Global Rights raises alarm on escalating attack on media by security agents

Global Rights has raised the alarm on the escalating attack on the media in Nigeria by security agents.

The body raised the alarm in a statement issued to the media on Sunday by its Executive Director, Abiodun Bayeiwu.

This followed the abduction and release of the Editor of FirstNews, Segun Olatunji, by security operatives believed to be from the Defence Intelligence Agency.

Bayeiwu’s statement, titled: “Sounding the Alarm: Escalating Attacks on Media by Nigerian Security Personnel,” reads in full:

Global Rights condemns, in the strongest possible terms, the recent spate of attacks on members of the press by law enforcement and security agents. We consider it pertinent to sound the alarm on these incidents while informing the powers that be that human rights actors and civic space defenders are taking stock of President Tinubu’s administration’s approach towards protecting media rights. One such attack took place on the 15th of March 2024, when Mr. Segun Olatunji, an editor with the FirstNews Newspaper, was unlawfully taken from his home in Lagos by a mob of 10 officers of the Nigerian military. 

Mr. Olatunji was not informed of the reason for his arrest prior to his abduction. He was eventually released after a sustained media campaign spanning nearly 2 weeks without being charged with any crime.

Mr. Olatunji, in narrating his ordeal, affirmed that he was handcuffed, and leg chained for 3 days. The only window he was offered into why he was arrested and subsequently tortured was when he was asked about a critical story his newspaper had published about the unprofessional manner in which the Defence Chief was running his agency.

Another egregious encounter that further symbolizes the posture of the administration on the press is the consistent harassment of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ). The FIJ is a reputable media organization, well known for publishing exposé’s on government corruption and bad governance. 

Last week, Ms. Bukky Shonibare, its Board of Trustees Chair was invited by the Nigeria Police Force National Cybercrime Centre (NPF-NCCC) ostensibly to “answer questions about cybercrime” and clarify matters about a case the police was investigating. 

Ms. Shonibare honored the police’s invitation, accompanied by her lawyer. At the police station, she was consistently grilled about the kinds of stories the FIJ publishes. 

In one of many displays of a lack of understanding of journalistic ethics and the role of the media, the police asked why stories were not first cleared with law enforcement before being published. 

Though Ms. Shonibare was released the same day after a prolonged and aggressive interrogation, she was mandated to report back to the police and to “produce” the Executive Director of the FIJ, Mr. Fisayo Soyombo. It is important to contextualize the police’s infatuation with securing Mr. Soyombo. He recently published a very detailed investigative report exposing corruption at the highest levels at the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS).

The actions we have described are most unbecoming in a country that claims to practice democracy. The arrest, detention, intimidation, and harassment of journalists simply on the grounds that they publish stories that run counter to the narratives of the government is unabashedly undemocratic. 

Worse still, it is also unconstitutional. 

Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria unambiguously charges the press with the responsibility of holding the government accountable to the people. The drafters of the Constitution appreciated the fact that Nigeria’s hard-earned democracy could be undermined if the press was stifled by autocratic civilian rulers. 

These fears are understandable and are anchored on the knowledge that Nigeria’s history is replete with instances in which powerful individuals in government had gone to great lengths to silence members of the press who have criticized them. 

The instances of the atrocious assassinations of Mr. Dele Giwa and Chief Alex Ibru, which remain unsolved to date, are examples from the military era. Since the nation’s return to civilian rule, Nigerian government officials have continued the trend of shutting down dissenting opinions and journalists who seek to hold them accountable.

Recently, state agents disappeared journalists like Mr. Agba Jalingo and Mr. Jones Abiri for extended periods of time. Idris Abubakar, popularly known as Dadiyata was disappeared from his home in Kaduna over 4 years ago. The Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID) revealed a concerning trend of 53 incidents of attacks on journalists in 2022. 

In Shege, a Global Rights’ scorecard report grading the impact of the Buhari administration on Nigeria’s civic space, we detail a plethora of incidents in which the instrumentality of the Nigerian State was targeted at journalists and the media by the Buhari administration.

It is apparent that officials in this government fundamentally misunderstand the role of the media in a democracy and are intent on towing the path of the previous administration in constricting the civic space. 

The function of the press is not to rubber stamp or applaud every governmental action or policy, no matter how well-intentioned they might seem. This is why it would be inconsistent with the well-established rules of journalistic ethics and standards for journalists to submit their stories to law enforcement agents for clearance or approval before publishing. The duty of the Fourth Estate is to scrutinize the policies and actions of the government, holding the powerful to account while simultaneously informing the citizenry. 

The proper response of a responsible government to negative stories about it and its officials should be to investigate whether the stories are true while taking positive steps to address them. It is very concerning that the Tinubu administration’s response has been to harass and intimidate the reporter who exposed the corruption in the Nigerian Customs Service rather than focusing on it.

Consequently, we call on the Tinubu administration to retrace its steps. There is a lot of time for it to avoid the pitfalls that befell the Buhari administration in engendering the civic space. The opportunity is rife for this administration to begin to position itself as a champion of the protection of the rights of the Nigerian people. Key among those rights is the right to freedom of the press.

Consequently, Global Rights demands the following:

1. A thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Segun Olatunji’s ordeal. Officers indicted in his arbitrary arrest and torture should be dismissed and made to account for their abuse of power.

2. An official apology from the Nigerian military’s top brass to Mr. Olatunji. The Military must also take steps to compensate him for the ordeal he unlawfully suffered at the hands of its personnel.

2. An immediate cessation of the campaign of harassment and intimidation by the Nigerian Police Force targeting the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ) and Mr. Fisayo Shoyombo.

3. The immediate release of all journalists and members of the press who are being unlawfully detained by Nigerian law enforcement and security agencies.

4. An amendment to the Cybercrimes Act 2015. The Cybercrimes Act contains many provisions that could be easily subject to arbitrary interpretations, making it the perfect tool to be unfairly wielded for the purposes of targeting the media.

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5. A policy directive emanating from the highest echelon of the Tinubu administration instructing government officials to desist from harassing, intimidating, and arresting members of the press for spurious and undemocratic reasons.

On our part, Global Rights remains committed to advocating for the protection of human rights, and we lend our voice in support of the Nigerian press and mass media.

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