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‘2020, year of press freedom violation, impunity’

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Stakeholders in the media industry have described 2020 as a tough year for journalists, especially frontline workers in the coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and #End SARS protest.

They also said that the year was characterised by gross violation of press freedom as well as attacks on media houses, thereby, contributing to the shrinking of the civic space.

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Nigeria is currently ranked 115 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

The International Press Centre (IPC), through its Journalists’ Safety Alert Desk, documented 59 instances of attacks on journalists including unlawful arrests/detention, physical assaults, harassments, a threat to life, battery, loss/damage of valuables and gadgets (cameras, phones, midgets, money) in 10 months.

The nation’s security forces —the Nigeria Police, the Nigerian Army, and officials of the Department of State Service (DSS) — mostly perpetrated these violations and they occurred when journalists and media practitioners sought access to information, shared information, or expressed critical views.

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Precisely, on January 21, in Abuja, Alex Ogbu, a reporter for the Regent Africa Times magazine, while covering a protest by the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, was found dead with an injury to the back of his head. According to the information obtained by RSF, a forensic doctor confirmed to a member of Ogbu’s family that he was killed by a gunshot.

In her condemnation of the said killing, the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, called on the “authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into the circumstances of the journalist’s death and do all that is necessary to ensure that journalists can do their work without fear for their lives.”

On August 20, during a media briefing in Calabar, Cross River State, former minister of Aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode was captured in a video, which went viral, verbally assaulting a Daily Trust reporter, Charles Eyo. 

The verbal assault was as a result of a question from Eyo on who is footing the bill of Fani-Kayode’s trip to inspect projects across states. 

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Similarly, the body of Pelumi Onifade, a 20-year-old reporter with Lagos-based Gboah TV, was found at a mortuary days after his arrest by the Lagos State Task Force on October 24 while on assignment at the Ministry of Agriculture, Abattoir, in Agege area of Lagos. He was a 200-level student of the Department of History at the Tai Solarin University of Education.

In a related development, a letter dated October 23, 2020, and signed by National Broadcasting Commission’s (NBC) Acting Director-General, Prof. Armstrong Idachaba, fined three stations – Channels Television, Africa Independent Television (AIT), and ARISE Television – N3 million each as a penalty for their alleged use of unsubstantiated footages from social media in their coverage of the #ENDSARS protest. This development elicited condemnation by IPC, Media Rights Agenda (MRA) Institute for Media and Society (IMC), and others.

During the #EndSARS protest, ‘rampaging’ protesters attacked media organisations in Lagos such as Television Continental (TVC), Lagos Television, and The Nation. Several cars belonging to members of staff of these organisations were also set ablaze.

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Under national and international law, Nigeria has an obligation to respect, protect, promote, and fulfill the right to freedom of expression and media freedom.

The free communication of information about public and political issues between citizens, candidates, and elected representatives is essential.

“This implies a free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censorship or restraint and to inform public opinion. The public also has a corresponding right to receive media output.” 

Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria also states that the press, radio, television, and other agencies of the mass media shall, at all times, be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.

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According to United Nations Human Rights Committee: “A free, uncensored, and unhindered press or other media is essential in any society to ensure freedom of opinion and expression and the enjoyment of other Covenant rights. It constitutes one of the cornerstones of a democratic society. The Covenant embraces a right whereby the media may receive information on the basis of which it can carry out its function.”

But stakeholders in the industry say the incessant attacks on journalists and media houses amount to gross violation of human rights. 

Speaking with The Guardian, Social/Publicity Secretary, Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), Ken Ugbechie, said: “it has been a torrid year for the media in Nigeria and all over the world. For Nigerian media, at the beginning of the year, nobody anticipated COVID-19, but before the pandemic, the media was already distressed. A lot of media houses had laid-off staff, as they were cutting cost, because advert revenue had shrunk, considerably. The pandemic compounded the challenges. Last year, we held the NGE national conference in Sokoto. The theme was, “How a distressed media can survive”.

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We didn’t even anticipate the COVID-19 pandemic. So, when COVID-19 came, it made the distress more horrible. While we were trying to survive COVID-19, the #EndSARS protest hit us, and protesters took their anger to media houses, by torching TV and radio stations and attacking journalists. 

“The global community also salutes our courage. We have been very daring and courageous and I also want to tell journalists practising under this harsh economic and security clime not to give up. The state actors don’t want to see our practise in safety. Nevertheless, in the midst of defeat and harsh realities, I still salute the courage of Nigerian journalists.

“When there was a curfew, the law enforcement agencies used the curfew to deal with the media. Some of us were either detained or locked up. Every sector was given one palliative or the other but nobody remembered the media. We are always left in the lurch and that has always been the fate of the media.” 

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He said: “We cannot regulate the mind of people in government, we can only appeal to their conscience. What I always tell journalists practicing is that they must ensure they are always on the right side of the law. Make sure what you publish is the truth and nothing but the truth because there is sanctity in the truth. But there is no sanctity in falsehood. We must not engage in fake news, it is dirty. Let us be on good standing as journalists.”

Similarly, Publisher of Premium Times, Dapo Olorunyomi, in his article on “State of Press Freedom Report”, said, “while advancing the argument for a free press in Nigeria, Amnesty International, in one of its recent advocacy statements, spoke of how journalists are harassed, detained, tortured and killed for doing their job. This trenchant tone, this urgency, with regards to the environment of work that Nigerian journalists have to navigate, reminds the keen observer that, despite the rich pluralism of our media and the relatively decent quality of its journalism, the protection of journalists has never been a major priority of our political establishment and our government.”

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