Attacks on Nigerian Press

When Nigeria finally made the difficult transition from military rule to civil democracy on May 29, 1999 everyone, I mean everyone – journalists, human rights activists, scholars, civil servants, lawyers and the ordinary citizen – expected that democratic norms would henceforth be firmly entrenched and fortified in the country. Nigerians hoped that arbitrariness, executive lawlessness, impunity and audacious attacks against the press would be consigned to the dustbin of history with the military handover. Nigerians hoped that the new democratic state would be the prime mover of all democratic values especially freedom of the press, freedom of political activism and other forms of symbolic expressions, including political rallies and non-violent protestations. The Daily Champion reflected this hope in its editorial of October 11, 2004 when it said, “For a nation that has just come out of …years of military dictatorship - bruised, broken and battered – the event (i.e. the military handover) ushered in much hope for the people.” 

The words of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo who became the first post-military era president, propitiously fueled the optimism that the era of attacks against the press was over. Obasonjo said during his nation-wide broadcast at the 40th independence anniversary on October 1, 2000: “I have always believed in fundamental human rights and freedom, because I know that these values represent the best expression of democracy. I also know what it is to be deprived of human rights because I was once deprived of my own.” The Guardian also articulated this point in its editorial on May 19, 2013, titled, “Nigeria’s democracy: Fourteen years on.” The editorial said: “With the return to civil rule, expectations of Nigerians were high. Against the background of the impunity of the past, they expected the rule of law….Against massive human rights violations they expected the veneration of rights.” This was the mood of the nation. This was the emotional state of Nigerians as their country transitioned from military autocracy to civil democracy on May 29, 1999.

Ironically, however, attacks against the press -- physical assaults, verbal harassment, intimidation, legal threats, and extra-judicial detentions of journalists, closure of media houses, seizure and confiscation of media products -- seem to persist under the new democratic formation. The state has utilized the same repressive institutions – the Nigeria Police Force, Nigerian Army, Department of State Security Services and others – used by past military regimes to attack the press. The Guardian succinctly articulated this point in its editorial of May 29, 2013, when it said: “The return to democracy after many years of military rule…has not brought much of the desired change. If anything, the system has changed, but not the attitude. The personnel has changed, but the vices continue.” The Guardian underscored this point in another editorial on October 20, 2014 when it said inter alia: “…a cursory examination of events ever since attests to the intensification of violation of human rights….”

Attacks Against the Press

Selected examples of attacks against the press since May 29, 1999 will illustrate the point. Osa Director, Chucks Onwudinjo and Janet Mba-Afolabi of the Insider Weekly magazine were arrested and detained on November 14, 2003. The Newswatch magazine December 1, 2003 explained that the editors were arrested and detained for allegedly publishing a false report titled, “Aso Rock Oil Bunkering Scandal…,” in a November 2003 issue of the magazine. They were subsequently charged with sedition and criminal defamation. This was without regard to the National Assembly’s abolition of the obnoxious Newspaper Amendment Act of 1964 on February 4, 2003, and the abrogation of sedition by the Appeal Court in Arthur Nwankwo vs. The State in 1983, a case that has become a locus classicus in seditious cases. On September 4, 2004, security officers re-visited the Insider Weekly, and arbitrarily confiscated 15,000 copies of the publication, and arrested its production editor, Raphael Olatoye, and two other writers. 

Also in 2004 (June), Mike Aruleba, of the African Independent Television (AIT), and Rotimi Durojaiye of The Daily Independent were arbitrarily arrested in connection with a story, “Controversy over age, cost of presidential jet.” The government said they committed sedition. In January 2007, security officers attacked the Leadership and Abuja Inquirer. Among those arrested were Abraham Nda Isaiah, Bashir Aku, Danladi Ndayebo and Abdulazeez Sanni. The security officers said that they reported false information about the health of the then-President, Umaru Yar’Adua. 

Security officers arrested four editorial staff members of The Nation – Yusuf Ali, Yomi Odunuga, Lawal Ogianegbon and Dapo Olufade – on October 11, 2011. In February 2013, security officers arrested two Wazobia FM station journalists in Kano. Nigerian army officers arrested Dapo Olorunyomi, publisher of Premium Times, on January 19, 2017 for the paper’s refusal to retract news stories about the Nigerian Army’s operations against Boko Haram fighters. Also in 2017 (September), police officers arrested Emmanuel Atswen, a Benue State reporter of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), after he reported a story that drew public attention to the alleged diversion of relief materials meant for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camp in Makurdi, the state capital. Notably, the Leadership editorial of September 25, 2017 titled, “Arrest the rogues not the reporters,” observed that, “Instead of acting on the information contained in the report and investigating it to find out who the culprits are, the security agencies are busy muzzling the media….”

Reporters who were arbitrarily arrested in 2018 included Aliyu Adekunle, oneline editor of The Vanguard; Tony Ezimakor, Abuja Bureau Chief of the Independent; Daniel Elombah, publisher of Elomba.com online news outlet; Obong Ndutim, the publisher of an online news portal, thefactreporters.com as well as Samuel Ogundipe, Musikilu Mojeed and Azeezat Adedigba of Premium Times. Victims of arbitrary detention in 2019 included Uthman Abubakar and Ibrahim Sawab of The Daily Trust, Chido Onumah, a columnist, Adebowale Adekoya of NewsDigest etc. In November 2019, some officers of Vice President Yem Osinbajo’s security team physically assaulted Abayomi Adeshida, a photojournalist of The Vanguard. Earlier in September 2003, some security officers attached to the then-Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, also physically attacked a photojournalist, Akintunde Akinleye, of The Indepdent while covering the coronation of Oba Rilwan Akiolu 1 of Lagos. 

