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Stakeholders seek adequate security for journalists covering COVID-19, fault attack

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Following recent attacks on journalists in some parts of the country, stakeholders have condemned this development insisting that there is urgent need for adequate security for media personnel.

Recall that on April 21, 2020, Vanguard’s correspondent in Ebonyi State, Peter Okutu, was allegedly arrested by armed men of the state’s Anti-Robbery squad at Woodberry Hotel, Abakaliki on the orders of the Ohaukwu Council chairman, Mr. Clement Odah.

Similarly, The Sun newspaper’s reporter, Agwu Chijioke, also in Ebonyi State, was allegedly arrested by the police on the orders of the state governor, David Umahi, following a report he did about Lassa fever outbreak in the state. He was later released.

In addition, officials of the Delta State Task Force on Environment, on April 2, allegedly attacked Michael Ikeogwu, chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Mathew Omonighoe, correspondent of the Daily Post while covering the COVID-19 lockdown.

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The two journalists were in the Uvwie Council of the state to monitor the stay-at-home order by the government when they were stopped by the task force officials and assaulted. Omonighoe reportedly had his Nikon D3100 camera destroyed.

In a chat with The Guardian, Executive Director, International Press Centre, (IPC) Lagos, Lanre Arogundade, said arresting a journalist and getting him detained over a story is not an acceptable means of seeking such redress, the act of Odah is unacceptable and condemnable. IPC is worried that the state governor is fast becoming notorious for its serial violation of the rights of journalists.

Similarly, Executive Director Institute for Media and Society (IMS), Dr. Akin Akingbulu, said, “victory over COVID-19 would depend, to a large extent, on the freedom the media is able to exercise in performing its duties. I have read through history and one of the things I found out is that whenever there is a pandemic of this kind of scale and the media doesn’t have freedom, there’s usually big disaster. History teaches us for example the 1918 to 1920 flu influenza pandemic, in countries where the media was censored, there was high casualty because the media could not provide the public with appropriate information and education.

“But in countries where the media was allowed to do their job, there were low casualties. So we have lessons from history that the authorities in this country should do all they can to ensure the media has the freedom they require in reporting what’s going on and educating the public appropriately.

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“In some places, government agencies want to micro manage or manipulate the media. They should allow the media to do its work. NUJ and civil societies are playing their role but not up to the expected level.

“They should ensure protection and defense of journalists who are on duty during this period by making representations to government and provision of adequate insurance. Whenever there’s any violation, they should take it up quickly with the appropriate authorities. And ensure justice is done and compensation paid where necessary. They should also provide capacity building such as trainings. For instance, my organisation is holding series of webinar on coverage of COVID-19.

“I will recommend that journalists who cover COVID-19 issues should be provided with adequate security, they must also be kitted with masks and other things needed to do the job. These are people at the battlefront. People are at home but they are on duty, this is a risk any professional can take and those who control the affairs of this country at this time should appreciate it.”

Conclusively, Arogundade noted that anybody or institution that feels aggrieved about a story should either exercise the right of reply or seek redress legally and not embark on extra judicial self-help. The state government is hereby reminded that such attacks on journalists over the performance of their legitimate duty are antithetical to democratic norms and values.

Not too long ago, the Nigeria Guild of Editors raised concerns over incessant attacks on journalists in the country amid COVID-19 pandemic. Its President, Mr. Mustapha Isah, insisted that media personnel were rendering essential services and should be commended for performing their constitutional mandate of sourcing stories and monitoring compliance with government directives during this period of COVID-19 pandemic.

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The guild urged state governments to appropriately educate the security agents drafted to enforce the restrictions on the essential nature of media duties, noting that President Muhammad Buhari’s statement in a nationwide broadcast, permits “workers of telecommunications companies, broadcasting, print and electronic media, who can prove they are unable to work from home” as being exempted from the total lockdown in Lagos, Ogun, and Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory.

The body expressed concerns that some security agents, who do not have knowledge of media operations, find it difficult to determine the categories of print and electronic staff that cannot work from home.

