THE Media Rights Agenda (MRA) has condemned the continuous harassment and attacks on journalists in Enugu State.
The organisation also called on the state governor Peter Mbah to immediately stop the ongoing intimidation of one Michael Okechukwu Ilediagu, the publisher of News Center, allegedly orchestrated by his aides.
Ilediagu was said to have been arrested by agents of the government over his reporting on developments in the state, with no evidence that he had committed any offence.
In a statement released on Monday, July 31, by its Deputy Executive Director, Ayode Longe, the MRA said: “We wish to advise Governor Mbah, in the light of the fact that he is new to his office, that the media do not exist to sing his praises but to perform a constitutionally mandated function of upholding the responsibility and accountability of his government to the people.”
Longe said the ongoing attacks on the media by the Enugu government was in violation of the constitution and a breach of the oath Mbah took upon becoming the governor of the state.
The MRA warned that the unwarranted attacks on journalists engaged in the lawful pursuit of their professional duties will not go unchallenged.
“If the situation persists, we will be compelled to activate all constitutional means and international mechanisms available to us to challenge this ongoing illegality which constitutes a clear abuse of office and abuse of power.”
The organisation further called on President Bola Tinubu and the Inspector-General of Police, Olukayode Egbetokun, to order an investigation into abuse of power by police authorities in Enugu State at the behest of the Governor’s Office for the purpose of harassing and intimidating journalists, with the objective of preventing them from performing their constitutional functions.
The statement noted that the victim of the government’s harassment, Ilediagu, had been subjected to intimidation by operatives of the Police Anti-kidnapping Squad in the state, who invaded his home.
According to the statement, the officials of the Enugu State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) as well as other journalists and civil society actors in the state have confirmed that the journalist and publisher continues to face threats and harassment from state government officials.
Noting that it was a crime to use police power to advance the personal and political interests of government officials, the MRA stressed that journalism is not a crime to warrant the use of police units to hound journalists.
The organisation urged Mbah and his aides to abide by the rule of law and allow journalists and media organisations in the state to carry out their professional duties free of any harassment, intimidation or other attacks and threats.
Over the years, there have been efforts to suppress media and the civic space in Nigeria. In 2020, The ICIR reported that 160 journalists were attacked in two years, as the court was ranked 115th out of 180 countries on the Global Press Freedom Index.
In subsequent rankings by Reporters Without Borders, Nigeria dropped to 129th out of 180 countries. Also, The ICIR reported that 63 journalists and three media houses experienced various attacks in 2022.
A survey by The ICIR on Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) in Nigeria, published on June 9, also revealed that 40 organisations faced lawsuits within the past year for reporting or advocating about public concerns.
The survey, with 141 respondents including media organisations, journalists, and civic advocates, found that some of these organisations received up to 10 lawsuits in a year.
Among the 40 organisations that faced lawsuits, only 23 (57.5%) had the capability to defend themselves against the baseless suits, with 13 of them having an organisation size of 1-100 employees.
On the other hand, the survey revealed that 13 out of the 40 organisations lacked resources to pursue some of the filed lawsuits, with 69.2 per cent having fewer than 100 employees.
In addition to the sued organisations, five received threats from the police and state actors within the same period. Out of these, only two had the capacity to defend themselves.
The survey showed that the majority of threats or lawsuits (representing 91.1 per cent) were targeted at journalism organisations.
Stakeholders proffer solutions
Some media stakeholders kicked against continuous attempts to silence critical voices and media organisations and also proffered solutions to tackle the lawsuits and other attempts to frustrate and intimidate journalists and activists.
The stakeholders spoke during a Twitter Space organised by The ICIR on Tuesday, June 6, on the theme, ‘SLAPPThemBack: Examining frivolous lawsuit targeted at dissenting voices’.
The Deputy Director of Journalism Programme at the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID), Busola Ajibola, said collaboration and cross-checking of investigative reports would protect journalists from frivolous lawsuits.
“In the course of my work over the years, I have come to realise that we underestimate how collaboration can protect us. When perhaps we are doing a story that we know will expose us to abuse or libel cases, then we had better come together and do some forms of cross publications.
“The second one on my list is that; I think we need to work together with CSOs to put forward a legislative proposal that is aimed at stamping out SLAPP and in doing that we need to have a clear timeline.”
To tackle lawsuits, the founder of Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ) Fisayo Soyombo suggested building relationships with supportive legal practitioners. However, he noted that sometimes the costs of prosecuting the cases, especially when expert witnesses are needed, require additional funds beyond legal fees.