Media and freedom advocates have called on Nigerian security agencies to ensure the safety and protection of journalists as Africa’s largest democracy holds its general election next month.
The experts spoke at a media freedom symposium organised by the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID) in collaboration with the Canada Fund for Local Initiative (CFLI). Speakers from across various sectors participated in the event which was held on Tuesday in Abuja.
The Executive Director of CJID, Tobi Oluwatola, said the dialogue was put together to get experts’ perspectives on ‘Security, Media and Safety’ in the purview of the 2023 general elections. Mr Oluwatola said the conversation is part of CJID’s mission of using journalism innovation to promote democratic accountability and sustainable development.
Nigeria holds its general elections in February and March — the seventh since the restoration of democracy in 1999.
The role of journalists is enshrined in the constitution, Mr Oluwatola said, adding it is “important they (journalists) are protected especially at a time the citizens will be deciding their leaders.”
This position was further reinforced by the keynote speaker, Umaru Pate, who said the 2023 elections will hold in a context of existential trials like “widespread corruption and rise in populism politics and desperate political behaviours.”
Mr Pate, a professor, said from previous experiences, the tension and violence in the country often impact media freedom and safety of journalists in “many forms of personal and organisational risks: legal, financial, psychological, verbal and physical risks such as kidnapping, arrest, censorship, threats, fear, intimidation, harassment, impunity, attacks on media houses, assault, arson, assassination, raids and the confiscation of gadgets and publications.”
A senior journalist with PREMIUM TIMES, Chiamaka Okafor, also shared this view when she spoke at a panel during the event. Ms Okafor was harassed in the course of her work observing the 2019 Kogi gubernatorial election.
Sharing her experience, she said her only “offence was taking pictures some people find offensive” and in search of safety, Ms Okafor had to take a 3-hour bike journey from Kaba in Kogi West to Lokoja, the capital of the state to avoid being attacked.
“One of the challenges journalists face is how the powerful in the society use their power to torment” journalists, she said.
Similarly, Mboho Eno of the CJID said they have had numerous cases of journalists being manhandled and harassed during election observation. Mr Eno said journalism is not a crime. Instead, journalists who monitor elections are doing so within the ambit of the law, he said.
“We have proper identification,” Mr Eno said, “Therefore, our movement should not be restricted, and our assignment should not be hindered.”
In his reaction, Peter Afunanya, the spokesperson of Nigeria’s secret police, the SSS, said some of the experiences shared by journalists were being “exaggerated.”
However, he said, the duty of the SSS at all times is to prevent crime and provide intelligence to other agencies.
Mr Afunanya said journalists have a critical role to play by providing information to the public but they must do so in the most professional way. He said security officials who are meant to protect the citizens face more danger than journalists.
He added the SSS comprises good officials and that the agency is doing more to strengthen its activities to ensure the safety and protection of citizens during the election season.
In agreement with Mr Afunanya’s point, Umaru Gwandu, the spokesperson of the Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, said the government through the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation (OAGF) is committed to a free, fair, credible and violent-free election.
Mr Gwandu said the government respects and is fully aware of several pieces of legislation that guarantee freedom of the press. He said it is not surprising the number of attacks on journalists has been on a “steady decline.”
Quoting data from the CJID’s Press Attack Tracker, Mr Gwandu said attacks on journalists have gone down from 68 in 2019 to 30 in 2021.
In her submission, the Director of Programmes at YIAGA, Cynthia Mbamalu, said security agencies must begin to see journalists as their partners in democratic processes such as election coverage.
To achieve this, Ms Mbamalu said, there is a need to train security agents that will be deployed to election grounds.
“The training of security personnel must also include a human rights perspective that approaches elections first as a civil process, which includes stakeholders that have equal rights to participate,” she added.
Ms Mbamalu called on the government to increase the welfare of security agents.
In the same vein, Dele Alake, the media and communications adviser of the All Progressive Congress (APC) Presidential Campaign Council, said the ruling party has made arrangements to ensure the security of journalists covering the party during the election.
“We will increase the number of security details to ensure that some security agents are around the journalists to protect and ensure they are safe,” he said.