15th July 2024
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Abductions, Detentions: Echoes Of Abacha-Era Media Clampdown Resound Under Tinubu

The wave of abduction of journalists that continues to grow under a so-called democratic government has no doubt become a point of concern for media practitioners who now have to worry about their safety as they discharge their duties.

The concerns are not only for reporters, editors and every media practitioner but also for their families and friends who fear for the safety and freedom of their loved ones.

Given the abduction of First News Editor, Segun Olatunji, from his residence in Lagos on March 15, 2024, by the military, to the recent ordeal of Daniel Ojukwu of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism, who was seized by the police on the streets of Lagos, media professionals find themselves in a dire situation reminiscent of Nigeria’s junta era.

This is even as the Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mohammed Idris, said no journalist had been incarcerated under the President Bola Tinubu administration.

According to a statement on Friday, the Minister during a press briefing in Abuja, said, “I have not seen somebody in the life of this administration, for example, who has been put in jail, or who has gone into exile as a result of press freedom.”

Ojukwu went missing on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. His numbers were switched off, and his whereabouts were unknown to colleagues, family, and friends.

FIJ reporter detained

On Thursday, the FIJ made a missing person report at police stations in the area where Ojukwu was headed, However, on Friday, a private detective hired by FIJ tracked the last active location of the journalist’s phones to an address in Isheri Olofin, a location FIJ believed was where the police picked him up.

Ojukwu’s family later got wind of his detention at the State Criminal Investigation Department, Panti, where they were made to understand the authorities were accusing him of violating the 2015 Cybercrime Act.

His abduction came at a time when Nigerian journalists, last Thursday, joined their counterparts across the globe to mark the World Press Freedom Day.

FIJ noted that on the same day last year, World Press Freedom Day 2023, men of the Area F Police in Lagos arrested Ojukwu for telling them to stop punching a driver.

Ojukwu was given access to his phone on Sunday following sustained media pressure. He told his employers he had been moved to Abuja from Lagos.

On Sunday, Ojukwu’s employers confirmed a chat with him after four days since he was picked up.

“I’m currently in Abuja; I am at the NPF-NCCC – that’s the Nigeria Police Force National Cybercrime Centre. I arrived this morning, and I was taken into a cell. All I know is that I’m in Abuja. This is the first time I’ve been given my phone since Wednesday. They (the NPF-NCCC agents) said that they were going to ask me questions. So, I’m waiting,” an FIJ report on Sunday quoted Ojukwu as saying.

It is unclear what the reporter’s offence is, but FIJ earlier said it was suspected to have been premised upon a report the embattled journalist did in November 2023.

According to the FIJ, when the Nigeria Police Force National Cybercrime Centre grilled the chairman of FIJ’s Board of Trustees, Bukky Shonibare, at their Abuja office in March, they had mentioned FIJ’s story on how Adejoke Orelope-Adefulire, the then Senior Special Assistant on Sustainable Development Goals to the president, paid N147.1m to an account traced to Enseno Global Ventures, an Abuja-based restaurant, for the construction of a classroom.

The Force Public Relations Officer, Olumuyiwa Adejobi, confirmed that Ojukwu was in Abuja with the police in an interview with The PUNCH on Sunday.

“Yes, that’s their (the NPF-NCCC) office. Where he (Ojukwu) was held before was not their office. If they are the ones handling the case, of course, they would take him to their centre,” he said when asked to confirm if the reporter was with the police in Abuja.

When asked about the details of the petition against the reporter, as The PUNCH learnt, he said, “We will issue a statement on it. I’ve asked the cybercrime unit to brief me.”

When asked if the reporter would be charged to court, Adejobi said, “It depends. I don’t know. They are the ones investigating the case. From whatever they find, if he is to be charged to court, he will, but it depends on the nature of the offence. But I know there is a petition against him.”

Olatunji’s ordeal

Ojuwku’s ordeal is coming just barely two months after Olatunji of First News Editor was abducted. He was only released after about two weeks following sustained media pressure.

Shortly after his release, Olatunji vividly described his ordeal in the hands of the military at a press conference in Abuja organised by the International Press Institute, the Nigerian Guild of Editors, and the Nigeria Union of Journalists.

Narrating his experience, he said, “They handcuffed me and put me into the vehicle. At first, I thought they were taking me to the Directorate of Military Intelligence in Apapa, but then we made a detour to the Air Force Base and straight to the office of the National Air Defence Corps , where we waited for about three hours.

“I didn’t know we were waiting for a military aircraft to pick me up. After a while, when the aircraft came, someone came to me and asked me to hand over my glasses and then put a blindfold on me.”

