ANALYSIS: Nigerian Army’s invasion of Daily Trust: Sifting through the blame game

Nigerian Army invades Daily Trust office in Abuja
Nigerian Army invades Daily Trust office in Abuja

Daily Trust’s editor-in-chief, Mannir Dan-Ali, a veteran of the nation’s rugged media terrain is a man who exudes confidence. He was, however, rattled, nay, speechless on Sunday, January 6, when gun-toting, battle-ready soldiers invaded the premises of the newspaper in Abuja, the nation’s capital.

Perhaps the nearest brush with hostile security forces the newspaper, under him, had was during the Goodluck Jonathan era when copies of its publications were seized in some states.

The present siege was unprecedented for the official.

A similar siege had earlier been carried out on its Maiduguri office that day. The soldiers after descending on the newspaper’s office in the war-torn northern city arrested a reporter. Their mission was apparently not ended as they demanded to see one of the newspaper editors, who appeared to be their main target.

“For four hours on Sunday, January 6th 2019, armed soldiers who came in five vehicles occupied the head office of Media Trust Limited, publishers of the Daily Trust titles sending away journalists and other staff,” a troubled Mr Dan-Ali said in a subsequent statement he issued that caught the attention of a stunned nation.

“Before the siege was called off at about 9.30 pm, the soldiers has (sic) ransacked the newsroom and carted away dozens of computers and effectively strangulated the production of the Monday edition of the paper,” the official added.

He explained that at about 4 p.m., another detachment of soldiers and plain-clothed security officials went to the Maiduguri regional office of the company and conducted a search.

The soldiers took away the Regional Bureau Chief, Uthman Abubakar, and a reporter, Ibrahim Sawab. A production staff who was taken away from the Abuja head office alongside the firm’s computers was released after a period of detention at the Mogadishu barracks in Abuja.

The irate soldiers were not done yet, apparently.

In Lagos, seven vehicles with armed soldiers arrived the offices of the newspaper at Textile Labour House in Agidingbi at about 9 p.m. After driving out perplexed staff, they sealed the premises.

Why would soldiers invade a newspaper house in broad daylight in a democratic nation ahead of a general election, Nigerians waited to know with bated breath.

Mr Dan-Ali explained.

“We have not been told of the reason for the military operation against this newspaper but suspect it may have to do with the lead story of the Daily Trust on Sunday that dwelt on the military’s effort to retake some towns recently reported to have been lost to insurgents.

“Another clue is that during the invasion of our premises both in Maiduguri and in Abuja, the military men were asking for the reporters who wrote the story.”

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Controversial Story?

The siege occurred a few hours after the newspaper published a report detailing how the Nigerian military assembled troops and equipment in preparation for a ‘massive operation’ to dislodge Boko Haram and retake Baga and five other towns in Borno from the insurgents.

The army had earlier denied reports that the towns had been seized.

The military has suffered a series of defeats in some key towns in the embattled region, which it had tried to downplay in recent weeks.

It had also appealed to the media to stop “exaggerating the losses suffered in the hands of the insurgents whom the federal government claimed in the past had been ‘techincally defeated”.

That Daily Trust decided to publish a report that revealed military operations to regain the lost territory did not go down well with the top brass of the military.

Sabre Rattling Military

A confrontational military later issued a statement explaining why it unleashed its men on unarmed media workers.

“The disclosure of classified security information amounts to a breach of national security and run contrary to Sections 1 and 2 of the Official Secrets Act,” a belligerent army spokesman, Sani Usman said shortly.

He said the story gave the Boko Haram sect ‘‘prior notice of the Army’s plans while also alerting it to prepare against the Nigerian military.”

Mr Usman said the publication sabotaged the planned operation and “put the lives of troops in imminent and clear danger.”

“We would like to state that the ‘invitation’ of those responsible for divulging military plans was done with the best of intention in order to make them realise the import of such acts to our national security,” he said.

The spokesperson did not, however, explain why the military needed to deploy armed soldiers to ‘invite’ the journalists who had stirred the hornet’s nest.

‘Bad Move’

The presidency, obviously aware of the furore the matter would generate, quickly moved in to douse tension.

President Muhammadu Buhari is seeking reelection this year. Accused several times in the past of crippling citizens civil rights, the military action on a newspaper house was clearly a bad move for campaigns.

The presidency then sought to rein in the rampaging soldiers and extinguish a raging fire.

“The Federal Government has directed the military to vacate the premises of @daily_trust and the order has been complied with,” Garba Shehu, a presidential spokesperson, said via a tweet on his handle @GarShehu.

“Issues between the military and the newspaper as they affect the coverage of the war in the Northeast will be resolved through dialogue,” he added.

The army later withdrew its officials and released the detained journalists. It is not clear if they also released the firm’s computers and gadgets it seized.

