Investigation: Nigerian Journalist, Pelumi Onifade and the Shrinking Civic space

Censorship News Concept: Pile of Censored Newspapers On Scratched Old Wood, 3d illustration

On October 24, 2020, Pelumi Onifade, a journalist intern at Gboah TV, was one of those assigned to cover the unrest at Oko-Oba area of Agege, Lagos. Police officers attached to the Lagos State Task Force arrived at the scene and started shooting live rounds to disperse the crowd. Pelumi was hit. Although still alive, according to his colleague, who went to the officers to identify Pelumi as a journalist and pointed out that he was putting on a press jacket, Pelumi was carried away in the Task Force van. After six days of searching, his family found his body at the mortuary of Lagos State General Hospital in Ikorodu.

Pelumi was the youngest Nigerian journalist in recent memory to get killed by security agents. However, between October and now, there have been several cases of assault and brutalization against journalists and media houses in Nigeria. If one turns to look back on Nigeria’s history, one would see several documented cases of security forces harassing and disappearing journalists.

Press freedom is a vital component of civic space. Its capacity for advocacy and ability to influence political issues is continually trampled upon. According to this Amnesty report, “between January and September 2019, at least 19 journalists and media practitioners suffered attack.” These attacks can be physical or verbal, which often have psychological and emotional impact on the journalists.

Last year, Femi Fani-Kayode, the former Minister of Culture and Tourism, was inspecting state government projects around the country. Each one ended with a press conference. Eyo Charles, one of the journalists at the conference in Calabar, asked that Fani-Kayode disclose who was bankrolling him. It would appear he did not like the question, an important one that required an answer. For over two minutes, he lashed out at the journalist, calling him “stupid,” saying he had a short fuse, that the journalist’s question was “insulting” and he should report himself to his publisher.

In July 2016, Jones Abiri, the publisher of Weekly Source, was arrested for publishing an article on oil blocs in Nigeria. It wasn’t until August 2018 that he was released. Eight months later, the DSS re-arrested him and he was charged with cybercrime, terrorism, petroleum production and sabotage. He told Amnesty International that the DSS wanted him to “confess that I was the leader of a group called Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force, a group I had no idea, concern or knowledge about.”

Mary Ekere, a journalist with The Post Newspaper, was arrested and detained in Uyo for taking photographs of brutality by state officials. Jaa’far Jaa’far, an investigative journalist and editor-in-chief of Daily Nigerian, is facing charges for publishing videos of a Nigerian governor receiving a five million dollars bribe. “If freedom of expression or freedom of information is stifled,” he said, “then the government will not have a watchdog.”

Some of the reasons reporters have been attacked or disappeared include filming brutality by state agents, exposing corruption, election coverage, participating in a protest, social media posts, and so on. Assault, treason, cybercrime, terrorism, are some of the court charges against them. These incidents and several others reveal that Nigerian press freedom seems to only exist in the constitution but not in practice. 

On Saturday, June 5, at the Lagos State Judicial Panel on Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses and Other Matters, Pelumi’s father and family lawyer were present, waiting for his case to be heard. Although hopeful that justice will be served, Mr Onifade had little expectation that the case would not be postponed, yet again, to a later date. Prior to that day, the lead counsel to the Lagos State Government, Abiodun Owonikoko (SAN) had said that there was an objection regarding hearing the case. “I have no doubt that the panel will listen to us,” said Lekan Egberongbe, Pelumi’s family lawyer. 

Here he was, Pelumi’s father, mourning his son while also fighting for the right to be heard. According to him, there are speculations regarding why his son was taken all the way to the mortuary in Ikorodu, driving past several other hospitals along the way. He said they probably did it to frame him as one of the local cultists.

This makes one wonder about the many undocumented cases, the bodies unaccounted for. “The cameraman met with the officials of the Task Force who were dragging Pelumi into the van, to identify him as a journalist” said Egberongbe to NewsWireNGR. “It’s harrowing.”  

There are also speculations that Pelumi’s death might be connected to the events of the day Abiodun Bolarinwa, president of the Yoruba Youth Forum (YYF) was driving through a crowd of protesters at Abule-Egba. Bolarinwa came down from his car and started shooting at the people. According to eye-witnesses, two people got injured. Pelumi Onifade filmed this incident, and Nigerians called for Bolarinwa’s arrest. However, no charges have been brought against him. 

“The End SARS was a launch pad to bring to the forefront police brutality,” said Egberongbe during an interview with NewsWireNGR.

Present in court on Saturday was the pathologist who conducted the autopsy on some of those who were killed by police last year. He displayed images of the victims’ bodies on the screen. The photographs were evidence of the atrocities committed—crushed ribs, a gash in a head, clot blood in the chest area, a head opened up to reveal the injuries at the dental area. The doctor gave possible explanations for each injury.

“The pathologist coming around to tell the panel what he saw…this is not something you keep dragging,” said the lawyer. “These are graphic evidence of what really transpired. Just like the case of Pelumi.”

“Between Oko-Oba and Ikorodu,” he continued, “there are several mortuaries. They killed him and thought nobody would search for him there [in Ikorodu],” he said. His anger and irritation at the unjust system was evident on his face. 

“They will be stunned when we start giving evidence,” Egberongbe said. “They will be stunned.”

“The military regime that seized power here on New Year’s Eve has taken strong measures against the Nigerian press, jailing five journalists and, in the view of some, intimidating many others.”

