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ENDANGERED SPECIE: Attacks on journalists, press freedom raise concern

By Innocent Anaba

Section 22 of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution, as amended provides that, “The press, radio, television and other agencies of mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”

Interestingly, most of those in government and particularly security agencies, have failed to realise the need to allow journalists in the country live up to this provision of the constitution, as they see journalists, most times as rivals or enemies that must be stopped at all cost.

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It has become a common occurrence to read of journalists assaulted or harassed by security personnel attached to politicians, and such inhumane practices had always been blamed on overzealous security personnel, which begs the question. Must it be in inhibiting the journalists from doing their jobs that security personnel show their strength?

The worrisome new dimension today is a situation where state governors declare war on journalists for doing their jobs. Such unfortunate acts were before now the reserve of the Federal Government, be it military or democratic, or as civilian as most analysts would insist, as they contend that what we have had since 1999 is everything but democracy.

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On the preserve of the military government moving against journalists, the infamous Decrees 2 and 4 of 1984 of blessed memory come to mind. It was not a common occurrence to hear of states moving against journalists.  But in recent times, we have seen some state governments move against journalists, while it is becoming alarming that security agencies appear to have increased their assault and harassment of journalists. The latest however, is that of Agba Jalingo, Cross River online journalist, who is still in police detention in Cross River State.

Jalingo, who runs a news website, Cross River Watch, had accused Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State of embezzling government funds to the tune of N500million. One would have expected the governor to go after Jalingo by suing him for libel if he felt the story was not true, but as it is becoming the trend, the governor had the journalist arrested and he has been detained since August 22, 2019.

Jalingo was initially invited by the police, but because he was out of town, his invitation was extended by the police to August 26, 2019. However, he was arrested by the police on August 22, four days before the scheduled date for him to honour the police invitation.

Interestingly, a Cross River State High Court judge, Justice Franca Isoni, had on Monday, ordered that Jalingo should be produced in court on Wednesday, for the police to explain why he should not be released.

It was gathered that the judge, who did not sit on Wednesday, had commicated to parties that she would not be available and had adjourned the matter to today.

The case of Jones Abiri, publisher and editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Weekly Source, is not different, as he was released on August 15, 2018, after two years in the custody of the Department of State Security, DSS, though a federal agency.

He was first arrested in 2016 and the DSS held him for two years without charging him to court and without access to his family or a lawyer.

Following pressure by media and rights groups, Abiri was arraigned before an Abuja Magistrate’s Court, which granted him bail in 2018. Much earlier, several suits were filed before courts of competent jurisdiction, seeking to compel the DSS to either release Abiri or charge him to court. It was much later that the DSS said that Abiri was being held for taking part in militant activities.

After he was granted bail by the Abuja Magistrate’s court, he was released upon meeting the bail conditions.

On September 17, 2018, however, the Abuja Magistrate’s court struck out the case against Abiri. The court held that it has no jurisdiction over the state where the alleged wrongdoing took place.

In a separate legal decision on September 13, a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja held that DSS’s detention of Abiri was illegal and violated his fundamental human right. This followed a suit filed on his behalf by rights activist, Mr Femi Falana, SAN.

The court ordered the Federal Government to pay Abiri N10.5 million in damages and litigation fees.

Abiri was again re-arrested on March 30, this year and on May 22, 2019, he was charged before a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja, over allegation bordering on cybercrimes act, anti-sabotage act, and terrorism prevention act for crimes allegedly carried out in 2016.

Interestingly, the prosecution in the case had sought anonymity for no fewer than six individuals expected to testify against Abiri, a request the defence counsel challenged.

Also in detention is Publisher of Sahara Reporters, Mr Omoyele Sowore, who is being held by the DSS, which was given  permission of a Federal High Court, Abuja to hold on to him. Sowore is being accused by the Federal Government of committing treason. Sowore was arrested by the DSS on August 3, 2019 two days to the #RevolutionNow protest, he alongside other pro-democratic forces, had planned to protest the worsening insecurity, crises of corruption, maladministration and mismanagement of the country’s economy.

On the #RevolutionNow, day protest proper, August 5, 2019, characteristics of security personnel, journalists who came to cover the event like any normal news event were the target of the police in Lagos, Cross River and other states.

On the said August 5, police in Calabar, Cross River State, arrested and detained Jeremiah Archibong, a reporter with  CrossRiverWatch news website, and Nickolas Kalu, a journalist with the The Nation Newspaper.

Officers of the anti-cult and anti-kidnapping police force arrested the pair while the journalists were seeking information about the arrest of Ugbal Jonathan.

Ugbal Jonathan, a CrossRiverWatch reporter who covered the #RevolutionNow protest was detained by the police earlier that day, August 5 2019. Archibong and Jonathan were charged to court for breach of public peace and unlawful assembly under sections 70, 520 (6), and 249 (d) of the Cross River State Criminal Code. Kalu was released in the evening of August 5.

Archibong and Jonathan were released on August 7.  They  were granted bail in the sum of N1million and a surety each to provide evidence of tax payments from 2017 to 2019. A court date was originally set for August 26, but was then postponed to September 3. Also on August 5, police officers beat and arrested Victor Ogungbenro, a video journalist with Sahara Reporters news website.

Ogungbenro told Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ , that he repeatedly identified himself as a journalist, but police slapped, kicked, and dragged him, and sprayed tear gas into his face.

The Police arrested him and held him until August 6, when he was released without being charged to court after presenting a surety for his bail. Police also arrested Sahara Reporters’ journalist,  Tosin Ajuwon on August 5 while he was covering the #RevolutionNow protest in Ondo State.

Ajuwon said he was filming the protest when police forcefully pulled him into a van and drove him to a police station, where they detained him for several hours before releasing him without charging him to court.

With the exception of Sowore, most of the journalists that have been brutalised suffered on account of doing their jobs, just like other practitioners of other professions, but for the journalists despite all these, remain at the receiving end.

That a state governor will move against a journalist for doing his job is not only reprehensible, but sad and a clear attempt by the affected governor to stop a journalist from carrying out the tasks imposed on him by the constitution, which is clear and without any ambiguity.

The earlier government functionaries at all level and security agencies understand that a journalist has a duty to perform and that the environment should not be such that he is otherwise unable to perform his work, the better, so that journalists can give their best to the society for the better functioning of the society.

Where a journalist errs, the persons affected or appropriate authority should follow the law and not a situation where those in government or security agencies overreach themselves by abusing their powers. After all, Nigeria is still a country governed by law.

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