On April 29, Olatunji alleged that the Defence Intelligence Agency had planned to tarnish his image and spread lies against him using an obscure online news website.

An online report published by Lagostoday.com, titled ‘Online Publisher Admits to False Story Against Gbajabiamila, Seeks Forgiveness,’ claimed that Olatunji had admitted to being contracted to write a false report against the Chief of Staff to the President, Femi Gbajabiamila and that he had also apologised in writing over the report.

The report partly read, “In an unexpected turn of events, Olatunji confessed during an emergency press conference organised by prominent media unions that his detention by the DIA was linked to defamatory articles published against the Head of DIA and the Chief of Staff to the President, Femi Gbajabiamila.

“One such article, titled ‘How Gbajabiamila Attempted to Corner $30bn, 66 Houses Special Investigator Traced to Sabiu,’ caught the attention of authorities and led to Olatunji’s detention.”

But Olatunji, while refuting this in a statement, described the report as tales by the moonlight.

“It’s all nothing but tales by the moonlight told to burnish their already battered image following their unfortunate involvement in a politically motivated matter in their desperate bid to please their civilian overlords. Anyone familiar with the DIA’s modus operandi knows it’s usually an admixture of subtle threat, naked threat, and outright force,” his statement partly read.

He said the DIA should be bold enough to tell Nigerians where such an “emergency press conference” occurred and when. “They should also mention the various media organisations that covered their imaginary press conference,” he added.

He further narrated his ordeal during his detention, saying, “Gentlemen, I’m still struggling to recover from the trauma of my abduction and illegal detention in the DIA underground cell for those 14 hellish days.”

On February 22, a journalist with the Whistler Newspaper in Abuja, Kasarachi Aniagolu, was released from police custody after the female reporter was arrested the previous day by the anti-violence crime unit of the Nigerian Police Force while covering a raid on Bureau De Change operators in the Wuse Zone 4 area of Abuja.

She was arrested alongside 95 forex traders.

In a statement announcing her release, the newspaper said Aniagolu was detained for about eight hours.

“Thanks to the collective efforts of media outlets, human rights organisations, and concerned individuals who amplified the injustice of her arrest. Ms Aniagolu was released on Wednesday night after approximately eight hours of illegal detention at the Anti-Violence Crime Unit of the Nigerian Police Force in Guzape, Abuja,” the statement said.

Last December, the Media Foundation for West Africa condemned the arrest of a journalist, Achadu Idibia, of Daybreak Newspapers and called on the judicial authorities of Kaduna State to dismiss all charges against him.

On November 13, 2023, Idibia was arrested in Kaduna, questioned over a report he published and detained in a correctional facility. The journalist’s September 24, 2023 publication was titled “Kaduna Hajj camp, a national shame, men, women sleep together in overcrowded hall – investigation.”

The MFWA, therefore, called on the authorities to end the case, which violated the journalist’s rights, and to release him unconditionally.

Also, it was reported in December that the staff of Abuja Development Control and members of the Federal Capital Territory Task Force allegedly manhandled, beat, arrested, and detained Godwin Tsa, who is a journalist with Daily Sun while covering a peaceful protest by Abuja mechanics and spare parts dealers.

According to the newspaper, Tsa, who conspicuously displayed his staff identity card on his neck, had pleaded with his attackers that he was not part of the protesters but only carrying out his legitimate work. But his plea fell on deaf ears as he was arrested and hauled in a Police Hilux pick-up truck alongside some of the protesters and taken to the Utako police station, where he was eventually locked up in a cell with criminals.

For about four hours during his stay at the police station, he could not reach his office, family members, or anyone as his seized phone had not been released to him.

When his damaged phone was eventually returned to him, he was forced to delete all the pictures and videos of the protest.

Last December also, TVC confirmed that a blogger and multimedia content creator, Precious Eze, who was taken from his home in the Gbagada area of Lagos by unknown persons, was actually arrested by security agencies in the early hours of Tuesday, December 12, 2023.

An eyewitness told TVC News that the men who took him had identified themselves as security operatives but did not disclose the reason for his arrest.

There was no communication from Eze but it was suggested that he was held at a facility in Lagos.

In late January 2024, Justice Emeka Nwite of the Federal High Court, Abuja, granted bail to a Bayelsa-based news blogger and owner of Naija Live TV, Saint Onitsha.

On November 2, 2023, a Federal High Court in Abuja ordered Onitsha’s remand at the Kuje Custodial Centre over alleged defamation and cyberstalking against the Interim Administrator of the Presidential Amnesty Programme, Major General Barry Ndiomu (retd).

