The State Security Service has demanded that a Nigerian journalist must disclose his sources as a precondition for his freedom.
The secret police detained Tony Ezimakor in Abuja on Wednesday after honouring an invitation over a story he wrote detailing how the Buhari administration paid millions of dollars as ransom to Boko Haram for the release of some Chibok girls.
Mr. Ezimakor’s story also uncovered how ransom payments have become a lucrative source of extra income for Nigerian and Swiss intelligence officers who participated in the negotiations for Boko Haram hostages.
In May 2017, Boko Haram released 82 girls said to be amongst the over 270 girls abducted by insurgents in April 2014 at their school in Chibok, Borno State.
The Buhari administration was tight-lipped about how the terms of the girls’ release, despite demands for transparency. Several news reports, first by the BBC and later The Wall Street Journal, detailed how the Nigerian government paid between two €2-3 million to secure the girls.
The government avoided giving details about whether a ransom was paid or not, but admitted a prisoner swap deal with the terrorists.
Two days after the latest mass kidnap of schoolgirls in Dapchi, Yobe State, Daily Independent ran a behind-the-scenes story about the release of the 82 Chibok girls which was written by Mr. Ezimakor, its bureau chief in Abuja.
The frontpage story cited intelligence sources as saying that negotiations with Boko Haram for the release of hostages had become a “cash cow for some officials, working in concert with negotiators to squeeze scarce dollars from the government.”
But now the journalist is being locked up for his revelations and might not be released unless he unmasked his sources, Don Okere, editor of Daily Independent, told PREMIUM TIMES Sunday.
“They’re asking him how he got the story and want him to release his source,” Mr. Okere said by telephone based on the ongoing negotiation between their lawyers and the SSS.
Mr. Okere said the SSS had also demanded that the story be retracted with an apology or the matter would be charged to court.
“We asked them to charge the matter to court” because we’re not retracting our story “but they have refused to do that,” he said.
The secret police first disclosed its displeasure about the story in a letter to Mr. Okere seeking the editor’s presence at its headquarters in Abuja.
“They said I should come and see the director of operations at the SSS in Abuja. But when I told them I am based in Lagos where we have our head office, they started looking for me,” he said.
The editor said the SSS sent agents to look for him at the office in Lagos twice, but he was unavailable at both times.
“They later asked if we have a reporter in Abuja and I told them yes. I then asked our bureau chief to honour the invitation which he did last Wednesday and was detained,” he said.
Mr. Okere said based on their exchanges, it was clear that the SSS operatives did not know that the story carried Mr. Ezimakor’s byline.
The SSS has not issued any statement about Mr. Ezimakor’s arrest, and PREMIUM TIMES could not reach the agency for comments because it has declined to name a spokesperson since September 2016 when Marilyn Ogar left the service. Text messages sent to Lawal Daura, head of the SSS, on Sunday afternoon were not replied as at the time of filing this report Sunday night.
Similarly, Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Information Minister, did not respond to PREMIUM TIMES’ requests for comments about the journalist’s detention.
Mr. Okere said Daily Independent and Mr. Ezimakor’s family are worried about his health. He is said to be treating hypertension and ulcer.
He demanded an immediate release of his colleague.
The Citizens Advocacy for Social & Economic Rights (CASER) said the SSS has violated the Nigerian Constitution by holding Mr. Ezimakor in its custody for more then 48 hours without filing charges.
If Mr. Ezimakor “is not charged to court after four days of detention and a needless raid on his house by armed state security men, it would then be clear that he has become a victim of government tyranny and official intimidation,” the group said in a statement signed by Frank Tietie, its executive director.
“It is in the interest of all Nigerian citizens, including the officials of State Security Service and, a progressive future, to adhere to the clear principles of law and justice as contained in the Nigerian Constitution, in order to guarantee freedom, liberty and a sustained practice of democracy in Nigeria,” the group said.
The Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) described continued detention of Mr. Ezimakor without trial as “draconian, tyrannical, illegal, unlawful and unconstitutional.”
“We, therefore, demand his immediate and unconditional release,” MURIC said adding that the SSS had violated the Nigerian constitution and international charter on human rights.
The group said the Buhari administration may suffer credibility and human rights issues if it failed to rein in the SSS as the agency carries out “maltreatment of journalists” which could amount to “stifling of sources of information, undue censor, repression of activists and suppression of freedom of speech.”
The SSS has gone after journalists under successive Nigerian administrations for the past three decades.
In the 1990s, the military governments cracked down on journalists using the SSS, a tradition that continued under civilian governments.
Since July 2016, the SSS has detained Jones Abiri, a journalist based in the Niger-Delta, for alleged ties to militants. But the agency has neither charged nor allowed the journalist access to his lawyers and family members
In December 2017, Mr. Abiri was one of the two Nigerian journalists that the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said were part the 262 journalists detained across the world in 2017.
A month before in November 2017, the CPJ launched a major push to compel President Muhammadu Buhari to prevail on the SSS to release Mr. Abiri, whose detention would soon hit 600 days.