In defence of press freedom

Last week Thursday, more than 300 U.S. newspapers ran editorials promoting press freedom to counter President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media, in a move coordinated by The Boston Globe. The newspaper said the move was to denounce “the war against the free press” asking that editorial boards take a stand against Trump’s words regardless of their politics.

Trump has often attacked some media reports as “fake news” and also called journalists the “enemy of the people” while labeling The New York Times and The Washington Post as “anti-Trump haters” who “do nothing but write bad stories even on very positive achievements – they will never change.”

Do the words sound familiar? Yes, as we could just substitute the name of a minister or one of President Muhammadu Buhari’s numerous aides as their actions show that were it possible, they could have done away with journalists totally. The only difference is that while Trump has been unable to clamp down on journalists more than he would have loved to, our own public officers have succeeded in keeping some behind the bars under Buhari’s watch. Last week too, Jones Abiri, the publisher of the Weekly Service in Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital, was released after over two years in detention.

Men of DSS whisked him away on May 21, 2016 and after detaining him for seven days in Yenagoa, they transferred him blindfolded to Abuja where he was kept in an underground cell. “Yes, I was in underground cell. This is public information, nothing so new about it. It’s a place where, when the light goes off, you don’t see the next person; it is only when the light is on that you know the persons around you. I was also denied of medical care,” Abiri added at a reception organised by the Nigerian Union of Journalists for him at Yenagoa on Tuesday, August 21. It took the combined efforts of journalists and human rights activists in Nigeria and international organisations to secure Abiri’s release.

We all remember how terrible the DSS under its immediate past director, Lawan Daura was and so it was not surprising that they did not even acknowledge that they were holding the journalist. After some time, they declared him a militant, later terrorist, the same line of argument offered by Garba Shehu, one of our president’s spokespersons. A journalist himself, editor, and former leader of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Shehu did not see any need to go a step further and find out what was the issue with his fellow journalist. I could not recollect the information minister saying a word too about Abiri while he was in the DSS gulag. The world is waiting how the DSS will prove its case in court having kept somebody without trial for over two years. Even if one’s heart is made of stone, pictures of Abiri’s wife and children will make one shed tears, they certainly do not look like folks living in opulence.
Also last week, the Nigeria Police through its discredited Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), arrested Samuel Ogundipe, a journalist with Premium Times, for the simple fact that he did his job creditably. Ogundipe it was who sourced and got that interim investigation report on the national assembly invasion by DSS signed by the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris. A report that is only fit for the trash, riddled with bad tenses and other grammatical errors making one wonder how on earth Mr. Idris qualified as a lawyer. Quite fitting too that he sent the report to the then acting president, a professor of Law who, no doubt, must be appalled at the quality of our legal education. Further, a discourse analysis of that report will reveal the many things that ail the Nigeria Police and while successful prosecution of criminals remain a mirage.

The police surreptitiously arrainged Ogundipe in a magistrate court without disclosing his identity as a journalist or that he was arrested because of his dexterity as a reporter. Neither are they aware or maybe pretend not to know that there is a court ruling that journalists cannot be compelled to disclose their source of information. A deputy commissioner of police even boasted that he does not care whether his country was embarrassed or not by arresting a journalist and subsequently freezing his account. Yes, bank account and one wonders what that has got to do with the allegation that Ogundipe possessed stolen property. Not a whimper from anybody in government while the ordeal lasted, so much for journalists in power who will not put in a word for their colleagues. To complete the assault on press freedom was the demolition of Fresh FM building in Ibadan, Oyo State by Mr. “Constituted Authority” who rubbed more salt into the wound by ridiculing the founder’s disability in an interview two days after.

We’ve been there before and journalism survived. We shall survive these latest assaults too and will be here to write about the end of this government like others before it.