Daily Post reported that Onitsha faced charges in the Federal High Court, Abuja, for alleged cyberstalking in suit numbered FJC/ABJ/CR/492/2023 between the Inspector-General of Police as the complainant and Mienapamo Onitsha Saint as the defendant. He was later remanded in Kuje Correctional Centre following his arraignment.

In October, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement urging authorities in Nigeria to immediately and unconditionally release Onitsha, swiftly drop all charges against him, and stop criminalising the press.

The Coalition for Whistleblowers Protection and Press Freedom in February condemned the arrest and detention of two journalists by the Kwara State Police Command.

On February 7, the editor-in-chief and managing editor of Informant247, an online media outfit, Salihu Ayatullahi and Adisa-Jaji Azeez, respectively, were reportedly charged in a Magistrate’s Court over reports published on November 10, 2023, and February 1, 2024, regarding an alleged corruption in Kwara State Polytechnic.

The journalists were charged with conspiracy under section 27(1)(b), cyberstalking under section 24(1)(b) of Nigeria’s Cybercrimes Act, and defamation under section 393 of the penal code.

The CWPPF condemned  incessant harassment of the newsroom and urged the police to drop all charges against the two journalists.

In October 2023, CPJ urged authorities in Nigeria to drop charges against publishers of the independent news websites,  Just Event Online and The Satcom Media, Babatunde AbdulRazaq and Oluwatoyin  Bolakale.

According to the organisation, which tracks attacks on journalists, on September 11, police officers detained AbdulRazaq and Bolakale over their critical reporting about a local politician.

According to the charge sheet reviewed by CPJ, the September 9 articles contained allegations of abuse of office by Jumoke Gafar, a former principal private secretary to the Kwara State Governor, AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq.

According to the two journalists, their lawyer, and the charge sheet, on September 13, the two journalists were charged with cyberstalking—punishable by up to three years in jail and a N7m fine—and conspiracy—which carries a penalty of up to seven years in jail—under the Cybercrimes Act.

In February 2024, CPJ again urged Nigerian authorities to immediately drop all charges against journalists Adisa-Jaji Azeez, Salihu Ayatullahi, Salihu Taofeek, and Abdulrahman Damilola and allow them to work without fear of arrest.

Echoes of military

The recent ordeals of journalists echo the era of military rule, particularly the dark days of the Abacha regime when media practitioners battled intimidation, arrests, abduction, detention and even deaths in the course of their duty to promote democracy and accountability.

This was prevalent during the regime of General Sani Abacha, who ruled as the military Head of State after seizing power in 1993 until his death in 1998.

During this era, the Abacha regime proved to be a formidable adversary, establishing alarming precedents in its mistreatment of the press. Its tactics included arbitrary detentions, secret military trials, police brutality, enforced disappearances, bombings of media offices, and censorship through bans and seizures of publications.

The reverberations of the regime’s assault on independent journalism were felt across the West African sub-region, leading to an unprecedented decline in press freedom.

In a chilling incident in February 1997, Nigerian security forces abducted a publisher of Razor magazine, Moshood Fayemiwo, in broad daylight from neighbouring Benin. Fayemiwo endured months of torture and solitary confinement, chained to a pipe, until his eventual release in September. This brazen act underscored the impunity with which security agents operated under the Abacha regime.

A Treason and Treasonable Offenses Decree No. 29 of 1993 was used in 1995 by a special military tribunal to convict journalists Kunle Ajibade, Chris Anyanwu, George M’bah, and Ben Charles-Obi for critical reports that did not go down well with the military. The four journalists, who were later released by another government, would have served 15-year prison terms if Abacha were still in power.

In a narrative originally published in TheNEWS shortly after his release from the three-year incarceration and culled on Sunday from    https://www.refworld.org, Ajibade recounted his experiences in an interview with the then Assistant Editor of TheNEWS, Adegbenro Adebanjo.

“I was taken to Makurdi on October 18, 1995. I was not allowed the use of a mosquito net, and that place is mosquito-infested because it is a stone’s throw from the Senie River. They only allowed the net in September 1997. I received chloroquine injections at the end of every month. To this day, I don’t really know what effect the monthly dose will have on my health.

“The meals we received were very poor. We were fed gabsar (corn meal). In the morning, it was kunnu (a non-alcoholic beverage made from corn), and in the afternoon, another corn-based meal. The same thing was repeated in the evening. People were dying because of the poor facilities and the feeding. And when people around me were dying just like that, I felt dehumanised and unsafe. There was no medical care until December 18, 1997, after the death of Maj. Gen. Shehu Yar’Adua. Then the government sent two doctors regularly to give me checkups,” he said in the interview republished by refworld.

