THREAT TO PRESS FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY

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The invasion of Daily Trust newspapers is a throw back to the military era, writes

Wole Elegbede

In a well-coordinated operation that may dominate the political space of Nigeria for some time, soldiers of the Nigerian Army invaded the offices of the Daily Trust newspapers in Maiduguri, Abuja, Lagos and Kaduna on Sunday, 6th January 2019. The invasion was a lamentable reminder of military rule in Nigeria.

But Nigeria happens to be a democratic country today – a country often described as the largest democracy in Africa. Fortunately or unfortunately, Nigeria’s current President Muhammadu Buhari was an army commander and a former military Head of State before he was democratically elected into office as President in 2015. During his time as a military ruler, he was an unrepentant champion of press censorship.

Tendencies of such unbridled power have occurred in the current democratic dispensation, a situation leading some observers to question the president’s democratic credentials. Instances could be cited in the attempts to muscle the press under President Buhari. The illegal arrest and detention of the Elombah brothers on 1st January 2018 readily comes to mind. Daniel Olombah, the publisher of an online medium and his brother, Izuchukwu, were detained for two days by the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS). Their third brother, Timothy was detained for 25 days for allegedly criticising the Inspector-General of Police.

On February 18, 2019, the Department of State Services (DSS) arrested and detained the Abuja Bureau Chief of Daily Independent newspaper, Tony Ezimakor, for writing and publishing a story that the federal government paid ransom for the release of a number of people abducted by Boko Haram insurgents. In a similar vein, on 14th August of the same year, the SARS, one of the most feared security agencies in Nigeria known for arbitrary arrest and detention of citizens, had arrested a journalist with Premium Times, Samuel Ogundipe, for writing and publishing a story on the unauthorised National Assembly invasion by some elements in the security services which led to the dismissal from office of the former Director-General of DSS, Lawal Daura.

Whether the actions of the security agencies in going after the press have the direct or indirect approval of Buhari’s presidency, the president should take full responsibility for the occurrence of whatever anomalies in his administration’s relationship with the press.

As it is usual, the perpetrators of dastardly acts against the press would find an explanation which often times point to national security. In line with one of the ethics of journalism, which provides for balance in information dissemination, it is only fair to give some space to Nigerian Army’s explanation on the siege. Its spokesman, Brigadier-General Sani Usman said in rationising the invasion that, “The disclosure of classified security information amounts to a breach of national security and run contrary to Sections 1 and 2 of the Official Secrets Act.”

This explanation may look tenable given the fact that Nigeria is currently in the midst of a battle against terrorism in the North East of the country. According to the United States Council On Foreign Relations, in its report “Nigeria Security Tracker”, which monitors political violence in Nigeria, about 37,000 deaths have been linked to the battle. The report further categorised that about half of those killed were suspected Boko Haram militants, while roughly 45 per cent were civilians and five per cent were security personnel.

The invasion had disrupted the operations of the concerned newspaper and led to the temporary closure of the establishment. There were reports that the Northern Regional Editor, Uthman Abubakar and a reporter, Ibrahim Sawab, were arrested while computers and files were taken away from the offices.

Undoubtedly, the military siege is a glaring threat to the press and a violation of freedom of expression as enshrined in the 1999 constitution. Section 39(1) of the 1999 Constitution provides that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information without interference”. This provision is in tandem with Article XIX of the United Nations Universal declaration of Human Rights which says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

It is my candid opinion that under the law, every individual and institutions are expected to play their rightful parts in accordance to law, more especially the constitution of the country which is the foundation upon which its existence is rooted. Every other law in the land takes their root from the constitution. That’s the reason the constitution is regarded as the supreme law. Whenever any of the integral part of the nation, be it individual, groups, organisations, institutions or sections, breaches the constitution or abridges the right of others under the constitution, the result is anarchy.

Therefore, I submit that the invasion is not only a threat to the press, it endangers democracy and the corporate existence of Nigeria. The people of Nigeria can not afford to experience a backlash on democracy at this time that the country appears to be experiencing economic growth without appreciable development. In 2014, Nigeria had one of the world’s highest economic rates, averaging 7.4 per cent but the poverty rate was significant at 33.1 per cent. In 2018, Nigeria was worse off in economic growth, falling miserably between 1.8 and 2.3 per cent compared to the 2014 figure. Today, some reports describe Nigeria as the poverty capital of the world, although these reports are yet to be corroborated by renowned global institutions like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But my own take is that a descent to undemocratic rule will be disastrous and compound Nigeria’s economic woes.

Nigeria had returned to democracy after the military spell in power between 1979 and 1999. Given that Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999 which heralded the beginning of the Fourth Republic, it means that Nigeria has been able to sustain its transition to democracy without any interruption for the past 20 years. Democracy has facilitated the expansion of the political space, with the up shoot of numerous human rights and civil society organisations which take up issues of rights violations in Nigeria. Evidently, Nigerians are more aware of their rights than before.

It is therefore little surprising that the action of the Nigerian Army was utterly condemned by a cross section of human rights groups and enlightened Nigerians. The Buhari administration should take steps to brush up its human rights records and show firmness in dealing with human rights violators, no matter how highly placed. Though, there exists the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria (NHRC), it appears to be a toothless bulldog regarding its obligatory duty to safeguard the human rights of the Nigerian population. It is important that people who are not only knowledgeable about human rights but active and fearless should be appointed into the management cadre of the commission.

Elegbede is an Abeokuta-based journalist