The UK-based human rights group, Amnesty International, reported that government security agencies arrested and then illegally detained 19 journalists in 2019 alone. 

Broadcast stations, including Channels Television, African Independent Television and RayPower 100.5 FM, Freedom Radio 99.5 FM in Kano, Adaba 88.9 FM Radio Station in Akure, Broadcasting Service of Ekiti State (BSES), Jay FM 101.9 in Jos, Fresh FM 105.9 in Ibadan have also been victims of attacks, intimidation or harassment by the NBC, the broadcast industry’s watchdog. 

Government security officers have also attacked political critics in attempts to suppress political criticism in the country. Victims of the attacks since 1999 include Oby Ezekwesili, the convener of #BringBackOurGirls campaign and some members of the group; Omoyele Sowere, publisher of publisher of Saharareporters and convener of #RevolutionNow; Olawole Bakare, Iyorchia Ayu, Paul Ofana and Timi Frank. An editorial of The Punch on November 5, 2019, titled, “Assault on journalism, threat to freedom,” regretted that: “Nigerian journalists have come under renewed assault from the security agencies. Free speech and the right to publish are all under serious threat in Nigeria’s supposed democracy. In some states, the security agencies seem to have entered into an unholy alliance to curtail the right of journalists to practise their profession.” It is because of these audacious attacks that Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House have never ranked Nigerian press as free.

Rationales 

Each time the government attacks the press, it laboriously tries to explain that it did so to maintain national security. However, the pragmatic explanation for enduring attacks against the Nigerian press is to incapacitate and minimize its ability to investigate and expose the avalanche of corruption, fraud, avarice and embezzlement of public funds by officials in all branches of government. The Guardian succinctly articulated this point in its editorial, “Press repression: A cleric’s concern,” on January 10, 2020. The editorial explained that, “…successive elected governments have demonstrated albeit in varying degrees, intolerance for the prying eyes of the news media into and exposure of misbehaviour and deviations in high places.” 

I have made the same explanation in Professor Ayo Olukotun’s excellently edited volume, Watchdogs or captured media: A study of the role of the media in Nigeria’s emergent democracy, 1999-2016, and in Professor Goran Hyden’s edited volume, Media and Democracy in Africa

Implications for democracy

Attacks against the press constitute a flagrant violation of the Constitution. Section 39(1) that provides, “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference” andSection 39(2) provides that, “…every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions.” 

The implication of attacks against the press is calamitous for Nigeria’s embryonic democracy. For one thing, the press is the pillar, the engine house of a democracy. Any attack against the pillar is an endeavour to shake the foundation of the democratic structure sustained by the pillar. Nigeria’s democracy is still at an embryonic stage. The unrelenting attacks against the press is like attacking a young bird which is beginning to develop feathers and muscles large enough for it to fly. Further, attacking the press constitutes utter lack of appreciation of the priceless sacrifices made by members of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) and other pro-democracy activists of the era of military rule. It also constitutes a total lack of appreciation of what our founding fathers held dearly to when they risked their lives to fight for democracy -- against British colonial rule. Many lives were lost during the period of NADECO’s political activism for the entrenchment of civil rule in the country. Attacks against the press shows lack of appreciation that many lost their lives for democratic rule that we have in the country today. During the period of NADECO’s activism for democratic rule, scores were arbitrarily detained, including Ameh Ebute (former President of the Senate), Chief Anthony Enahoro (who was 71 at the time), Chief Frank Ovie Kokori, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Gani Fawehinmi, M.K.O. Abiola and others among them, students. Many Nigerians were extrajudicially executed for their pro-democracy activism and for the enforcement of democratic norms such as freedom of the press. This is why attacks against the press under the new democratic formation in the country demonstrates the executive branch of our government’s total lack of appreciation of the sacrifices for the democracy we have today.

Every attack against the press constitutes a serious threat against the constitution, the legal document that establishes how we will be governed under the new political formation. The perspicuous implication is that any attack against the press weakens and minimizes its ability as the “fourth branch” to work in tandem with the others towards the achievement of the wellbeing of the citizens. Section 22 of the constitution empowers the press to hold the government accountable: “The press, radio, television and…the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the…accountability of the Government to the people.” According to Section 15(5), one of the responsibilities and objectives of the government is to “abolish all corrupt practices and abuse of power.” Any attack against the press does not only violate the provisions of the constitution it incapacitates its ability to uphold the accountability of the government to the people. In particular, attacks against the press will paralyze its ability to work with the government as provided in Section 15(5) to abolish all corrupt practices.

Therefore, the consequence of the enduring attack against the press is that it makes the government’s “war against corruption” completely vulnerable. I say this because these attacks severely paralyze the press, and they render it ineffective to perform its statutory function to work with the government to abolish corrupt practices and abuse of power. Then, the war against corruption will remain an illusion. All efforts to build a vibrant democracy in Nigeria will collapse if the war against corruption fails. If democracy collapses in Nigeria, it will have a rippling effect in neighboring African countries. More especially, if democracy fails in Nigeria, the achievement of the wellbeing of Nigerians will get worse. It will not get better.

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Created: 26/02/2020

Author: Chris Wolumati Ogbondah, Ph.D
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