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Electoral Violence: How Attacks On Journalists Weaken Poll Credibility In Nigeria

In what is turning out to be a disturbing trend at the polls, journalists covering elections in Nigeria are often assaulted and prevented from carrying out their duties.

The 2023 general elections in Nigeria are fast approaching, seeing as the various political parties have concluded their primary elections and selected candidates for different elective positions. For journalists, election season is not only a busy period but the coverage may mean going to war. 

Flashing back to incidents from previous elections reveal why this is a problem.

The Bayelsa gubernatorial election of Nov. 2019, in South-south Nigeria, for example, kicked off on a cheerful note. At the pre-election briefing, officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) were friendly and questions were answered nicely. 

This reporter set out at about 8 a.m. to visit voting points around Yenagoa, the state capital. Having heard about the security risk associated with reporting outside the city, it would have been foolhardy to proceed to the creeks. 

“You should not go to the waterside if you love yourself,” a motorcyclist at the river bank, where boats are boarded, told this reporter. 

Though the presence of officials of the local intelligence agency, State Security Service (SSS), at the river bank brought relief, visiting the riverine communities remained a risk.

Waiting back at Yenagoa, however, came with its own challenges as four unidentified individuals wielding canes and bottles intercepted this reporter while travelling to the main INEC office to observe the collation of results around 9 p.m. They drove their vehicle to an isolated area called Opolo and interrogated me for two hours.

The ‘abductors’ claimed they mistook me for a government official and, after questioning and accusing me of manipulating election results, I was released. Again, on getting to the INEC office, police officers blocked reporters from entering the building, saying “they were working on orders from above not to admit members of the press.”

Elections are the centrepiece of democracy and often the public’s primary means of exercising their right to determine how they are governed. But for them to run smoothly and lawfully, it is important to have the media’s active participation. 

The roles of journalists include serving as watchdogs as they monitor voting processes and document malpractices, educating voters on how to exercise their democratic rights, reporting on campaign developments, providing a platform for the public to communicate their concerns and needs to the relevant stakeholders, and sharing the results for easy tracking by others.

They also help citizens to scrutinise the electoral process, including how it is managed, in order to evaluate its fairness and efficiency. When free and balanced, the media foster transparency and the dissemination of important electoral information.

Despite the important roles they play, however, journalists covering elections face attacks from political thugs and state actors.

Two journalists who were covering the rerun Senate elections in Akwa Ibom, South-south Nigeria, were assaulted and prevented from carrying out their work in Jan. 2020. 

One of them, Godwin Sunday, a television cameraman with the Global Pilot, claimed that his attackers said they were supporters of Godswill Akpabio, a minister and candidate in the elections.

The second journalist, Edidiong Udobia, also narrated how thugs dragged him by his shirt in the presence of police officers in an attempt to forcefully collect his phone, which he used to cover the events. 

After checking the device to confirm that there were no implicating videos and pictures, they returned it to Udobia, who quickly fled the polling station to avoid further trouble.

On Sept. 19, 2020, two journalists covering the governorship poll in Edo, another state in the South-south, were molested by thugs. Samson Adenekan of Premium Times said he was slapped, mistreated, and briefly detained by the thugs for taking pictures and videos of voter inducement. 

The second journalist, Nathaniel Offel, covering the election for GeeTV, reportedly suffered a worse ordeal when he initially refused to delete the pictures on his phone.

Asides from physical assaults, many journalists who covered gubernatorial elections in Kogi in the Northcentral region and Bayelsa in the South-south were threatened.

One of them, Chinedu Asadu, a former reporter at TheCable online newspaper, said he was forced to run away from a polling station after he was threatened by police officers in Kogi.

This is a worrisome trend, which observers say should be prevented during the elections next year. Angela Quintal, Africa programme coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), believes journalists play an integral role in the conduct of credible elections and “should never be the subject of threats, violence, or harassment.” 

Media rights experts also told HumAngle that election violence is not restricted to the deliberate and forceful disruption of the processes, as it also applies to situations that make it difficult to conduct elections without compromising press coverage. 

Jide Ojo, a public affairs analyst, explained that more press freedom translates to a more enlightened electorate.

“Without this freedom, voters would be at the mercy of politicians and special interest groups that want to win elections and promote specific legislation. Democracy only thrives when voters are as informed as possible and authorities must provide maximum security for journalists covering polls.”

Meanwhile, journalists themselves can take steps to ensure improved safety. 

Lanre Arogundade, Director of the International Press Centre (IPC), has urged journalists never to play the role of primitive heroes or heroines by going to areas known to be dangerous with little or no guarantee of safety and security.

According to him, “taking safety measures is important. It is good to get orientation on keeping safe when reporting from areas of violent elections or known terrorists’ locations.”

He added that political thugs only have loyalty to either a political party or candidate or both. So, journalists, whether regarded as hostile or not, may become targets of attacks because of the power of exposure they wield.

Arogundade advised reporters covering elections to clarify lines of communication with their newsrooms in order to be informed about their movements.

“They should agree when they will call in and explore with the newsroom problems that are likely to arise [and] need to recognise that they can rely on alternative sources to verify information from areas not visited by them in an election. They have security personnel, election monitors or observers, election officials, including political party agents and, to a limited extent, postings on social media.”

This report was produced in partnership with HumAngle Services.

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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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