reports.

Lekan Otunfodurin, the Executive Director of Media Career Development Network, believes that this gives the impression that press freedom is no longer guaranteed in Nigeria.

“It doesn’t ensure that we are under a democratic government where you can be assured of press freedom, freedom of expression, and the freedom to hold the government accountable, “he said.

Otunfodurin worries that intimidating journalists is a plot to deny Nigerian citizens their right to information.

Toba Adedeji, a journalist with The Nation, one of Nigeria’s leading national dailies, agrees with Otunfodurin. Adedeji was targeted and shot by the police two years ago after following up on a report about how the police killed a 32-year-old businessman they attempted to arrest in Osun state, southwest Nigeria.

The police opened fire on youths who protested the murder of the deceased, and Adedeji, who was there to cover the protest, said he was shot because the police officers who stormed the area knew him and were not happy about his attempt to expose their extrajudicial atrocities.

The bullet inflicted a flesh wound, badly affecting his thigh region. The police, Adedeji say, denied responsibility for the shooting, claiming that his injury was only a metal scratch.

“I called the police out but they never tendered an apology,” he told African Arguments.

For Damilola Ayeni, FIJ’s Editor, the Cybercrime law has made every journalist a potential victim of harassment for reporting the truth. However, Ayeni said he encourages his reporters to ensure that all facts are accurate so that even if they happen to be targeted for their work, they can defend themselves.

“Everyday you wake up as a journalist you are a potential victim of police abduction but the best thing you can do is to be ethical so that when the time comes for your work to be reviewed you can put up a good fight,” he said.

Aveni added that while journalists cannot be entirely safe from abductions and harassment, newsrooms have put in measures to protect journalists by ensuring that reporters going to the field share their locations with the rest of the team and give detailed information about the source they are going out to interview. He added that digital tools that guarantee end-to-end encryption are used to prevent phone conversations from being tracked.

African Arguments sent an email to Chief Ajuri Ngelale, Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, requesting a comment from the presidency on Section 24 of the Cyber Crime Act. However, as of press time, there has been no response.

Justice Denied

Despite evidence being made available, Nigeria’s law enforcement agencies routinely deny harassing and attacking journalists. Relying on the country’s failing justice system to drag the cases into oblivion, they are rarely held accountable.

Out of 10 journalists killed in Nigeria between 2018 and 2021, the police were responsible for three death : Pelumi Onifade, Precious Owolabi and Alex Ogbu. Precious Owolabi, a trainee journalist, was killed by a bullet fired by the police while covering a protest in 2019.

The Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, condemned the killing and called for an investigation. However, despite a public outcry, the police have refused to accept responsibility for his death.

“It keeps happening and has become a trend,” says Mustapha Usman, a journalist based in Abuja, referring to how journalists targeted by the police rarely get justice. Usman was harassed and beaten by officers of the Federal Road Service Commission for trying to capture them on camera harassing a female driver last year. He laid complaints at the agency’s office. Nothing has been done so far.

Shereefdeen Ahmad, who narrowly avoided arrest by a security agency for reporting on how teachers at a school used students to till farmlands during school hours, says he believes young journalists who are either targets of police abuse or witnesses to it, but who do not have the courage to challenge the police, could eventually quit their jobs out of fear of imminent intimidation.

For Otunfodurin, the government must penalise those who harass journalists to prevent the abuses from getting out of hand. “The security officials who perpetrate the attack on journalists should not take the law into their own hands. They should know that it is not within their powers to abduct journalists or expose them to danger,” he added.

Abdullah Tijani, the managing editor of The Liberalist, a liberal magazine, said that the police must endeavour to investigate petitions written against journalists before taking any action.

He argues that non-state actors are encouraged to harass journalists because even state actors who should protect journalists are intimidating them.

“The bad image the police and other security agencies have given themselves is making journalism difficult to practice in Nigeria. Press freedom is the backbone of democracy. If we cannot guarantee freedom of the press then we are not practicing democracy,” he added.

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