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OPINION: Nigerian Journalists Risk All to Expose Dangerous Truths

By Ezinwanne Onwuka

(Abuja) Nigeria is facing a troubling trend: the increasing arrests of journalists who dare to speak truth to power. Several local journalists have found themselves on the wrong side of the authorities since the start of 2024.

A Year of Unrest

Journalists Daniel Ojukwu (left) and Segun Olatunji (right). Photo credit: X/@pressattackng.
Journalists Daniel Ojukwu (left) and Segun Olatunji (right). Photo credit: X/@pressattackng.

The year kicked off with the abduction of Segun Olatunji from his Lagos home on March 15, 2024 . Unidentified armed men, claiming to be from the Nigerian Army, held Olatunji for two weeks without charges. As the editor of FirstNews, he had published an investigative piece in January about alleged misuse of public funds by President Tinubu’s chief of staff, Femi Gbajabiamila. Following his release, the private-owned online news site removed the story and issued an apology to Gbajabiamila. Olatunji resigned, citing safety concerns for himself and his family.

Another journalist, Daniel Ojukwu, a reporter at the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ), went missing on May 1. He was found in police custody on May 3, accused of violating cybercrime laws after reporting on alleged embezzlement by a former aide to immediate past President Muhammadu Buhari.

May saw more arrests, signalling a coordinated crackdown. Investigative journalist Jamil Mabai from Trust TV was detained by religious police in Katsina State Hisbah while attempting an interview with their spokesperson about a wedding guest being shot by Hisbah officials enforcing a music ban. Madu Onuorah, publisher of Globalupfront Newspapers, was arrested by police officers from Southeast Nigeria who drove more than 250 miles by road from Enugu to Abuja over an alleged defamatory story about a US-based Catholic nun.

The arrest of TruthNigeria’s journalist Ehis Agbon earlier in April marked another low point. Ehis was snatched from his home on April 5 after he shared a report published by the outlet about violence by radical Fulani militants on his social media pages. The report, a detailed account of the destruction of a bridge linking three Benue communities, upset some members of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ).

Press Freedom in Chains

These arrests highlight the severe challenges journalists face in Nigeria, where the media is seen as a threat to those in power. Accusations such as “cybercrime law violations,” “false news,” or “defamation” are often used to silence critical voices.

Detainees are frequently held incommunicado and denied legal representation, with authorities justifying these actions as national security measures. The victims are set free at the behest of the person or body who ordered the arrest, usually following intense media pressure rather than legal processes.

The unrelenting crackdown on press freedom raises serious concerns about free speech and the ability of journalists to hold power accountable. The International Press Institute (IPI) has voiced alarm over this trend.

Nompilo Simanje, IPI’s Africa Advocacy and Partnerships Lead, criticized the Nigerian government for trying to silence dissent and evade accountability, urging authorities to genuinely support media freedom and journalist safety. “It is high time that the authorities in Nigeria demonstrated a genuine intention to uphold the media and guarantee the safety of journalists,” she said.

Government’s Stance and International Reactions

In a January Universal Periodic Review, a UN Human Rights Council publication enabling member states to undergo peer review of their human rights affairs, Nigeria’s Attorney-General and Minister of Justice Lateef Fagbemi claimed the country is one of the safest in Africa for journalists. Journalists in Nigeria are free from “any form of harassment or intimidation,” he said.

However, Fagbemi’s claim is belied by reports. In 2024 alone, the Centre for Journalism and Innovation Development’s (CJID) Press Attack Tracker documented 23 cases of press freedom violations in Nigeria.

On 2024 World Press Freedom Day, Minister of Information and National Orientation Mohammed Idris claimed the Nigerian press has thrived under President Tinubu, who came to power on May 29, 2023. He said the government has “provided the most unfettered access to journalists and provided the enabling environment that has continued to encourage the Nigerian media to grow in leaps and bounds.”

Yet, CPJ’s Press Attack Tracker recorded 37 press freedom violations from May 29, 2023, to May 29, 2024. Also, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Nigeria 112th out of 180 countries in its 2024 World Press Freedom Index. “Nigeria is one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are regularly monitored, attacked and arbitrarily arrested,” RSF remarked.

Nigeria’s constitution and international and African human rights conventions to which Nigeria is a signatory protect press freedom and the right to free expression, but the reality on the ground is starkly different.

As the situation worsens, the future of journalism in Nigeria is at risk. Without urgent action, the country may lose its vibrant media landscape and the critical voices that hold those in power accountable.

Ezinwanne Onwuka is an Abuja-based TruthNigeria reporter.

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