So begins an article published by the New York Times on April 30, 1984. Two weeks earlier, the military head of state Muhammadu Buhari, had issued a decree “granting itself the power to close down newspapers and radio and television stations that are deemed to be acting in a manner detrimental to the interest of the Government. It also assumed the power to imprison journalists for inaccurate reporting or for writing articles that bring Government officials into ridicule or disrepute.” 

Thirty-one years later, Mohammadu Buhari became Nigeria’s elected president. The socio-political atmosphere under his administration has further repressed freedom of speech and media development, which is detrimental to other sectors of the economy. This study shows that “countries do not fully recover economically if their press freedoms are compromised, even if the rights of media are restored… We find that the relationship between press freedom and economic performance varies, particularly depending upon the education level of a nation’s workforce, which is consistent with notions that education can be linked to a demand for a free press.”

Countries with more economic development tend to have freer press and vice versa. It’s a noteworthy cycle. When media professionals are free, the people are informed and equipped to keep the government accountable. It’s impossible to quantify the ripple effects of lack of press freedom on the populace. Internet shutdowns have debilitating effects on the economy. Since 2019, there have been 227 major internet restrictions, costing the global economy $14.6BN. There’s a direct link between free press and a country’s economic development, between poverty and authoritarianism. A recent scenario of this link was when Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, announced that the first Africa office would be based in Ghana. Twitter described Ghana “as a champion for democracy, a supporter of free speech, online freedom, and the Open Internet.”

The press has, over the years, contributed to the development of democracy. Journalists play a crucial role in empowering the citizens and promoting human rights. The harassment and attacks journalists face can be attributed to the importance and sensitivity of this work. According to RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Nigeria is ranked 120th out of 180 countries. Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark top the list, while North Korea and Eritrea are at the bottom. 

There are a lot of factors that hinder press freedom in Nigeria, including legal pressure and direct censorship. Beyond the assault of individuals by Nigeria’s security forces—the Military, Nigeria Police and Department of State Services (DSS)—sometimes media outlets are also targeted. This was particularly apparent during the End SARS protest in October 2020. The National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, fined Nigerian media houses including AIT and Arise News, claiming they used unverifiable video footages from social media during the protests.

Teams of armed security have invaded the offices of media outlets across the country. There was a similar raid at the Premium Times office, followed by the arrest of the publisher. On January 6, 2019, the invasion was at Daily Trust Newspapers offices in Lagos, Abuja and Maiduguri. The management of the outlet later recounted that the incidents occurred because of their in-depth stories on “the Boko Haram crisis in the North East, the farmers and herders’ crisis in the North Central, banditry in the North West and then the kidnapping all over the country.”

Across the world, the free press is under attack. According to Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, 1402 journalists have been killed between 1992 and 2001 for several reasons ranging from crossfire, murder and dangerous assignments. Oftentimes, these threats are by authoritarian governments. However, the people sometimes play a role in assaulting media professionals, as in the case of Peter Nkanga, a BBC journalist in Abuja. Since May 20, Nkanga has received dozens of threats and messages by people angered over a recent documentary he aired. Asad Ali Toor, a Pakistani journalist, was recently assaulted by three men, who forcibly entered his apartment.

To achieve press freedom in Nigeria, the government has a duty to protect independent reporters, media agencies, and their journalistic freedom. The current circumstances, however, probes how freedom can be achieved when this protection only exists on paper. Authoritarian governments frustrate the operations of media outlets and the end result, in several cases, is bending to the will of the government, unable to challenge or adequately keep the people informed. Acts of intimidation in different industries, such as telecommunications, for instance, keep citizens in the dark and discourage young people from standing for their rights or even exploring career options in journalism. These have dangerous effects on democracy and quality of life.

The New York Times article from 1984 reports on a cartoon in The National Concord that expressed how journalists have been disenfranchised. “It shows a man, labeled ‘press,’ being led away in handcuffs by a soldier. The man is pleading, ‘But, but, we won the battle together.’”

“Journalists in Nigeria should be free to work without fear of violence or harassment from security forces and private citizens,” says Jonathan Rozen, CPJ’s senior program researcher, tells NewsWireNGR. “Journalists are encouraged to continue to raise the alarm when they are being prevented from working freely.”

Constraints on free press goes beyond assaulting or murdering reporters, there have also been steps to restrict internet access to the general public. In November 2019, two bills were introduced: the Prohibition of Hate Speech bill, and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation bill. The latter, sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa, was to criminalise the use of social media for peddling false information. There were oppositions by citizens and human rights activists because its aim was to gag freedom of speech.

On June 5, 2021, the Federal Ministry of Information, through its Twitter handle, announced the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria. The second tweet says “The Minister said the Federal Government has also directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately commence the process of licensing all OTT and social media operations in Nigeria.” There are concerns that this is a roundabout way to re-introduce the anti-social media bill from 2019. This report by the Foundation for Investigative Journalism, FIJ, reveals that the Nigerian government reached out to the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) to discuss plans to build an internet firewall.

Freedom of expression is continuously under attack by the Nigerian authorities. The Twitter ban has been met by oppositions within and outside the country. Business owners have raised concerns about the paralysing impact of lack of access to Twitter. Poor governance thrives when press freedom is repressed and data shows that a society that does not value free press suffers. Publicly acknowledging the crucial role of journalists in promoting human rights and accountability of leaders is important.

“Freedom of the press exists so that the public can stay informed about what is happening in their communities and the world around them,” adds Rozen during an interview with NewsWireNGR. “Every citizen, therefore, has a stake and interest in defending freedom of the press and the rights of journalists to work safely. The value of citizens’ solidarity for press freedom is tremendous.”

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