Belated?

Despite the presidency’s olive branch gesture, the expected backlash came in quickly and in no small measure.

The International Press Institute threw the first salvo.

“We would like to mention here that the Nigerian security services appear to have adopted a habit of arresting and detaining journalists for their investigative reporting on perceived sensitive subjects.

“In August last year, the security forces arrested Samuel Ogundipe, a journalist with the Premium Times, for his report about a letter sent by the inspector general of police to the vice president detailing actions of the former director of the State Security Service. The police demanded that Ogundipe reveal his sources.

“We hope that you will keep the promise that President Muhammadu Buhari and you made at the IPI World Congress to uphold media freedom and create a conducive climate for independent media to thrive in Nigeria,” it wrote Mr Buhari.

“Where an infraction is alleged, the best option is to follow due process and civility; not kneejerk, not intimidation and spread of fear in the civil society.

“We have gone too far in search of law and order regime than to countenance such display of raw power and emotion over due process,” the Newspapers Association of Nigeria also said in a statement.

Amnesty International also showed its displeasure.

“Nigerian authorities have obligation to protect freedom of the press @daily_trust as provided by the constitution & International human rights laws. #FreePress #Nigeria,” it said.

“Attack on @Dailytrust offices and arbitrary arrest of their reporters, is an attack on Nigerians’ freedom of expression and media freedom and an affront to basic principles of human rights and rule of law central to democracy,” a prominent pressure civil society group, SERAP also said.

So Who Gets The Blame?

Analysts believe the clash was inevitable especially in the heat of an ongoing counter-insurgency operation, which the military seems to be under pressure to conclude finally and decisively.

While the press is constitutionally empowered to keep the nation informed on developments in the society, the army is trained to secure the territorial integrity of the country through at times covert operations that it wants to remain secret.

That always sets the tone for clashes between the two institutions globally.

As usual with such matters, opinions are varied and divisive.

Emman Usman Shehu (PhD), Director, International Institute of Journalism, sees it as a classic case of two wrongs (not making a right).

“It is a classic example of two wrongs not making a right. It once again underscores the failure of our various institutions to play by established rules at all times,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.

He criticises the actions of both sides.

“It is true that the media is in the business of providing news by there is that age-old caveat of providing news RESPONSIBLY, taking into cognisance not just national security but the safety of citizens. Nigerian soldiers are first of all citizens of the country and their lives too matter.

“Daily Trust’s shocking editorial naivety in this matter also shows the organisation’s failure to take into consideration that safety of its staff who could easily be brutalised in the event of an extreme backlash from the military, know the historical precedents.

“The front page prominence given to the planned military operation showed that Daily Trust was not in the mood of being discreet regardless of the danger it posed to the lives of the troops.

“The report itself was in no way innocuous as has been argued in some quarters. It not only indicated a large scale operation in specific locations but also revealed where the troops would be drawn from. These are actionable details for the insurgents.

“The military’s indignation in the given circumstance is understandable, but the attendant action is totally unacceptable. What took place further discredits the military’s reputation as not being capable of working within the ambits of the country’s laws.

“There are more civil and lawful ways that the military would have approached the issue including working with the Attorney General of the Federation to press charges against Daily Trust. The military operation as witnessed which took place in at least three cities, with journalists taken into custody and publishing paraphernalia confiscated is not acceptable even in a democracy,” he said.

Emmanuel Ogbeche, FCT chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) takes a different route.

He tells this newspaper the Nigerian military went overboard in its reaction over the story.

“The military should have used its information and publicity unit to reach out to the editors of Daily Trust and forcefully make their concerns known,” he says. “A simple telephone call, an email would have sufficed even if you needed the reporters/editors of the newspaper at your office. But to lay siege to the offices at different locations signposts that it was aimed at crippling the operations of the newspaper.”

He said in this age of technological advancement, there is nothing about troops’ movement that is even ‘secret.’

“Google Earth alone is enough to give away the massing up of Nigerian troops because one will imagine that the Boko Haram terrorists have the requisite technology and possibly moles embedded inside the military,” he said. “If you check Stratfor site online, you can easily find where U.S. carriers are everywhere in the world.”

“The military ought to engage in confidence building with the media and populace. You cannot always antagonise a key institution as the media,” he adds. “The media too owes the country responsible reporting and being sensitive to some issues such as the war against insurgency.”

Farooq Kperogi, a columnist and professor of Journalism and Citizen Media at Kennesaw State University, Georgia, USA tells PREMIUM TIMES two options the military could have explored.

“They had two options: officially write to refute the report and request to be given a prominent space for their rebuttal to be published or directly complain to the editor or the E-I-C of the newspaper by pointing out exactly why the report injures national security,” he said.

