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Attacks On Press Freedom Still Common Under Nigeria’s New President

Though President Bola Tinubu promised to uphold press freedom, his administration has been riddled with attacks against journalists, especially by state forces. We examine some of those cases.

Speaking during a meeting with members of the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN) in December 2023, President Bola Tinubu reiterated his administration’s commitment to upholding press freedom and said they would look into extant policies affecting the newspaper industry with a view to reworking them.

“You have held our feet to the fire, and we will continue to respect your opinions, whether we agree or not. One thing I must say is that I read every paper, various opinions and columnists,” the president said. 

Despite this promise, media practitioners in Nigeria continue to face harassment, threats and even illegal detention in the course of their work. To mark this year’s World Press Freedom Day, HumAngle reviews some of the incidents capable of discouraging free press since Tinubu became leader of the country in May 2023. 

Harassment and assaults 

On Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, Marcus Fatunmole, a Nigerian investigative journalist and news editor at the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), was harassed by security agents at the Eagle Square car park in Abuja while investigating the FCT mass transportation scheme. 

He was not only assaulted, his phone was seized and the police violated his right to privacy by logging into his Google accounts.

For recording a video of a labour protest over economic hardship in Warri, Delta State, officers of the Nigerian Army 3 Battalion, on Feb. 23, brutalised Dele Fasan, Bureau Chief of Galaxy Television in the South-South.

Despite showing the soldiers his identity card, he was assaulted, hit with a gun, forced to delete images on his phone, and handcuffed for an hour. 

On the same day, journalists were barred from covering the arraignment of a former governor of Kwara State, Abdulfattah Ahmed, a development that raised concerns over transparency and access to information. 

A few days before this incident, some journalists were attacked while covering the All Progressives Congress (APC) governorship primary election in Edo State. The journalists were Fortune Oyem of Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN),  Bernard Akede of News Central TV, and Abraham Godwin of Arise TV. Others included cameramen from the state-owned Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN). 

Arrested and detained 

In February, Kasarachi Aniagolu, a journalist with the Whistler Newspaper, was arrested and detained by the anti-violence crime unit of the Nigeria Police Force. She had gone to cover a police raid on Bureau de Change (BDC) operators in the Wuse Zone 4 area of Abuja.

Though she identified herself as a reporter, her gadgets were seized and paraded alongside 95 forex traders detained for hours in custody.

In the case of Segun Olatunji, editor of FirstNews, he was abducted by armed men in his home in Iyana Odo, Abule Egba area of Lagos, on March 15. Eight days after his whereabouts were unknown, the Nigerian chapter of the International Press Institute (IPI) traced him to the custody of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). He was detained for 10 days over a report titled, “EXCLUSIVE: How contractor, company stole N100bn, laundered funds for top govt officials”.

Narrating his ordeal, Olatunji explained that he was watching the Journalists’ Hangout TV programme when soldiers burst into his sitting room, where his wife and a-year-old baby were also sitting. He added that some soldiers had lodged at a hotel near his wife’s shop days before they invaded his house to effect his arrest.

Threats and death

HumAngle reported how the corpse of Hamisu Danjibga, a long-serving broadcast journalist at the Voice of Nigeria (VON) in Zamfara, was found in a soakaway three days after he was abducted in September 2023. Police say his kidnappers stabbed him to death when he tried to overpower them.

After his death, many journalists have faced a series of threats. One of them is Ebule Anthony Metsese, editor of Fresh Angle International, an online newspaper in Delta. Similarly, Sufuyan Ojeifo, publisher of The Conclave, an online newspaper, has petitioned the Area Court 1, Kubwa, Abuja, to seek the court’s intervention to have the Force Criminal Investigation Department (FCID) FCT Police Command to investigate his complaint of threat to life. 

Flicker of light

A series of groundbreaking court decisions may have helped to draw back years of abuse of power by the Nigerian authorities against the press. 

Following a suit instituted by the non-profit Media Rights Agenda (MRA) in 2021, the Federal High Court maintained its ruling in January that the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) cannot unilaterally impose fines on news stations for supposedly breaching the broadcasting code, as that would mean it was exercising judicial powers.

