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Harassment of journalists worries stakeholders

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Police officers pull a journalist during an anti-government protest in Lagos, Nigeria August 5, 2019. REUTERS/

Media practitioners, commentators, and stakeholders in the industry have expressed concern that journalists in the cause of their duties are becoming victims of harassment, torture, unlawful arrest, detention, physical assault, and a threat to life.

A worrisome statistics released by International Press Centre’s (IPC) Journalists Safety Desk recently revealed that in the last eight months, 41 cases of attacks on journalists have been recorded.

A breakdown of the figure showed that 35 males, five females, and one media organisation were at the receiving end of assault in 2020.

On August 20, 2020, former Minister of Aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode, verbally assaulted Cross River State correspondent of Daily Trust Newspaper, Eyo Charles, for asking who ‘bankrolled’ his tour of projects in Cross River and other states in the South-south.

In the recently held Edo State Governorship election, there were reported cases of brutal attack and detention of one Samson Adenekan, a reporter with Premium Times, and Nathaniel Offel of GeeTV by thugs for taking pictures and recording videos of the irregularities at Ward 10 (Uzairue North East), Polling Unit 1 in Iyamho, Uzairue, Etsako West Council.

According to eyewitnesses, not only were security personnel present during these attacks, they did nothing to intervene or apprehend the attackers. Several other journalists and observers were denied access to their designated monitoring and observation centres by security personnel, with no clear reason, which, however, represents a blatant abuse of power and a breach on the constitutional rights of the journalists from performing their statutory role in an election.

Specifically, Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 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.

IN a chat with The Guardian, veteran journalist and professor of journalism, Idowu Sobowale, said, “it is not something that should be encouraged, but as human beings, it is something that cannot be avoided but minimised. When I was in practice, I was covering the airport and dealing with top government officials. Whenever somebody was ill-treated, we were cohesive and usually agree and decide to boycott such a fellow. It didn’t take any time before they come begging, promising such an event will not occur again.

“Journalists must put themselves in check, they should be less anxious to talk to people. In doing these, they have to be mindful and be sure that their integrity means so much to them. If you are looking for what your source will give you, he will just put you in the pocket and use you the way you may not like but if you are guided by your conscience, initially, you may not be liked, but eventually, you will be respected and not only liked but loved. But it comes at a price.”

He added: “I have always said that journalism is a game of who has the upper hand — you want to use your sources to get juicy stories and your sources want to use you to achieve their own objectives. Everybody has an interest they are protecting. National Assembly members or government officials have skeletons in their wardrobe, which journalists must uncover, but neither assemblymen nor government functionaries will want their skeletons to be exposed, and the duty of the journalist at whatever cost is to make sure that these skeletons are exposed. So, there is no way there will be no friction and conflict. The journalist should know how to manage and circumvent some of the frictions. There were several occasions where the security agencies invited me to come and tell them my sources of information and going by the dictum of the profession, I refused even at the risk of being threatened with jail or some other maltreatment. When they know that you stick to your guns, they will eventually leave you, but there is one thing you must do to achieve that — your fact must be correct, when your facts are correct, they can only intimidate or harass you, but they will respect you.

In fact, what happened, most times, when I practiced was that security agencies would cultivate my friendship such that there were many times when I was not aware of events and occurrences, they would call. But however, interesting the friendship is you must maintain a dignified distance otherwise they will use you more than you want to use them. Remember both of you want to use yourselves — that was the situation when I was in practice, that is the situation now and I think that will be the situation for the future.”

For Dr. Ruqayyah Yusuf Aliyu, lecturer, Department of Information & Media Studies, Bayero University, Kano, there are two sides to the issue: “First, it is not enough for unions to condemn harassment, they should also advocate a freer and better environment for journalists to practice. Secondly, whatever journalists must do, they should be safety conscious. Personal safety is important. Journalists can only write stories when they are alive. Sometimes, journalists may not be physically present especially during violent situations. They can make use of contacts to get stories. Journalists must be careful of their relationships with politicians. They use journalists when it is in their favour. So far, journalists report anything that is not in their favour, they become their enemies the next minute.”

Many commentators on the issue have observed that things are getting out of control and it is highly displeasing. Most of the perpetrators of the attacks are security agents. There has to be a serious dialogue with them at the uppermost level to seek a firm commitment that the ugly trend will stop.

They said the Nigerian Union of Journalist (NUJ), Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE), Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Radio Television Theatre, and Art Workers Union of Nigeria (RATTAWU) should lead this process. They said employers should back assaulted journalists by seeking redress in court to serve as a deterrent to others.

In a similar vein, Programme Director, Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Ayode Longe, argued that the unions have let down journalists themselves. “I think it is shame, NUJ, NGE, and NPAN are not doing enough. It is only the MRA and IPC that are doing something. Journalists don’t pay us any dues. Whatever actions we take, we do it free of charge. NUJ should take the perpetrators to court to get redress for them. They can also engage in advocacy to the national assembly, ministers, and presidency that those that perform these breaches should be called to order or brought to book.”

He said, “before elections, NUJ should bring the police and journalists to a forum, there has to be a synergy. Political thugs attack journalists and law enforcement agencies would just look the other way. Security agencies have a duty to protect members of the public, much more so; they have a duty to protect journalists who are bringing the information to members of the public. Journalists are not there to meddle in the election. They are performing roles as the fourth estate of the realm to cover the elections because in elections, there is a need for transparency and accountability. If journalists are not there, rigging can take place; people can be maimed or killed.”

The Chairman, NUJ Lagos State Council, Qasim Akinreti, however, disagreed with Alonge that the union is not doing anything. According to him, the union has intervened on several occasions concerning the plight of journalists.

He said the union intervened on behalf of journalists that were detained during the COVID-19 lockdown and they were released. “We also had those that were arrested during a recent protest. I called relevant police authorities and they were also released. We also issued a statement condemning unnecessary harassment of our members insisting that this is inimical to democratic value. We are also building a cordial relationship with the police and other security agencies to understand the role of the media. We are to make them accountable but in the course of doing this, there is always a clash. But if they understand our role, there will be no need for any clash. I started the NUJ security agencies collaboration group, where security operatives are brought to understand what journalists do so that they don’t feel threatened while doing their job.”

To forestall future attack especially as the Ondo State governorship and 2023 general elections draw nearer, The Coalition of Whistleblowers Protection and Press Freedom (CWPPF) urged the Inspector General of Police and the Independent National Electoral Commission to ensure that the protection of journalists and election observers be given priority and that all law enforcement agencies should be mandated to protect journalists and observers during elections to promote a free and fair election and further strengthen the country’s democracy.


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