BY DAMILOLA BANJO
I grew up watching Crime Fighters, a television programme that shows people who had been arrested by the police for different alleged criminal offenses. For some of these people, what they purportedly stole were so ridiculous; Tin Tomatoes, Instant Noodles and similar food items.
Every Saturday, my brothers and I would watch as these people are being paraded and we would always pass comments. “This one is even lazy. He stole noodles. Ordinary noodles”. We would even joked that they should be tried by Sharia Law which meant that their hands should be amputated so that they would not steal again. Innocently, we had concluded that those suspects were indeed criminals. How could they not be? The police had caught them and they were showing them on the television. They must be criminals!
Three years ago, I became part of those who fed similar content to people in their various homes, including impressionable children like I was some years back. June 2016, I was sent to cover a police press briefing at the command in Ikeja. It was my first assignment covering police press briefing. The police had made some arrests and wanted to show off. On that day, it was an alleged notorious kidnap kingpin, Felix, who had been caught. Felix and supposed members of his kidnapping gang had been evading arrest which meant their eventual arrest seem a thing to celebrate and used as Public Relations for the dented image of the Nigeria Police.
I was at the suspect parade exercise and the green horn I was latched on to the event. I mean, bad news sells and this was as bad as it could get in reporting crimes in the city of Lagos. It was ‘good’ story for me as a young journalist and I didn’t think of it as PR for the police. I was simply happy to write the story of this notorious kidnapper who had just been arrested and would be “sent to court after investigation was concluded”, according to the then Lagos state Commissioner of Police.
What happened to Felix’ case? I did not follow up to know. I was new at the job and I’ve just been introduced to one of the ways to get content for my medium. I didn’t know I was supposed to follow up on the case, so I didn’t bother.
However, with the years came experience. I became wiser and more circumspect of this illegal activity. I follow up on the paraded suspects as much as I could. When Evans the alleged kidnapper was paraded, I followed up and still following up. But it took a sad story of a young boy whose life was destroyed by the police to come to the awakening that the Nigerian Police cannot be trusted and specifically, that not all those paraded as criminals are indeed criminals. Some of them are just poor people who could not pay for bail— which is supposed to be free.
Last year, I did a story of an eighteen year old boy who was arrested by the police on his way from football field and went from football enthusiast to a murderer. His parents could not pay the ransom they were demanding for his bail. Those that were arrested with him got released but he did not have the money so he remained in custody. He was paraded, shabbily prosecuted and for the warped judicial system we have, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He ended up in Kirikiri Prison before LEDAP, an advocacy NGO, got an appeal court to up turn the earlier judgment and acquit him, after 16 long years. His childhood, gone! His youthful years, wasted! All because he could not pay the bail ransom.
One thing has become obvious, this ignoble act of the police keeps festering because the media have become an enabler in legitimizing and stamping mere suspects as criminals. The press are always quick to blast the affirmative headlines? ‘Police nabs two notorious cultists in Ikorodu’, the headlines would scream after these parades.
During these parades, the CP is left to feel like an island of knowledge. The questions are regulated by ‘crime reporters’. As a newbie in the fold, you’re told questions not to ask so you don’t ‘embarrass’ yourself but in actual sense what they want to avoid is the newbie asking questions that would put the CP in bad light or make him actually think of his actions as the leader of a group entrusted with the safety of a state.
I was once called a ‘baby journalist’ by an old reporter who felt I have not blended well because I asked question that the veteran ‘crime reporters’ would ordinarily not ask. I had used a video of the question on my platform and it went viral because it was the question that the people would love for the CP to answer.
The pockets of press associations on different beats are many of the time, the organs used to surpass press freedom. As new journalist to a beat, the association would not readily accept you in. They don’t want an outsider poking into their business. Crime reporters are the worse! We— journalists— talk about them in hush voices and in quiet fora where we know no one would judge us.
Recently, I was in a training that had reporters from across the country and the comments about crime reporters was nothing but awful. Second to them are those at the National Assembly, safe for one or two reporters who would not conform, these ones are not even considered ‘bonafide’ National Assembly correspondents because they would report things the association have been paid to kill. I covered the judiciary for a while and it was the same thing. The association never allowed me in… Bunch of story killers, they are!
In a society like Nigeria where the judiciary is encumbered with so many technicalities and delay, the media is the last hope of the masses. The media should be the place where the masses know that their matters would be brought to the fore and by that instance gain the needed attention but if we keep pushing the narratives of the oppressors, where lies the hope of Jimoh, a 26 year old transport worker who was labeled a criminal and shown to the world as one?
If we must report the charade called ‘suspect parade’ then as journalists, we must tell all the stories. In fact, we should elevate the story of those suspects who would not keep quiet even when their integrity has been soiled by men of the Nigerian Police. We should put our cameras on them and let the world hear them defend themselves against the CP’s accusations. We should follow up on their stories; were they charged to court or held at ransom to be set free? Were they diligently prosecuted and their case thrown out because the IPO would not show up in court. Were they found guilty or acquitted of the offenses they were paraded for? And when we gather these information, do we just say “eeeyah, poor man” and move on or we also report the events after the illegal parade?
The media need to act with the interest of the masses at heart because that is public interest.
Banjo writes from Lagos and can be reached on Twitter; @RealBanjo or email: [email protected]