The Coalition for Whistleblowers Protection and Press Freedom (CWPPF) in Nigeria is greatly alarmed by the rapidly deteriorating press freedom situation in the country as occasioned by unrelenting attacks on Nigerian journalists and media institutions in a manner reminiscent of jungle justice.
Especially worrisome to us is the cynical way and manner the judiciary has been co-opted into this range of assaults, the punitive nature of which suggest a long-term sinister motive to suppress press freedom and critical journalism, hence the continuous lack of due process and respect for the constitution in reaction to the supposed grievances against the concerned journalists.
Indeed, it has never been this bad since the return of the country to democratic rule. This trend must be halted.
Today, 18th September 2019, the Lagos headquarters and offices of Sahara Reporters offices was invaded and cordoned off ostensibly on the account of the planned protest over the unjust incarceration of the founder, Mr. Omoyele Sowore. This meant that journalists, other media professionals as well as non-media staff of the organisation were barred from performing their legitimate duty.
Another example of the latest rash of attacks is that of Ms Mary Ekere, a journalist working with The Post, a local news platform in Akwa Ibom State and covering the state house of assembly. Mary Ekere, was arrested on the 16th September 2019 for on the ludicrous allegation that she was taking pictures of officials of the Akwa Ibom government task force who were conducting a raid on a popular recreational spot called Ibom Plaza, in Uyo, the state capital. She was consequently molested, arrested, charged and sent into detention.
Ms. Ekere was released after two nights in jail, and her release is not unconnected to the pressure from Press Freedom stakeholders, however it is unknown if whatever charges were brought against her have been dropped. Often in cases of these unlawful arrests, the victims are released but the charges against them are not dropped and journalists are mired in expensive legal battles they can ill afford.
There is the case of Agba Jalingo, a journalist and Publisher of Cross River Watch, who was initially hounded for criticising the state governor and who after being apprehended was slammed with terrorism charges under which he is now being held, while his health deteriorates. His, indeed constitutes a vivid example of abuse of laws using trumped-up criminal offences to suppress the press for holding the government accountable. Thus, since his arrest on the 26th of August, 2019, he has been charged with a potpourri of offences including; “acts of treason, treasonable felony, and threatening through various publications on crossriverwatch.com and social media, using malicious publications, and instigating the people of Nigeria to stage protest for the removal of the Governor of Cross River State”.
Mr Tony Okafor, a Punch correspondent was harassed over the newspaper’s reports on a suspended senior lecturer of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Dr Peter Ekemezie.
The reporter was taken by members of the Nigerian police force at aroma junction, which is known to be a meeting point for journalists in Awka.
Mr. Femi Adeshina, Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, issued a verbal threat against a statehouse reporter, Mr John Ameh, a reporter with the Punch Newspapers.
All these attacks have occurred in just the month of September.
The Press Attack Tracker has recorded 70 attacks on the media in 2019 alone, the implication of which is that an average of two journalists have experienced some form of attack every week since January 2019. This figure is baffling and highly reprehensible and it would come as no surprise at all if Nigeria falls even further down in the Press Freedom Index for 2019.
The government, security agencies and quasi military forces at all levels are complicit in this increment of Press suppression, with their posture suggesting lack of concern for democratic values, fundamental human rights and the primacy of the constitution. If anything, the state of Press Freedom is indicative of a country walking backwards and dancing dangerously on the precipice of a dictatorship with zero tolerance for dissent.
The Coalition for Whistleblowers Protection and Press Freedom (CWPPF) calls on the Federal Government of Nigeria to take a stand for Press Freedom, and by implication democracy, by unambiguously condemning these attacks against journalists and pursuing the course of justice for the journalists who have been unjustly victimized.
CWPPF also calls on members of the National Assembly – the Nigerian federal parliament to undertake a review of press laws in Nigeria and amend or outrightly repeal those that are anti-press freedom while constituting relics of the military era.
The coalition reiterates that for democracy to survive and in fact thrive, it needs a strong press; standing as the fourth estate of the realm and holding everyone to account, government and its actors inclusive. Where the press environment is weak, afraid and/or silenced, democracy will suffer and when democracy suffers everyone loses.