COVID-19: Intimidation, harassment, detention of journalists surge in Nigeria
The world is going through a difficult phase of battling the COVID-19 pandemic and Nigeria is not excluded from its economic and social effects, especially journalists reporting the issues.
In Nigeria, journalists are increasingly getting harassed and threatened by security agents of the Nigerian government while reporting news during this COVID-19 period.
At least five Nigerian journalists were harassed, arrested and detained for doing their jobs during the COVID-19 enforced lockdown in the country.
Kufre Carter, a sports journalist at XL109,6 FM, in Uyo was arrested on April 27 by The State Security Service, and charged with defamation for “castigating” the Commissioner for Health in Akwa Ibom State, Dominic Ukpong, over his handling of the fight against COVID-19 pandemics in the state.
During his detention, on April 29, a local court charged Carter with conspiracy and defamation. He was later released on bail a month after – on May 27, 2020. Carter is just one of many journalists who has been arrested since the pandemic started.
Another journalist, Chijoke Agwu, a correspondent of The Sun Newspapers, was arrested by men of the Nigerian Police Force in Abakaliki, the capital of Nigeria’s southeastern Ebonyi State.
Agwu was arrested at the state government house, where he had arrived to cover a government press conference on the state’s COVID-19 response for alleged false and damaging information on April 18, 2020.
Prior to his arrest, the State governor Umahi reportedly questioned Agwu about a report he wrote on Lassa Fever in the state. The governor accused Agwu of publishing “false and damaging” information that violated Section 35 of Ebonyi’s new state law on COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
Agwu was eventually released, less than 24hours with no charge.
These arrests, harassments, and forced detention of the information gatekeepers in Nigeria were no new trends before and during the pandemic – rather they further amplify the toxicity in the environment that journalists work in over the years.
At one of the daily briefings of the country’s Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Nigeria’s Information minister Lai Mohammed announced an exemption for journalists to work without any threats from the security agents. Prior to the announcement, journalists, medical personnel, and other essential workers were harassed by security agents.
Despite this announcement, security officials continued to harass and intimidate journalists and media workers. The Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, further clarified the categories of essential workers in alignment with the guidelines and has issued instructions to security agents to work on the approved exemptions.
“The Force wishes to state that it is not oblivious of the sensitive, indispensable, patriotic and frontline role of the nation’s workforce that falls within the category of ‘Essential Service Providers’ particularly as it relates to efforts to curtail and contain the COVID-19 pandemic,” police spokesman Frank Mba said in a statement in May
“To this effect, all essential workers, including medical personnel, ambulance service providers, journalists, firefighters, etc remain exempted from the movement restriction orders as well as the national curfew,” he added
Chairman Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) Emmanuel Onwubiko said the intimidation of journalists by security forces was appalling and condemnable.
“It is absolutely intolerable and unacceptable for the members of the arm security forces to deviate from their constitutionally stated duties to now begin to intimidate, harass, physically or violently attack citizens,” Onwubiko said.
“To make it worse Police and security forces violating the fundamental human right of journalists who are on the line of duty is a very serious violation of the law.”
Onwubiko said although section 14, 2b of the Nigerian Constitution states clearly that the primary duties of government are to protect the lives of citizens and ensure the welfare and wellbeing of citizens are upheld and promoted. He said measures to contain COVID-19 should not be seen as a means to violate the freedom of the press as stated in the Nigerian constitution.
“Section 22 of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution provides that, “the press, radio, television and other agencies of mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people,” Onwubiko said.
He said the media should be allowed to carry out their duties constitutionally which is the monitoring of the activities of all government agencies and report factually and objectively the stories they get in their line of duties.
Onwubiko also noted that the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) also needs to take effective actions in speaking against the unfair treatments of journalists in Nigeria. He said they need to protect the fundamental rights of journalists who are also frontline workers during this pandemic.
NUJ national secretary Shuaibu Leman said the union was not silent about the harassment of journalists and media workers before and during the pandemic.
“Unfortunately these arrests will not abate because of the manner and way our Police and other agents of the state behave and operate,” Leman said.
“They see journalists as being too inquisitive and therefore treat them as enemies of the state,” he added.
Leman also noted that when journalists are made to work in fear, democracy gets crippled and citizens continue to wallow in abject poverty, illiteracy, hunger and disease.
“No democracy can work progressively without a professional, efficient and Independent media that will hold those in government to account for their actions or inactions,” leman said.
The treatment meted out to journalists by government authorities in Nigeria is not unnoticed to the world.
In February 2019, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) ranked Nigeria 120th in the global assessment of 180 countries with press freedom.
According to the report, Nigeria has over 100 independent newspapers, and yet they are unprotected especially when journalists report on politics, terrorism and issues of mismanagement of finances by persons in government.
“Journalists are often threatened, subjected to physical violence or denied access to information by government officials, police and sometimes the public itself,” the report said.