The guild also called on the Federal Government to exempt all categories of media staff from the COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions and hereby enjoined journalists to carry their means of identification, as they undertake their duties, to eliminate the chances of being harassed by security operatives.

The body of editors also commended the efforts of medical personnel, who have continued to put their lives on the line, as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic.

The guild, however, noted that Nigeria couldn’t afford a total lockdown at this time. People should be allowed to move within their neighbourhoods to access pharmacies, fuel stations and other basic needs.

“We urge all journalists and other personnel on essential services to adhere strictly to the prescribed precautionary measures against COVID-19 and continue to stay safe in the course of their duties,” it said.

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Similarly, Media Rights Agenda MRA’s Programme Director, Mr. Ayode Longe, said: “We are constrained to remind the Federal Government that it has obligations under various international instruments which it has voluntarily acceded to, particularly Article 66(c) of the Revised ECOWAS Treaty, to ensure respect for the rights of journalists. We are gravely concerned by the rampant cases of attacks by law enforcement and security agents on journalists carrying out their professional duties as well as the obstruction of such duties. This situation is unacceptable and will no longer be tolerated.”

He cited as one of the latest of such incidents, the attack on March 28, 2020 by an operative of the Department of State Security (DSS) on the Imo State correspondent of Leadership newspaper, Ms. Angela Nkwo-Akpolu, while she was taking pictures of a hotel in Owerri where guests were forcibly quarantined by security agents allegedly because the hotel failed to comply with government’s directives on checking the spread of COVID-19.

The DSS operative is reported to have manhandled Ms. Nkwo-Akpolu, forcibly seized a pair of prescription eyeglasses belonging to her as well as her i-pad and deleted several pictures she had taken. The security agent stopped short of beating her up and smashing her i-pad on the ground owing to the intervention of other journalists present at the scene.

“In yet another incident, at about 4.00am on March 30, 2020, a group of soldiers manning a checkpoint at Mbiama, a border town between Rivers and Bayelsa states, attacked a circulation vehicle belonging to The Punch, which was on its way to distributing copies of the newspaper in states in the South-South zone, and damaged the car.

According to the driver of the vehicle, Mr. Sunkanmi Olusola, when he got to Mbiama, the soldiers stopped him and the driver of the circulation vehicle of The Nation newspaper and refused to allow them to continue their journey. His appeal to the soldiers to allow them leave apparently angered one of them who brought out a knife and slashed one of the vehicle’s front tyres into shreds. Olusola said the soldier had initially tried unsuccessfully to smash the windscreen of the Passat Golf 3 car before deciding to use the knife to tear the tyre.

Condemning these incidents, Longe described as tragic the frequent resort to violence and brutality by law enforcement and security agents in their dealings with members of the public, including journalists, without any civility or respect for the basic constitutional rights of citizens.

He said: “these incidents are doubly tragic because a free press and respect for the rule of law are necessary conditions in a democracy.

“Unfortunately, these security agents have consistently demonstrated that they are either not aware of these fundamentals of democratic rule or that they have no regard for them. This cannot be allowed to continue unchecked.”

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Longe added that at a period like this when the world is confronting an unprecedented public health challenge in the Coronavirus pandemic, the role of the media is more important than ever before, given the imperative of citizens having access to accurate information about the nature of the threat it poses and the means to combat it, among other issues.
He insisted, “in a situation such as this, there can be no justification for these types of actions by the Government or its law enforcement and security agencies.

“The government has a heightened responsibility to ensure that journalists and the media are able to perform their duties. This should necessitate taking extraordinary measures to protect journalists and their work and fully implementing all laws aimed at ensuring that journalists and citizens have uninhibited access to information. Unfortunately, we are constantly faced with a situation where the Government, which should be the protector, is the principal impediment.”

Longe urged Mr. Yusuf Magaji Bichi, the Director General of the DSS and Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai, the Chief of Army Staff, to call their officers and men to order and provide them with the necessary training about their human rights obligations to citizens and internationally recognized acceptable modes of engagement by law enforcement agents with citizens and civilian populations.

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