“Invading the offices of the newspaper, confiscating its computers and arresting its reporters are most certainly crude tactics of intimidation that solve no problem at all,” the prominent columnist added.

He also said Daily Trust would be justified under the law to sue the military authorities for loss of revenue as a consequence of this invasion and for a violation of its constitutionally guaranteed right to inform the public and hold government accountable to the people.

A public affairs analyst, Abdullai Haruna, also weighed in. He takes a middle ground.

“Irresponsible time we live in, journalists publishing the operational movement of the military against a dangerous side like the Boko Haram. What stops the army from inviting the top management of the media house to discuss the grave implication of sharing valuable and sensitive operational procedures of the military?” he asks.

“And why would journalists be the platform where military tactics are used to get to the insurgents? Are there moles in the military who work in tandem with journalists to feed the insurgents with adequate information?” he said.

However, Isuma Isuma, a public affairs analyst says there is no justification for the invasion.

“It (invasion) is terrorism in itself. It impedes on the right of the workers and free press which has become an essential element of governance globally. If the government had any grouse with any publications from the paper’s stable, it should have employed the usual open and legal channels of reaching out to the editors and management to explain and clear the air,” Mr Isuma said.

“That was not employed rather, violent measures of laying siege to the paper offices across the nation became their best option. That was condemnable. I must say the paper must go to court to ensure the preservation of its desire to have access to information and stop future invasion of its operations and other media outlets,” he added.

Adolphus Mawolo, a reporter with the West Africa Democracy Radio, Dakar, Senegal also told PREMIUM TIMES that diplomatic channels ought to have been explored by parties.

“The siege was an unnecessary use of force which attracted an unnecessary international attention to an army notorious for extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests and detention,” Mr Mawolo said.

“The newspaper said it released general and not specific information about the operation to retake Baga and five other towns in the northeast. Ideally, the army needed to express their disappointment to the Daily Trust without a public display of coercive force,” he adds.

“Granted without conceding to the fact that Daily Trust erred in its reportage of military operations against insurgents, the ideal thing to do was to approach the court and obtain a restraining order against the media house and not laying siege and harassing journalists,” says Gbadebo Asiwaju, an editor with Leadership Newspapers.

Legality

“There is no justification for the invasion in the eyes of the law. It didn’t follow due process and it assaulted the freedom of information law,” says Isichei Samson, an Abuja based lawyer.

“If there is any clash or crisis between both, they should resort to the law or diplomacy to resolve such matters. The army should have explored legal or diplomatic procedure when it felt the newspaper by its action put national security in jeopardy instead of self-help.

“Even in the military era when press freedom was curbed, the military juntas at times invited editors to parleys whenever they felt uncomfortable about any report,” Mr Isichei said.

“Security Matters, Not A Tea Party”

The media is failing in its responsibility to exercise discretion and necessary restraints required for ensuring peace and stability of the fragile system says an Abuja based security expert, ‘Bakare Demola’.

He requested his real name be withheld.

“Driven only by information dissemination and probably commercial interests, the press appears to have jeopardised national security to the extent that it now looks as if it is at war with the government and especially, the military,” he adds.

“I personally saw the recent military incursion into Daily Trust premises coming,” he added. “The Nigerian media seem to have “weaponised” information dissemination using it to denigrate either the government or the security forces while reporting security matters. This is unbecoming.

“We seem to forget that democracy, human rights and press freedom are useful only to the extent that the geographical expression necessary to express them exists and remains peaceful.

“If Nigeria is ‘overrun’, for instance, through carelessness and indiscretion on the part of any of us, the democracy, human rights and press freedom we desire and flaunts shall inadvertently be in peril.”

He, however, advised the ‘overstressed’ army not to engage the press in “another unnecessary war of attrition”.

“The newspaper erred in reporting such a sensitive information. By their action, they put the military operation in jeopardy. They gave the insurgents information about an impending attack by troops on their locations which is not good,” Akinsode Sunday, a security trainer in Jos also tells PREMIUM TIMES.

“They could as well as waited for the military to carry out its operations before reporting not before. And really, it’s not every information, a newspaper has that it should report/publish. The media work comes with a lot of responsibilities,” he adds.

Global Best Practices

The arguments would no doubt continue for a while. But like a media trainer, Deborah Shapley, puts it in her journal article, The Media and National Security, such conflicts will inevitably occur as the media seeks to keep readers aware of happenings, state authorities will rather want kept ‘secret’.

At times, the press may be forced to make tough calls, she says.

“Defence news whether in the newspapers or on TV ought to be able to do more. A strong case can be made that in a democracy, the media must play the role in assisting that voters are well informed so they will be less influenced by demagoguery or propaganda.

“The media should find ways to cover national security subjects more extensively and in greater depth even if this sometimes may mean discarding professional rigidities,” Ms Shapley submits.

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