The reason given by unknown persons who sent Short-Message Service (SMS) through their cellphone to four journalists operating in Abuja, the Nigerian Federal Capital Territory a fortnight ago is as important or dangerous, against the background of the increase in the spate of gruesome murder of journalists, as the end which the message sought to achieve.
The unknown persons said they were out to kill the four journalists because their consistent reports against the former chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Maurice Iwu had succeeded in making the government to eventually sack him. The former speaker of the Federal House of Representatives, Mrs. Patricia Etteh was reported to have openly said that her worst enemies are journalists emphasizing in a more direct way that “I will not talk to you people (journalists); you are my worst enemies forever until I go to my grave.” There are a lot of people who would not come out in the open to declare their hatred for journalists but who would brook no sympathy when it comes to eliminating them.
Open attacks and molestation of journalists carrying out their legitimate duties by even security operatives attached to the latter-day big men or women have added serious dimension to the total unsafe terrain in which journalists have been operating. The immediate example of this daylight inhuman treatment against journalists were the recent detention, for nearly three hours, in a disused enclosure, of a Peoples Daily newspaper reporter, Mrs. Adeola Tukuru by the security details of Aviation Minister, Mrs. Fidelia Njeze.
Not quite long after that, a female Magistrate, Mrs. Zainab Bashir ordered journalists who have gathered to cover a case in her court out of the courtroom and went as far as ordering her security details to handcuff one of them, a correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, Mr. Lemmy Ugbegbe. Magistrate Zainab bellowed to her security men “Handcuff him and take him to prison. Tomorrow, I will listen to contempt charge against him. I am not a friend of journalists…let me teach them a lesson.”
Just on Wednesday last week, unidentified people attacked the Daily Trust newspaper bureau office in Jos, Plateau state capital, smashing the window-panes and destroying other valuables without a clue as to the mission of the attackers. All these speak volumes about the pent up anger and virulent hatred, which have led to a wave of killings of journalists across the country. Central to such killings is the politics which is firmly rooted in personal and group vendetta.
Before 1986, Nigerian journalists only had the luxury of hearing the story of murder of journalists from the distance lands. That was when they used to hear of the shooting of Mr. Charles Horman, a freelance journalist in Chile on September 17, 1973 in United States, having been found to be too dangerous to live because he knew too much of America’s principal role in the over-throw of Salvador Allede. That was when they used to hear about the death squads visiting the homes or offices of journalists who wrote “bad” stories about the government in Chile, Guatemala and El Salvador, shooting every moving thing to death in broad daylight.
That was when they used to hear about how Walter Tobago of The Corriers newspaper was gunned down in 1980 and a number of journalists working for the largest newspaper in Japan, Asahi Shimbun were tied to trees and stoned to death. Even at that, journalists in Nigeria, in concert with what late Dele Giwa said in Daily Times of July 4th, 1979 “Every journalist, be it in Akure or somewhere in Soviet Union, should feel concerned at the wanton killing of any journalist anywhere in the world,” empathized with their colleagues in those far away countries.
All through the 30 months in which Nigeria went through civil war, there was no reported incidence of murder of journalist, except an isolated case of the detention of Lateef Jakande for an editorial he wrote in the Nigerian Tribune calling for a return to civil rule. Throughout the colonial era when the fight for self-rule was fiercely fought on the pages of newspapers, the colonialists never raised their guns against journalists.
The worst situation journalists in Nigeria had faced before and immediately after independence in 1960, and even during the long military regimes were detentions in prisons, solitary confinements and at most, physical torture, like Minere Amakari of the Nigerian Observer who, in 1974, was flogged and his head crudely shaved with broken bottle for daring to publish a story on the teachers’ strike in Rivers state at the time the state governor, Alfred Diette Spiff was celebrating his birthday.
However, Nigerians woke up on Sunday, October 19, 1986 to be confronted with the murder, through letter-bomb, of the ace Editor-In-Chief of the bobbling Newswatch magazine, Dele Giwa. The nation was not only shocked at the strange development but rose in unison to condemn it. Ever since then, when the nation went into another long military interregnum, there was only a single incidence of the murder of Bagauda Kaltho of The News magazine. Besides that, the only professional hazards journalists went through were intimidation, molestation, harassment, humiliation, frustration, dehumanization, detention without trial, closure of media houses, threats to life and several others.
Ironically, just when the nation decided to embrace democracy, which was, of course, championed by journalists, the killing of journalists began. The report, last year (2009), of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) placed Nigeria far below the chart of the countries confirmed to be unsafe for journalists to practice their profession against the background of the high rate at which they were being mowed down in cold blood, usually by unknown assailants.
The countries that were rated high as the “unfavourable” territories for journalists because of conflicts and war are Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somali, while other countries that are classified as simply “Unfavourable” because of government policies or individuals’ or groups’ interests are Mexico, Columbia, Pakistan, Philippines, Brazil, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Nepal, Venezuela, Russia, China, Cuba, Palestine, Hunduras, Iran and Burma. And in Sub Saharan Africa, the situation is worse in war-turn countries like Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Eritrea.