Reporters Without Borders has yet to release the global press freedom report and ranking for 2024. But in its last update, it noted that Nigeria moved up six places and is now ranked 123 out of 180 countries. In the same vein, the country’s score improved by a few points.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MWFA) has, however, said the country still has a long way to go, pointing out that politically troubled Burkina Faso and Niger Republic have better scorecards.

“Security agents have been notoriously hostile to journalists, physically attacking media professionals in a wanton manner and routinely arresting them and seizing or destroying their equipment,” observed MFWA Programme Manager for Freedom of Expression, Muheeb Saeed.

“Nigeria’s serial press freedom violations and attacks on dissent are an abnegation of the State’s responsibility to protect journalists and uphold freedom of opinion. We, therefore, call on the government to assume its responsibilities by holding perpetrators of press freedom violations to account.”

Busola Ajibola, who works at Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID) as the Deputy Director, Journalism Programme, told HumAngle much hasn’t changed since the emergence of the current administration. 

“We still have those restrictive laws that limit freedom of expression and the press — especially Section 45 of the Constitution, which seems to take back all the promises of press freedom that were guaranteed under Section 39, 40, and 41. By virtue of Section 45, press freedom can be lost under the disguise of national defense, public safety, and public morality. We still have the Official Secret Act that public officers use to deny journalists access to information,” Ajibola explained. 

She added that there has been a worrying trend of harassment againt journalists, with the case of Segun Olatunji standing out.

“Despite the demands from civil societies and media bodies, the military kept mum. That’s very worrying. Regardless of what he might have done, there are no grounds for subjecting a journalist to that kind of torture. It’s important to also point out that he was arrested without a warrant and his family and newsroom had no idea of who was arresting him or where he was being held,” she said. 

“We had the case of Bukky Shonibare, the Board Chair of Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ) being summoned by the Nigerian Police. Even though they insisted that she was invited so that the Police could give FIJ a fair hearing to aid investigations, it sends a signal that when a publisher or reporter cannot be found, security agencies can come for board members. This is worrying because it can instigate boards to interfere in the editorial processes of newsrooms, stripping them of independence.”

The way forward 

As the world marks the Press Freedom Day, it is important for President Tinubu’s administration to fulfil its promise of upholding this freedom and ensure that journalists are able to carry out their duties without fear of intimidation.

Press freedom advocates also enjoin Tinubu’s administration to comply with a Federal High Court order of Feb. 16, “directing the Federal Government of Nigeria to investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators of all attacks against journalists and other media practitioners, and ensure that all victims of attacks against journalists have access to effective remedies”.

According to Ajibola, Tinubu professes the values of democracy and having been a victim of harassment under the military government, he is assumed to understand why it is important to protect civil space and independent media. 

“He needs to direct all government agencies, especially the security agencies to refrain from harassing and brutalising journalists and the media at large.” 

On the issue of ethical challenges among journalists, she advises media proprietors to continue to build the capacity of their staff to ensure that all reports abide by the principles of truthfulness and verification. She explained that this would help prevent moves considered by the government to regulate and stifle the media. 

“We need to popularise the culture of self-regulation through the Ombudsman. People need to know that they can report newsrooms to an ombudsman who can then sanction erring journalists. The government should not see the media as the enemy. The media is an accountability institution that performs watchdog functions. When journalists report on government failure or air dissenting perspectives, it should be taken as feedback from the people,” she advised. 

“There is also a need to engage the public in massive media literacy where the government and other individuals are taught what journalism is all about and why journalism is important in a democracy. Above all, it’s time to push for a national mechanism that protects journalists through policy or even legislation. As of today, Section 22 obligates journalists to perform accountability roles, but it’s not justiciable. The media and the broad civil society need to work together to demand that that section be made justiciable.”

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Adejumo Kabir

Kabir works at HumAngle as the Editor of Southern Operations. He is interested in community development reporting, human rights, social justice, and press freedom. He was a finalist in the student category of the African Fact-checking Award in 2018, a 2019 recipient of the Diamond Awards for Media Excellence, and a 2020 recipient of the Thomson Foundation Young Journalist Award. He was also nominated in the journalism category of The Future Awards Africa in 2020. He has been selected for various fellowships, including the 2020 Civic Media Lab Criminal Justice Reporting Fellowship and 2022 International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) 'In The Name of Religion' Fellowship.

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