By Adewale Kupoluyi
IN what has been described as an assault on press freedom in Nigeria, the Abuja and regional offices of the Media Trust Limited, publishers of Daily Trust newspapers in Maiduguri, Borno State were invaded by soldiers while the tabloid’s Regional Editor, Uthman Abubakar and a reporter Ibrahim Sawab were arrested and later released by reckless military officers.
Defending its action, the army said it took the step in the interest of national security by alleging that the newspaper published stories that undermined the ongoing insurgency war. The untenable explanation by the military is that the media outfit breached the existing legislation on security in its reportage of troops’ operations against Boko Haram. Before the onslaught, Daily Trust had earlier reported that the Nigerian military had assembled thousands of troops and equipment in preparation for a massive operation to retake the North-East towns of Baga and others in Borno State from the grip of Boko Haram terrorists and that the nation’s combined armed forces of army, navy and the air forces would be involved in the major offensive to flush out insurgents from the captured territories.
Justifying the invasion, the spokesman of Nigerian Army, Brig. Gen. Sani Usman had insisted that the disclosure of classified security information amounted to a breach of national security and ran contrary to Sections 1 and 2 of the Official Secrets Act of 1962, adding that the publication afforded the Boko Haram terrorists prior notice of plans and served as an early warning to prepare against the Nigerian military by sabotaging the planned operations.
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No doubt, the killing, maiming and harassment of journalists have remained a big issue across the globe. Rather than see journalists as partners in progress by virtue of their unique role in facilitating the media’s agenda-setting role and as the Fourth Estate of the Realm in fostering accountability, transparency and good governance in the society, journalists are treated with great suspicion and disdain. Decrying this hostility, the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, reported that in 2017, there were 42 outstanding and unsolved killings of journalists in the Philippines alone while in countries like Russia, 38 journalists had been murdered since 1992 while other cases remain unsolved.
Worldwide, those who control State power and powerful men are known to have ordered the assassination, maiming and jailing of journalists in the course of doing their legitimate job, trying to expose corruption and fraud as well as other illegalities committed against the people and the State. A quick reminder is that apart from the traditional role of educating, entertaining and informing the people, the media is constitutionally empowered to perform specific and vital functions, as captured under Section 22 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended), which provides that the press, radio, television and agents of mass media would at all times, be free to uphold responsibility and accountability on the part of the government to the people.
By this role, the press serves as a watchdog of government actions and inaction as it relates to governance, transparency and accountability. This sacred duty ensures that there is freedom of expression and of the press. When such attacks are targeted at journalists, the assailants are hardly ever brought to justice; it is often seen as part of the dangers linked with the job, apart from the poor remuneration and the high risk associated with journalistic practice. Recently, the Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Reliable evidence suggests that it was an orchestrated murder that saw the arrival of hatchet men at the Turkey’s airport from Saudi Arabia on the day he was killed.
It is widely believed that Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, a major critic of the fearless journalist could have ordered the high profile murder of the innocent man. Khashoggi’s death is another sad reminder of the fact that journalists are endangered species and victims of human rights abuse. Similarly, security agents arrested the Premium Times journalist, Samuel Ogundipe for his alleged report on a letter sent by the Inspector-General of Police to the Vice president detailing actions of the former director of the Department of State Services, DSS.
Many individual and corporate organisations have already condemned the military action and assault on the Daily Trust journalists. In a letter sent to the Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the International Press Institute, IPI, had described the arrest of journalists and siege of the newspaper’s offices in Maiduguri and Abuja as an attack on media and freedom of expression in the country.
“The authorities have provided no evidence that the information published by the Daily Trust would endanger military lives or the security of military operations to an extent that would outweigh the freedom and responsibility of any independent newspaper to inform readers of significant developments of public interest, of which the Nigerian government’s response to the activities of terrorist organisations is undoubtedly one,” says IPI’s Executive Director, Ms. Barbara Trionfi, who blamed army’s actions as inappropriate and disproportionate and an attempt to silence independent media in the country. From the unconvincing excuse given by the military, many Nigerians are of the opinion that the attack was simply an attempt to silence the press. Not only that, it is an act of military brutality; a common feature by overzealous military personnel against hapless civilians in the country. Military personnel are fond of brutalising civilians and innocent Nigerians. This behaviour is unacceptable under democratic rule and they should be called to order.
In this case, the military has acted ultra vires by becoming a judge in their own cause. To avoid a repeat, those found guilty in the raid should be punished so as to serve as deterrent to others. Furthermore, the journalists working tools seized by the military should be released to the newspaper without further delay. In addition, the Nigerian Army should tender an official apology to the management of Daily Trust for the misadventure. The renewed call for adequate insurance cover for media personnel amid growing insecurity in the land should be intensified. Journalists should always be protected, appreciated and accorded due respect in the society.
Mr. Kupoluyi wrote from Federal University of Agric., Abeokuta, Ogun State.