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Outrage over alleged plot to arrest undercover journalist

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Nigeria Prisons Service headquarters

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• NUJ, editor’s guild, others caution govt, urge probity

Nigerians yesterday condemned an alleged plot by security operatives to seize investigative journalist, Fisayo Soyombo.

The reporter, whose undercover stories exposed corruption in Nigerian police cells and prisons, has since gone into hiding. The “threat is real,” he told The Guardian, noting, however, that he is “safe and calm.”

The first instalment of the three-part investigation by Soyombo, a former editor of The Cable and a contributor to Al Jazeera, detailed how policemen “pervert the course of justice in their quest for ill-gotten money”.

In the second part published on Monday by The Cable, he exposed “how the courts shortchange the law and (how) the prisons are themselves a cesspool of the exact reasons for which they hold inmates.”

The final part of the report is yet to be published.

During the investigation, Soyombo had taken the alias ‘Ojo Olajumoke’, spent five days in a cell at Pedro Police Station, Shomolu, Lagos, and eight days in Ikoyi prison.

His report is backed with audio, pictorial and video evidence of alleged corruption in the country’s judicial system.

The Guardian learned that the second part of Soyombo’s story irked prison authorities, especially the comptroller-general.

A security source told The Guardian yesterday morning that Soyombo, scheduled to speak at a workshop on fake news organised by Goethe Institute the same day, was to be arrested at the venue. He has since pulled out of the event.

“Prisons authorities are very angry and have decided to get the journalist arrested,” the source said, adding: “He is to be charged to court and prosecuted under Section 29 of the Nigeria Correctional Service Act.”

Subsection 1 (d) of the Act states that a person is deemed to have committed an offence if he “procures or facilitates the procurement of communication devices for an inmate or makes conversation or aids the making of conversation through a mobile phone or other devices to an inmate other than as provided in the Correctional Standing Orders and other related correctional policies.”

Another source said the journalist has been forced to vacate his residence, which rent he recently renewed, and has gone underground.

The hounding of journalists in Nigeria is gaining notoriety. Agba Jalingo, a journalist and publisher of online newspaper, CrossRiverWatch, is currently in jail, accused of treason after publishing a story on the alleged diversion of N500 million by Cross River State Governor Ben Ayade.

Another, Jones Abiri, is also facing prosecution under Nigeria’s cybercrimes act, anti-sabotage act, and terrorism prevention act, for crimes allegedly carried out in 2016.

Abiri was held by Nigeria’s secret police without any charge between July 2016 and August 2018, only to be rearrested nine months after the Department of State Services (DSS) freed him.

In #KeepFisayoSafe, which is trending on Twitter, some Nigerians expressed their disappointment at the development.

Amnesty International Nigeria said it was “concerned about threats to the life of Fisayo Soyombo, an investigative journalist whose work recently exposed injustice and human rights violations.”

Enough Is Enough, a network of individuals and organisations committed to good governance and public accountability, also said: “These moves against future investigative stories are actually attacks by the state on democratic governance and the authority of the citizenry.”

Ayò Bánkólé @AyoBankole wrote: “You cannot claim to fight corruption, yet turn around to witch-hunt a journalist who went undercover (at risk to his own life) to expose the biggest corruption racket within your own law enforcement agency. It shows your corruption fight is nothing but a fraud!”

Another, Chxta@Chxta, said: “Paying N10,000 ($28) to delete a prisoner’s record, because he has plans to run for political office, is not a crime. Telling the world that this is what happens in a prison in Nigeria is apparently a crime.”

Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project @SERAPNigeria, said the alleged plan to arrest Soyombo was yet another assault on media freedom in Nigeria and puts investigative journalism in the digital age under serious threat.

“The Police should vigorously denounce the threats and reported plan to arrest Soyombo and shouldn’t be tools in the hands of politicians to harass, intimidate and arbitrarily arrest journalists simply for doing their job.

“The threats against Soyombo are unacceptable; they must be investigated and those responsible held accountable in order to protect responsible, investigative and independent journalism.”

Advocacy for Integrity and Economic Development (AIED) described the alleged move to arrest Soyombo as “nauseating” and “appalling”.

In a statement by its director of media and publicity, Comrade O’Seun John, the organisation accused the Federal Government of going against its anti-corruption stand and sliding into totalitarianism.

It said: “Mr. Fisayo is a national hero that puts himself in dangerous circumstances to protect whatever is left of the sanity of this country. Instead of having him fear for his life and that of his family, the Federal Government should be concentrating resources on arresting and prosecuting all those who have turned our institutions to barter.”

Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) said news of the planned arrest didn’t come as a surprise because “Nigeria is back to the dark ages of tyranny.” In a statement by its national coordinator, Emmanuel Onwubiko, the group said it condemned the “satanic agenda.”

Vice president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (southwest), Mustapha Isah, said Soyombo should instead be applauded and given an award by the government, not intimidated or harassed.

The president, Lagos State chapter of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Dr. Rotimi Akinreti, said Soyombo had only assisted the government, presidency, police and the prison service. According to him, the report should help them to clean up.

He added: “Why would they want to arrest him? Let them look into the system and clean it up. It portrays Nigeria in a bad image. The only way is to ensure that we don’t have a repeat of horrendous and disgraceful service in the police and prisons. People have been alleging these ills, and Soyombo took a step further by doing a good report. The inspector-general should commend him for doing a good job.”

But Francis Enabore, the spokesman of the Nigerian Correctional Service, dismissed Soyombo’s report as packed with lies. He said the picture of drugs in bottles was a figment of the reporter’s imagination, accusing him of playing to the gallery. “For instance, he mentioned the name of one service personnel who is no longer in Lagos but is now a state controller in the southeast. I can sponsor your trip to the said facility to see things for yourself,” he said.

The Nigeria Police Force also said it would not be dragged into speculations. Public Relations Officer Frank Mba said: “If a person’s life is threatened, that citizen has the right to report to the appropriate security agency or government agency. He should give us an idea of the security operatives who are after him. I have spoken about this matter on television and I even commended him for doing a wonderful job. If he has any issue touching on threats, he should report to the appropriate security agency. Other than that, I would not want to be dragged into any controversy.”

A former governor of Ogun State, Olusegun Osoba, and a professor of Mass Communication at the University of Lagos, Ralph Akinfeleye, meanwhile have urged journalists to exhibit high ethics and excellence in the discharge their duties.

They said this in Lagos yesterday at the presentation of ‘Makers of Nigerian Press’, a book authored by veteran journalist, Dayo Duyile.

The House of Representatives yesterday warned ministries, departments and agencies of government to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.


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