AFEX Urges Nigeria Police to Stop Harassing Journalists

The African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) calls on Nigeria’s Police to stop harassing journalists in the country following reports on freedom of expression violations recently recorded in the country.

There have been six recorded incidents of freedom of expression and press freedom violations recorded between January 10 and January 30, 2017. The police was responsible for five of the violations recorded while the court accounted for one violation. Some of the violations included arbitrary arrests, physical assault and censorship. Out of five incidents of arrest and detention recorded, three were bordered around criminal defamation charges.

On January 11, 2017, police arrested citizen journalist, Sowore Omoyele, the publisher of Sahara Reporters Blog, in Lagos for criminal defamation charges.

A UK-based journalist, Lekan Fatodu, had filed a complaint against Mr. Omoyele over criminal defamation, assault, threat to life and blackmail among others. The complainant (Mr. Fatodu) alleged that Mr. Sowore published a story indicting him of money laundering.

Confirming Sowore’s arrest, Ms Dolapo Badmos, the Lagos State Police Command spokesperson, said Sowore was arrested in his home in Lagos by policemen attached to Area ‘F’ command, Ikeja. She said “The publisher was arrested this evening over threat to life and blackmail. Investigation is still going on.”

Mr. Omoyele who later narrated the story on Facebook, accused the police of being hostile towards him. He also accused Mr. Fatodu of assaulting him in the presence of the police.

“I was physically attacked today by a gang led by Lekan Fatodu… he assaulted me before police officers at Area ‘F’ in Ikeja in Lagos”, the post read.

Two days after the above mentioned incident, the Police on January 13, 2017, raided the office of Desmond Utomwen, Publisher of Fresh News, an online portal, and arrested him at about 11.34am in Abuja. The officers also confiscated Desmond Utomwen’s Laptop, Mobile phone, file and other official documents after a thorough search of his office before taking him to the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (FCIID) for questioning.

Mr. Utomwen was accused of criminal defamation and threat to life and property by Umar Farouk, a senior officer of the Nigerian Customs’ Service.

He was denied access to his lawyer and phone by the officers, saying the phone was an exhibit and could no longer be accessible by him. He was further asked to disclose the source of his information on Farouk, to which the reporter declined.

Desmond was granted bail following the intervention of Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Centre against Brutality and for the Safety of Journalists in Africa (CABSOJA).

In another incident, Nigeria’s Police on January 19, 2017, stormed/raided the premises of the Premium Times, a news website and arrested the publisher and the judiciary correspondent Mr. Dapo Olorunyomi and Ms Evelyn Okakwu respectively without a warrant.

The Premium Times was accused by Nigerian Army of alleged defamatory publications against Lieutenant General T. Y. Buratai, Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff and the conduct of   counter insurgency operations in the North. The arrest of the duo followed the refusal of the management of newspaper to retract news stories about the country’s army and its operations. The two journalists were released following widespread condemnation and intense media pressure over their arrest.

Similarly, on January 25, 2017, Nigeria’s security forces arrested, Ms Ujunwa Atueyi, a journalist working with privately owned daily newspaper, The Guardian. Ms Atueyi was arrested for taking pictures of some policemen and officials of the Lagos State Task Force on Environmental and Special Offences Unit who raided some motorists and passers-by in a suburb of Lagos. She was forced to delete photographs she had taken.

On January 29, 2017, Lagos State Police arrested Peter Eke, the publisher of Biafra Times newspaper and nine others for publication and circulation of alleged seditious and malicious materials.

The nine others who were arrested are: Jamiu Eke, Azeez Ayoola, Akeem Adebakin, Bisi Akeem, and Adewumi Temitope. The remaining includes Sakiru Folorunsho, Rafiu Qudus, Kunle Olusola and Ayodeji Odunyinbo.

Fatai Owoseni, the Lagos State Police Commissioner said that the printing press where the newspaper was printed has been shut down and the premises being monitored. According to the Police officer, “This is an offence punishable under the Criminal Law of Lagos State” adding that the suspects would be charged to court as soon as detectives finished interrogating them.

In an unrelated development, a Federal High Court Judge in Abuja, Justice Binta Nyako on January 10, 2017 barred journalists from covering the trial of Nnamdi Kanu, a leader of the pro-separatist group, Indigenous People of Biafra, (IPOB).

Nnamdi Kanu and four others are being prosecuted by the Federal Government on 11 counts bordering on felony. According to reports, the journalists were later allowed into to the court after much protest but were confined to the back and a fabric used to blank them out of the proceedings.

The African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) calls on the police in Nigeria to be mindful of the rights of journalists when carrying out their law enforcement duties.

Also, AFEX expresses great concern about the existence of criminal libel law in Nigeria which continues to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. Criminal defamation in Nigeria is punishable by law with up to two years of prison sentence if found guilty.

We also urge the Government of Nigeria to decriminalise defamation and seditious offences as these laws restrict the enjoyment of freedom of expression. Inasmuch as we call on the government to do so, AFEX appeals to journalists and media professionals in Nigeria and globally, to be more professional and circumspect in carrying out their journalistic duties.