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When journalists marked WPFD on streets of Lagos

By By Kabir Alabi Garba
10 May 2010   |   2:36 pm
THE paradox is instructive. On the day set aside to remember and celebrate the principles of press freedom outlined in the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic Africa Media, media workers in Nigeria under the auspices of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) were on the streets of Lagos protesting the killings of…
THE paradox is instructive. On the day set aside to remember and celebrate the principles of press freedom outlined in the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic Africa Media, media workers in Nigeria under the auspices of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) were on the streets of Lagos protesting the killings of journalists, which has become rampant in the country.

The United Nations General Assembly in May 1991, as a fall-out of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed May 3 of every year World Press Freedom Day (WPFD).

And in the countdown to last Monday anniversary, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) had planned to mark the occasion globally with a one-day conference focusing on Freedom of Information: The right to know.

In Nigeria, the theme was slightly modified, Freedom of Information and Good Governance, to capture challenges facing the country and the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) was collaborating with the Media Right Agenda (MRA) to make the anniversary a worthwhile outing.

However, the killing of Edo Sule Ugbagwu of The Nation; Sunday Bwede and Natan Dabak of Light Bearer in Jos, Plateau State, on Saturday, April 24, 2010 (just nine days before May 3 commemoration), changed the template as the NUJ dedicated the anniversary to protesting these killings, especially when the recent losses of Bayo Ohu of The Guardian and Abayomi Ogundeji of Thisday in similar brutal circumstances have joined the growing list of unresolved killing of journalists in the country.

Led by the NUJ National President, Mallam Garba Mohammed and Chairman, Lagos Council of NUJ, Alhaji Wahab Alabi Oba, the rally had a specific mission to accomplish: delivery of a protest letter to President Goodluck Jonathan through Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN); and Inspector-General of Police, through Lagos Commissioner of Police, Mr. Marvel Akpoyibo as well as a condolence visit to the newspaper company of the latest victim of the brutal killing of journalists, Edo Sule Ugbagwu of The Nation.

But before the kick-off of the rally at about 10.25 a.m. on Monday at the Ikeja headquarters of the Lagos Council of NUJ, it was suggested that a walk to the premises of Newswatch magazine, the workplace of the first victim of the killings, Mr. Dele Giwa (in 1986) would be apposite. And there was no objection. Thus, journalists clad in black T-shirts and black face-caps to march, filed out in large numbers with placards that displayed different messages.

“God, protect us from the wicked enemies of progress.” “The killers of our colleagues are yet to be found! Why?” “We want justice to prevail!” “Dele Giwa, Bagauda, Agbroko, Bayo Ohu, Edo Ugbagwu… your killers will never know peace!” “State of Blood: Who killed Bayo Ohu, Abayomi Ogundeji, Godwin Agbroko, Dele Giwa, Omololu Falobi, Edo Sule Ugbagwu? – Journalists for Democratic Right (JODER)’ were some of the inscriptions on the placards.

Even the black T-shirt bore a billboard-kind of sticker with the bold question, Who killed them? super-imposed on the pictures and names of Dele Giwa, Bayo Ohu, Abayomi Ogundeji, Agbroko Godwin, Tunde Oladepo and Edo Sule Ugbagwu. All these messages advertised the protesters and their mission as they walked peacefully along Billings Way, the road leading to Newswatch offices. They got there at about 11.30 a.m. and the team was received by the publication’s Executive Editor, Dan Bala Abu, who described the rally as significant to the media and specifically to Newswatch “because we were the first to lose a journalist in this mysterious manner and unfortunately the incidence has continued till date.”

He attributed the audacity of the murderers to continue to perpetrate the criminal act to the failure of security operatives to apprehend the killers of the first victim. He thanked the leadership of the NUJ for “depriving yourself comfort of the holiday (Workers’ Day) and embark on this protest on behalf of journalists.”

The team left Newswatch at 11.44 a.m. and headed to the Lagos Police Command to present the protest letter.

At 12.53 in the afternoon when they arrived at the command headquarters in Ikeja, a team of officers including Police Public Relations Officer, Frank Mba and Deputy Commissioner of Police in Lagos, Solomon Aranse were waiting to receive the visitors. Aranse stood in for the CP and the NUJ president immediately announced the protesters’ mission while presenting the letter for onward transmission to the IG in Abuja.

Aranse thanked the journalists for the civic manner in which the rally was carried out. He assured that police were doing their best to arrest the perpetrators and pledged a continued healthy relationship with the press in Lagos, nay Nigeria.

Entitled Protest letter over murder of journalists, the two-page write-up reads:

“We are constrained to write to you to protest the killings over the years of journalists in the country, especially in the metropolis of Lagos, without any reasonable response by the police in fishing out the perpetrators of such heinous crimes and bringing them to book.

“The recent incident was the murder on Saturday, April 24, in Lagos of Edo Ugbagwu, a judicial correspondent of The Nation newspapers. This sad development speaks volumes about the practice of journalism in Nigeria, where security remains a challenge.

“In the recent past, Godwin Agbroko and Abayomi Ogundeji of Thisday newsapeprs, Omololu Falabi and Bayo Ohu of The Guardian were all brutally killed in Lagos by unknown gun men, perhaps sponsored by desperate politicians and (or) high office holders. And so it is the usual practice the police are yet to resolve successfully any of these killings.

“Similarly, in Jos, Plateau State, two other journalists, Natan Dabak and Sunday Bwede of Light Bearer were macheted to death by unknown persons while out on an assignment on Saturday, April 24, 2010.

“We are equally worried about the text message (SMS) on Thursday, April 27, 2010 sent to journalists of The Punch, The Nation, Thisday, AIT in Abuja threatening to eliminate them by some faceless criminals.

