Season of  Threat to Media Freedom

The abduction of yet another Nigerian journalist, who was detained for 10 days, is indicative of a worrying pattern that suggests that the federal government tolerates and encourages a climate of repression against press freedom, Wale Igbintade reports

About six weeks after gunmen later identified to be operatives of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) abducted the then editor of FirstNews newspaper, Segun Olatunji, from his home in Lagos State, another journalist, Daniel Ojukwu, was on May 1 abducted by the Intelligence Response Team of the Inspector General of Police.

Ojukwu, a journalist with the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ), was said to have gone missing on Wednesday, May 1 with his phone numbers switched off and his whereabouts unknown to colleagues, family and friends. 

Penultimate Thursday, FIJ made a missing-person-report at police stations in the area where he was headed.

However, by Friday, a private detective hired by FIJ tracked the last active location of his phones to an address in Isheri Olofin, a location FIJ now believes was where the police originally picked him up. It was later discovered he was being held at the State Criminal Investigation Department (SCID), Panti area of Lagos.

Investigation revealed that the journalist is being held for an alleged violation of the 2015 Cybercrime Act based on a story he wrote. The Cybercrime Act is a law used by the federal government to prosecute journalists and media houses.

In March, the Nigeria Police Force National Cybercrime Centre (NPF-NCCC) invited and grilled the Chairperson of FIJ’s Board of Trustees, Bukky Shonibare, in Abuja during which they mentioned a story authored by Ojukwu. The story alleged that the Senior Special Assistant to former President Muhammad Buhari on Sustainable Development Goals (SSAP-SDGs), Adejoke Orelope-Adefulire, paid N147 million to a restaurant for the construction of classrooms in Lagos

Except for Shonibare, the police never invited Ojukwu or any other FIJ staff member. Shonibare honoured the police invitation and was never detained. But the story changed when the police decided to abduct Ojukwu instead of formally inviting him.

Last Sunday, the police confirmed moving Ojukwu to the Nigerian Police Force National Cybercrime Centre (NPF-NCCC) in Abuja. It was not till Friday, after 10 days in custody, that he was released.

Under the 1999 Nigerian Constitution and other international instruments to which Nigeria is a signatory, it is forbidden for any citizen or resident to be detained beyond 48 hours, except with a valid court order.

Many Nigerians now fear that a pattern has emerged, suggesting that the administration of President Bola Tinubu does not only condone repression of freedom of the press but also encourages it, in contradiction to the promises made during the president’s inaugural speech that his administration would uphold fundamental human rights.

The abduction and detention of Ojukwu exactly when the world was celebrating the freedom of the press, raised questions on the federal government’s commitment to the freedom of the press.

The offence for which he is alleged is bailable but he was not offered bail or arraigned in court as enshrined in the laws.

Since journalism plays a critical role in democracy, serving as a catalyst for change and as a watchdog for accountability, the police and other law enforcement agencies must avoid using the Cybercrimes Act to suppress investigative journalism aimed at entrenching a transparent and accountable system. 

While the media is not above the law, in a democracy, the only way to determine wrong or right is through the legal process.

Nigeria remains one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, according to the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) who ranked Nigeria 123 of 180 countries in its Global Press Freedom Report for 2023.

The report noted that Nigerian journalists are regularly monitored, attacked and arbitrarily arrested, adding that the “crimes committed against journalists continue to go unpunished, even when the perpetrators are known or apprehended.”

Apart from Ojukwu and Olatunji’s travails, a journalist with The Whistler Newspaper, Kasarahchi Aniagolu; a reporter with Daybreak Newspaper, Achadu Gabriel; a journalist with the Sun Newspaper, Godwin Tsa; an online publisher and journalist, Precious Eze; the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor of Informant247, Salihu Ayatullahi and Adisa-Jaji Azeez, respectively; Publisher of Just Events Online, Abdulrazaq Babatunde, and Publisher of Satcom Media, Lukman Bolakale, among others have been abducted or detained since President Tinubu came to power.

 Penultimate Tuesday, WikkiTimes published an investigation accusing the lawmaker representing Jama’are Itas Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives, Rabilu Kashuri, of distributing aid from the North East Development Commission (NEDC) to his political party loyalists.

 For this reason, a journalist with WikkiTimes, Yawale Adamu, was threatened by a political aide to the lawmaker, who accused the reporter of being used by political rivals to undermine his principal and tarnish his reputation.

 He threatened the reporter, in a telephone conversation, that the Department of State Services (DSS) had been contacted as he vowed to take ‘action’ against the reporter.

 “I have provided the SSS with the contact details of the individual who assisted your reporting in the constituency; they intend to track him down. The person who guided you and facilitated interviews throughout the constituency, I assure you, will face consequences; no one will shield him. We cannot stand by while our reputation is damaged; I swear by Allah, you will face repercussions for your actions,” WikkiTimes quoted the political aide as saying in one of the phone conversations.

Many Nigerians are shocked that the DSS and police are being involved in matters relating to mere defamation.

While Ojukwu is languishing in detention, the Nigerian National Committee of the International Press Institute (IPI Nigeria) had threatened to include the Inspector General of Police (IG), Kayode Egbetokun, in IPI Nigeria’s book of infamy and branded an enemy of the media and journalists over the abduction and detention of Ojukwu.

 In a statement issued by its President, Musikilu Mojeed, and Legal Adviser/Chairman of the Advocacy Committee, Tobi Soniyi, IPI Nigeria strongly condemned the abduction and called on the IG to order Ojukwu’s release.

 The IPI Nigeria asked the IG to order the immediate release of the detained journalist.

 “Human rights violations have continued unabated because perpetrators are hardly held to account. It is time to begin holding those suppressing freedom of expression to account,” the statement said.

Amidst these unfortunate incidents, Nigeria ironically joined the world in commemorating World Press Freedom Day where the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) asked the federal government to stop using “repressive and anti-media law such as the Cybercrime Act and some code of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC)” to target, intimidate and harass journalists and media houses.

Surprisingly, despite the abductions and arbitrary detentions of journalists, the Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mohammed Idris, had insisted that no journalist in the country was being detained by the administration of President Tinubu.

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