For  George M’bah, who was Tell’s senior assistant editor, he said he knew he would outlive the Abacha regime.

In his interview, published on refworld, he said, “Throughout my years of incarceration, I had no access to books. When I arrived at Biu Prison in 1995, they said I could only read the Bible and confiscated all the books I had in my possession.

“Throughout 1996, I never received any medical care, despite the fact that I was ill. They would give me tablets. I don’t know whether it was the correct dose because they called it “’half treatment.’ Yet every two or three weeks, I continued to become ill.”

Also, Chris Anyanwu, who was the editor-in-chief and publisher of a weekly, The Sunday Magazine, served three years of her 15-year jail sentence when she was released in June 1998 by Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar.

As published on refworld, she said, “It was a journey that spanned 1,251 days. I moved 10 times through the nation’s most notorious detention centers, through spooky, forsaken prisons. It was a tour of a world which, even in my worst nightmares, I could never have imagined. I had a taste of life at its most raw, perhaps its lowest and, in the process, got a fuller appreciation of human nature and our creator.”

“Without doubt, I suffered unwarranted punishment and a terrible insult. I am not bitter. I only hope that future generations of journalists are spared the same fate,” she added.

The recent police persecution of journalists is hinged on the Cyber Crime Act of 2015, which prohibited and recommended punishment for electronic messages capable of tarnishing the addressee’s image, among other provisions.

But a human rights lawyer, Inibehe Effiong, posted on his X handle on Saturday and said the provision would not stand a test in court.

“The provisions of the infamous Section 24 of the Cybercrimes (Prevention and Prohibition) Act, 2015, that the police have been using to harass Nigerians have been repealed by the National Assembly and replaced with a radically different and new provision. President Tinubu assented to the amended Act in February 2024.

“Under the new Act, posts injurious to a person’s reputation are no longer a crime,” he wrote.

In an interview with our correspondent, the General Secretary of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Gerald Katchy, said that, according to the constitution, any person who was arrested by the law enforcement agency for the commission of a crime must be brought before a court within “24-48 hours.”

“This means that a police officer can detain you for a maximum of 24 hours. It is illegal to detain an accused or suspect beyond the constitutional provision without a court order, and to deny such a person access to his lawyer, family, or anyone is criminal and a breach of the person’s fundamental rights,” he told The PUNCH.

He said if the journalist had not been invited before his arrest, “the police’s actions in abducting this journalist is an infringement and one too many, which is condemnable. Infringements like this give room to protest, as seen in 2020. I therefore call for his release immediately or charge to court forthwith.”

Attacks on the press in 1996

The Abacha era offered a catalogue of grim attacks on the media practitioners in the country. For example, Paul Adams of Financial Times was imprisoned; Alex Ibru, The Guardian, was attacked; Hillary Anderson of British Broadcasting Corp was harassed; Jude Sinnee, a newspaper vendor, was imprisoned.

Baguda Kaltho of TheNEWS was killed, while George Onah of The Vanguard and Alphonsus Agborh of The PUNCH were imprisoned. Hassan Anwar of the Middle East News Agency was imprisoned and expelled. Also, Okina Deesor, Radio Rivers, Bayo Onanuga of TheNEWS, Richard Akinnola of National Concord, and Godwin Agbroko of The Week were imprisoned at different times.

Dele Alake of National Concord, who is now the Minister of Solid Minerals, was attacked by Abacha’ agents.

Media stakeholders have condemned the trend of attacks on journalists. The attacks are coming despite President Tinubu’s pledge of commitment to press freedom.

In December 2023, President Bola Tinubu reiterated his administration’s commitment to upholding press freedom during a meeting with members of the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria.

The president said, “You have held our feet to the fire, and we will continue to respect your opinions, whether we agree or not. One thing I must say is that I read every paper, various opinions and columnists.”

In a statement on Sunday, the Coalition for Whistleblowers Protection and Press Freedom expressed concern about Ojukwu’s continued detention.

“CWPPF condemns the arrest and continued detention of Mr Ojukwu. Arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists remain unacceptable as it negates the basic principles of democracy.

“The arrest and continued detention of Mr Ojukwu is not only a violation of his fundamental human rights but also an assault on press freedom,” the coalition in a statement signed by Deputy Director, CJID, Busola Ajibola, partly said.

Global human rights organisation, Amnesty International, on Saturday also called on the Nigerian police to release Ojukwu, saying, “Amnesty International is deeply concerned by the arrest of Daniel Ojukwu — a journalist with the Foundation for Investigative Journalism.”

“The Nigeria Police @PoliceNG must immediately release Daniel Ojukwu and end this relentless attack on freedom of the press,”  it added.

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