In what critics are describing as a creeping descent into dictatorship, the Nigeria Police on Monday detained four journalists of Abuja-based Leadership newspaper for refusing to name their source for a story which alleged the presidency was plotting to sabotage the merger of the leading opposition parties in the country.
The story, entitled “Outrage Trails Presidential directive on Tinubu, APC”, was based on an alleged document suggesting that President Goodluck Jonathan had given orders to his aides and appointees to harass leading opposition politicians and frustrate the ongoing merger arrangement by the Action Congress of Nigeria, the All Nigeria Peoples Party, the Congress for Progressive Change and a faction of the All Progressives Grand Alliance.
On April 3, presidential spokesperson, Doyin Okupe, dismissed the document, saying it was an amateurish forgery but the government did not charge the paper or the writer of the story to court.
Police spokesperson, Frank Mba, could not be reached Monday night to explain why the police suddenly descended on the newspaper and its reporters after the presidency had denied the publication.
But Leadership said Monday the four reporters were being held because they wouldn’t divulge the source of the document.
The paper said the four journalists – Chinyere Fred-Adebulugbe, Chuks Ohuegbe, Tony Amokeodo and Chibuzor Ukaibe – were summoned to the police headquarters in Abuja and then detained for failing to say who leaked the controversial document to the publication.
The paper called on the police to release the reporters without delay.
“We demand the unconditional and immediate release of our journalists,” Azubike Ishiekwene, managing director of Leadership Group, said in a statement Monday.
“President Jonathan and his handlers need to tell Nigerians and the civilized world why they have suddenly moved from describing the document as “fiction,” to a do-or-die obsession with knowing the source; they need to tell Nigerians most of who now live in mortal fear of their personal safety and security, if clamping down on the press has now become a priority sport.
“We stand by our story and will neither be cowed nor intimidated by the strong-arm tactics of President Jonathan nor by the puerile attempts by his spokesmen – Doyin Okupe and Dr. Reuben Abati – to tarnish our report.”
The Nigerian Guild of Editors has also demanded the release of the journalists.
Femi Adesina, the Guild’s president, condemned the arrest, saying “no government that lays claim to democratic credentials can afford to be at loggerheads with the Press”.
Also, a group, Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria, HURIWA, has asked the police and Federal Government to go to court if it has any case against the Leadership Newspaper rather than resorting to crude tactics of self help by harassing the organization and its staff.
HURIWA, in a statement by its National Coordinator, Emmanuel Onwubiko, and National Media Affairs Director, Zainab Yusuf, on Monday, urged President Jonathan to direct the hierarchy of the police to stop harassing the reporters and other allied workers of the newspapers, but instead go to court if they have evidence that the said report was false and malicious.
It said that rather than harassing the media organization and its staff, the police should concentrate their energy on restoring peace and security in the country as well as focus attention on how to regain the respect of Nigerians.
“HURIWA ask the nation’s police to stop playing ‘political pranks’ and concentrate their energy towards restoring peace and security across the country at a time of serious attacks on civilian targets by armed terrorists in the North,” the group said.
The group noted that it was wrongheaded for the government to resort to the use of armed police operatives to intimidate and psychologically harass journalists any time the government feels that an unfavourable story has enjoyed wide media sympathy.
It reminded the government that section 22 of the 1999 Constitution (amended) “obliges the Nigerian media to hold the government officials to account to the people of Nigeria who are the owners of the sovereignty of Nigeria.”
Press freedom in Nigeria has increasingly come under threat since President Jonathan was elected in 2011.
On December 24, the State Security Service, SSS, in a military-era jack-boot tactics, stormed the homes of two journalists who write for Al-Mizan, a Kaduna-based Hausa language newspaper, and arrested them.
They were arrested over a story which detailed how the Joint Task Force in Yobe State was allegedly engaging in extra-judicial arrests and murder of innocent citizens.
The two journalists were released on January 1 without charge only for one of them to be rearrested on February 14. He was released on February 22 and no charges were pressed against him.
On February 12, two radio journalists of Wazobia FM and a cleric were arrested and charged to court over allegations that their programme triggered the killing of nine female healthcare workers shot to death in the restive northern metropolis.
The Kano state police claimed the radio reporters incited the killings when they discussed fears about the vaccination campaign.
On February 22, the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, suspended the operating license of Wazobia FM over the same matter.
The NBC continued with its muzzling agenda on March 3 when it suspended the broadcast of a popular programme, Dimokradiyya a you, on Radio Gotel, Yola. The station is owned by former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who is especially critical of President Jonathan.
The commission also suspended another programme, Taba Kidi Taba Karatu, on Adamawa Broadcasting Corporation, Yola, on the same day.