“Sir, as we join the rest of the world observing May 3 as World Press Freedom Day, it is pertinent to remind the nation that these acts of impunity against the media and journalists can no longer be tolerated and the sooner Nigeria wakes up to its responsibility of ensuring security of life and property, the better for all of us. It is high time that the killers of these journalists mentioned above were brought to book, a move we believe will send strong signals to other would-be assassins.”

With the DCP’s promise to deliver the letter to CP, the journalists left for the Marina home of Lagos State Governor where they arrived at exactly 2.00 p.m. But they could not see the governor until 4.05 p.m. At the interaction that lasted for 15 minutes at the outskirts of the government building, Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola apologised “‘for the discomfort you had encountered here today,” as he began his remarks after the NUJ president had presented to him the letter for onward transmission to the Acting President.

Flanked by Information Commissioner Bamidele Opeyemi and Fashola’s Chief Press Secretary, Hakeem Bello, the governor explained further: “This is the first time any delegation of this nature will be received here. We had made the commitment to receive this delegation before the holiday was announced. The house is very small. No facility to receive large delegation. In order to avert this experience, two options were communicated to chairman, Lagos NUJ Council, Wahab Alabi Oba: One, we may hold the reception at my office in Alausa where there is large space to accommodate us; or let five or 10 members among the team come to Marina. Wahab agreed to the second option, so, your coming here in this large number is a surprise to me.

“Notwithstanding, I want to felicitate with you and commiserate with you as you commemorate this year’s World Press Freedom Day.”

According to Fashola, incidents of killing always “challenges us to greater action and commitment towards our democracy.” He canvassed provision of adequate equipment for security operatives to carry out their job efficiently.

Even at the commemorative conference at the Lagos office of UNIC, the killings of journalists engaged the attention of participants. In his presentation entitled Freedom of Information: Challenges and Implications for the News Media, Lanre Arogundade, Director, International Press Centre (IPC), captured the incidents succinctly.

“In the countdown to this year’s world press freedom day, the stalkers emerged from their morbid realm once again to snuff the life of Edo Sule Ugbagwu of The Nation as well as Sunday Bwede and Natan Dabak in Plateau State even when the media community is still grieving over the recent losses of Bayo Ohu of The Guardian and Abayomi Ogundeji of Thisday.

“The condemnable murder of these gentlemen of the press have surely emboldened the media predators who have now issued chilling warnings via text messages, to four other journalists to be prepared for the Dele Giwa, Bayo Ohu and Edo Ugbagwu treatment, since in the diseased minds of the authors, they were supposedly responsible for the long expected exit of that loquacious electoral umpire and Professor of rigging called Maurice Iwu. The death threats were issued to Yusuf Ali of The Nation, Olusola Fabiyi of The Punch, Chuks Okocha of ThisDay and Gbenga Aruleba of the Africa Independent Television (AIT).”

According to Arogundade, the tragic coincidence of the killings occurring at a period of global commemoration of press freedom is a reflection “of how we have suddenly taken several steps backward in the quest for the institutionalization of the right of freedom of expression, in which press freedom and freedom of information, the theme of our celebration today, are embedded.”

He drew an analogy: “In Gorge Orwell’s ‘Animal farm’, it was a case of looking from man to animal and from animal to man and not being able to tell which was which. Now, as these killings and threats continue, it has become for us in the Nigerian media, a case of looking from the present civil rule to the past military dictatorship and not being able to decipher much difference; except, for the fact that the military would attack, and then prevent you from assembling to express your anger. Now, that we are at least still able to converge to express our feelings – well who knows what may happen tomorrow if the likes of Ibrahim Babangida manipulate their way back into the Presidency – we need to go beyond the ritual of condemnations and adopt the principles of freedom of information in helping to solve these lethal riddles.”

He suggested that “each time a journalist is killed, the news medium should do the Nation the big favour of making public whatever stories – major, sensitive, political, economic etc – s/he is working on or planning to work upon. The medium should also let the public know if such journalist had complained about threats to his/her life. The beat associates of the concerned journalist(s) should take similar steps and we can then leave the rest to clues and investigations – processes that should be helped when we finally succeed with the enactment of a Freedom of information Act.”

For Arogundade, “a situation like that of Dele Giwa, in which it took about two decades before there was an admission that he indeed was working on the story of one Gloria Okon, an alleged drug courier for some powers that used to be, is no longer tolerable.”

He argued, ” elements of information are usually connected with attacks on journalists – either s/he is being stopped from getting information or s/he is being pressurized to drop certain information.

“More importantly and drawing from the lessons of these killings and attacks, it has become a major imperative for the news media to redouble efforts and advocacy for the citizens’ right of access to information, more popularly known as freedom of information.

“An FOI regime would enable the mass of the people to have the legally enforceable right to information that is in the public interest. If the mass, through the FOI instrumentality can obtain such information, it would take the wind off the sail of those who would want to kill and maim to stop such from becoming public knowledge,” noted Arogundade.

The Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic Africa Media which gave birth to World Press Freedom Day affirmed the right of citizens to information in the context of the broader freedom of expression; upheld the principles of press freedom and espoused the philosophy of editorial independence and public broadcaster wherein it advocated states’ (government) hand-off of the electronic media given the penetrating mass reach and the potential for manipulation for political and other interests.

Much as the Windhoek declaration is celebrated and African Nations boast of the African Charter of Human Rights that is essentially fashioned after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is disheartening that only very few have breathed life into commitments related to freedom of expression by enacting freedom of information laws. Pathetic is the case in Nigeria as the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, which has become the oldest private bill in National Assembly since the return of civil rule in 1999 is yet to be passed into law.