By Tajudeen Suleiman
Two incidents happened last week that show a growing pattern of assault on the media and freedom of the press by men of the Nigerian Police Force.
First, Publisher of the online newspaper, Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, was arrested in Lagos by policemen and detained at Area “F” Police station, Ikeja for hours before he was later released.
The police told him his arrest was based on a petition written by someone he was investigating. The petitioner, Lekan Fatodu, a Nigerian-born UK–based public relations practitioner, had written the police alleging that his life was “threatened” by the reporter who only wanted the man’s reaction to allegations that he laundered money for a former minister who is facing corruption charges.
A few days after Sowore was released on bail, another journalist was arrested in similar fashion.
Plainclothes policemen picked up Desmond Utomwen, Publisher of FreshNEWS, another online paper, from his Abuja office.
The policemen, who first called him on phone to get his office address, pretended that they were businessmen with a business proposal.
They stormed his office afterwards and showed him a warrant to search his office and arrest him. His phones were seized and he was not allowed to talk to his family or lawyers before they took him to Area 10 police zonal headquarters.
There, he was told that one Umar Faru, a senior officer of the Nigerian Customs’ Service, wrote a petition against him alleging defamation and threat to his life.
Utomwen asked for evidence of Faru’s allegation and all the police showed him was a text message he sent to him asking for his reactions to the allegation that he was a beneficiary of official corruption.
The journalist had sent the text message since August to get the man’s side of the story before going to press. But Faru never bothered to reply.
In regard for the journalistic ethos of fairness and balance, Utomwen resisted the temptation to publish and waited for Faru to reach him at his convenience. But instead of availing himself the opportunity to clear his name by talking with the reporter, Faru chose to bring the police in.
But, the police did not care to find out whether the journalist had actually published the story, which allegedly defamed Faru. When they were told that the story had not been published, the policemen further asked, among other ridiculous questions, whether he was supposed to be investigating anybody since he was not a policeman and queried why he did not come to report the matter to the police.
They asked him to disclose the source of his information on Faru, to which the reporter declined. He was eventually let off on bail and asked to present himself again on Wednesday.
It is worrisome that a security organisation that is supposed to protect law-abiding citizens is increasingly becoming lawless and allowing itself to be used by unscrupulous persons who obviously wish to compromise the system.
Why would policemen arrest a journalist who was only doing his job in such manner without following due process?
The police did not invite any of the two journalists for a chat before they were arrested and taken into custody like common criminals.
The Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, must act to stop the growing assault on freedom of speech by some of his men who may be acting without authority, and for ulterior and pecuniary gains.
The Nigerian Constitution guarantees all working journalists and news outlets some protection from public officers, especially of the military and security agencies who are charged with the duty to secure and protect Nigeria and Nigerians, their lives and property, and maintain law and order.
Section 39 (1&2) provide that ” every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference; and that without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions.”
Section 22 of the same Constitution stipulates the obligation of the mass media and provides that “the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people.”
Anyone who feels his rights have been infringed by a publication can avail himself of the opportunity to write back or go to court.
Policemen should enforce the law, not break it.