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Covid-19: Journalists harassed by Nigeria’s security operatives while covering pandemic

ON the evening of April 26, Kufre Carter, a broadcast journalist had received a disturbing call from Nigeria’s secret police, State Security Service, SSS, asking him to show up for questioning at their head office in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, for an interview.

Earlier in the week, he had released an audio interview, where he spoke to an unidentified medical doctor who exposed shady operations which involved manipulating test figures at the State-owned health facility treating patients of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Uchechukwu Nnatube, the SSS head of operations who spoke to Kufre had told him it was just routine “questions” about the interview he had with the unnamed doctor and to help the SSS get in touch with his source.

However, Kufre didn’t anticipate the interview would lead to an arrest or subsequent detention. When he arrived at the Uyo’s SSS office in the company of his lawyer, Asuquo Augustine, he was taken into custody by operatives of the SSS while his lawyer was chased away from the premises.

His apartment was ransacked by officials of the SSS as they tried to obtain his phones without a warrant while they also harassed his lawyers.

Kufre was denied access to his lawyers and family members while he was detained by the SSS for two days before he was charged at the State’s magistrate court for criminal defamation.

The court agreed to grant him bail if he meets the bail conditions involving a bail bond of three million with a surety who is a permanent secretary in the state ministry or a civil servant above grade level 17 with a letter from his village head attesting to identity as at the time of writing this report the bail conditions were yet to be perfected.

Speaking to The ICIR, his lawyer Inibehe Effiong described the accusation against Kufre by the SSS as baseless because it lacks merit.

“They have no reason to keep Kufre in custody but since they have filed a charge against him then we will meet them in court. The Government simply wants to prove a point because he should not have been arrested in the first place.

“Since he was detained he has been denied access to lawyers and family members which demonstrates the culture of lawlessness in the country,” he said.

Kufre is likely to serve a two – year jail term if convicted, however, Kufre’s plight with security agents is one of the many cases faced by journalists on the frontlines reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.

Tales of woes

On April 1, Michael Ikeogwu, who is also the Delta State Chairman of Nigeria Union of Journalist, NUJ, alongside Matthew Omonigho, a correspondent with the Daily Post was headed to Uvwie local council, to monitor compliance with the lockdown policy in the rural community.

The journalists had attempted to capture on video, officials of the State’s environmental task force who were physically abusing local residents as they forced them to embark on compulsory clean-up of their surrounding during lockdown hours.

However, their ordeal started when they questioned the leader of the task force on why his team was disobeying the lockdown order, he ordered some members of his team to attack them which left Omonigho’s Nikon D3100 camera destroyed in the process.

Before they were detained for 45 minutes, it took the intervention of the chairman of the task force in the State who was contacted on the phone before they were released.

“I wondered what will become of the ordinary man in the society if government officials could assault journalists in this manner even after identifying ourselves,” Ikeogwu, stated.

David Umahi, Ebonyi State governor had ordered the detention of two journalists on charges of breaching the State’s Coronavirus and other dangerous (Infectious) diseases law.

Chijioke Agwu, a correspondent with The Sun newspaper, was detained by the police for more than nine hours on the orders of the Governor for writing a story on Lassa fever which he claimed violated the state’s diseases law.

For Peter Okutu, who reports for the Vanguard newspaper was also locked up by the police after the governor threatened to ban him from stepping into the government house for life after accusing him of publishing “false and damaging” information.

Police officers in Adamawa State enforcing COVID-19 lockdown in the State stormed the office of the NUJ in Yola, Adamawa State before arresting 12 journalists who were working at the facility at the time accessing them of breaking the lockdown order.

When the law is blind

Under the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, which was signed into law in 2015, it covers the administration of criminal justice across the country.

Section 8 of the ACJA makes it illegal for security agencies to arbitrarily detain anyone without a warrant of arrest and in the case where an arrest is made the person is entitled to notification of cause of arrest and accorded humane treatment, having regard to the dignity of his person.

Richard Akinola, a social commentator said the infractions on press freedom in the country have been perpetuated majorly by State governors who are averse to criticism in connivance with the judiciary who allow the harassment of journalists to thrive.

“It’s unfortunate how magistrates and judges in various states do not recognise the place of the law by becoming tools in the hands of state governors. If you look at the case in Akwa Ibom on the detained journalist, the magistrate said a permanent secretary of the ministry should act as surety to fulfil his bail condition.

“If a State governor is a complainant then why should a permanent secretary stand as surety on a case of criminal defamation and also why should the SSS be involved in the case instead of the police. The issues of his illegal detention which breaches the ACJA act was also not broached by the magistrate,” he queried.

Nigeria is ranked 12th out of 13 countries examined by the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, Impunity Index, with the worst records of unsolved murders of journalists.

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