In some of these countries that have entered the record of IFJ, like Ethiopia, only four journalists were killed. Nigeria trailed far behind in the record of IFJ only because it was in that year (2009) that the political correspondent of The Guardian, Mr. Bayo Ohun was assassinated. He was murdered by unknown assailants on September 21, 2009. Before then however, there were cases of the cold blooded murder of Tunde Oladipo of The Guardian and Omololu Falobi of The Punch.
In 2008 too, Mr. Abayomi Ogundeji and Godwin Agbroko all of Thisday newspaper were also killed in cold blood in Lagos. Specifically, Mr. Ogundeji, a member of the editorial board of Thisday newspaper and former editor of Comet on Sunday was shot dead by unknown gunmen at a police check-point in Lagos on August 27, 2008. A lady, Miss Tunmise, who was with him when he was killed and who volunteered to be a star witness in the case at the Coroner inquest instituted by the Lagos state government was also shot dead in Sagamu, Ogun state on June 28, 2009 (ten months after the assassination of the journalist). Her assassination came barely two days after she bluntly refused to follow some police men who had gone to force her to a police station for interrogation.
Between 2009 and now, Nigeria has been having a harvest of death of journalists through physical elimination. They are the judicial correspondent of The Nation newspaper, Mr. Edo Sule Ugbagwu in Lagos, who was shot in the head at his number 39 Church street, Shasha-Akowonjo in Lagos at 7.00pm on Saturday April 24, 2010; Nathan S. Dabak and Gyang Bwede, deputy editor and reporter respectively, of Life Bearer newspaper, a publication of Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN). They were murdered in the latest wake of crisis in Nasarawa-Gwom area of Jos North local government of Plateau state.
On June 25, 2009 police in the Task Force team of the Delta state ministry of Land and Urban development forced six reporters who were covering the demolition of illegal structures in Alaba area to lay face-down in a gutter that was oozing with offensive odour. The military people who forced themselves into power may have a way of explaining why they came down hard on journalists, because, for one thing, they are not trained to tolerate “insubordination” from “bloody” civilians like journalists, but what reason would a democratically elected civilian government offer for the far more worse environment it has so far provided the media practitioners?
In other word, it is true that journalists saw hell in the hands of the military guys in power, but they never witnessed the kind of serial murder which the democratic dispensation is now offering them; the democratic dispensation on whose platform ideas are supposed to thrive over and above pettiness.
Journalists who are essentially the carriers and nurturers of gamut of ideas towards the flourishing of true democracy seem to be at the receiving end of the system. The United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, in empathizing with Nigerian journalists, condemned the series of killing and observed: “impunity gives the green light to criminals and murderers, and empowers those who have something to hide.”
Of course, those who have something to hide and are on the loose to eliminate journalists who have passed the stage “in which all they do is to report what a man says” (Dele Giwa 1979), according to IFD, are terror-government or authority, drug barons and politicians. Ki-Moon insists that government has the duty to protect media workers, saying, “This protection must include investigating and prosecuting those who commit crime against journalists.”
Analysts are miffed that despite a series of protests, demonstrations, complaints and appeals by various interests groups, especially the journalists themselves, the government has not bulged; it has not considered it as its duty to protect media workers and above all, to consider the negative consequences of the rising incidence of assassination of journalists in Nigeria amongst the comity of nations.
Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), led by its president, Malam Mohammed Garba, has gone from pillar to post crying itself hoarse, but all that the government has done and is still doing is to abandon the protection of journalists or investigation of the spate of killings of same to the Nigerian police who have the unenviable history of not been able to unravel and bring to justice any one of hundreds of murder cases that piled up across the country. The News Editor of Daily Independent newspaper, Habib Aruna laments that the government’s silence on this image denting antics of the marauding murderers is not helping matters, adding: “We (journalists) are in a society that does not like what we are doing. The society is in darkness and we (journalists) represent the civilized world. We are the light and, unfortunately, they do not want light.”
While the government is still at tea-table feigning ignorance of the magnitude of the problem at hand, the Enugu state commissioner for Inter-ministerial Affairs, Mr. Okezie Nwanjoku warned that the rising spate of killings of journalists is an embarrassment to the entire nation, adding: “It is a disgrace and an embarrassment to Nigeria that journalists are being killed in a country that is not at war or in any crisis,” Nwanjoku said.
While sympathizers of journalists, Mr. Ifeanyi Okonkwo and Action Congress (AC) describe journalists in the present circumstances in which they operate as endangered species because of their fight against the societal ills, the chairman of Enugu correspondents’ chapel of NUJ, Mr. Tony Edike expressed worry that a silent war has been declared by “unknown” enemies against journalists, asking: “What have we done to deserve these gruesome murders? We don’t get allocations or contracts.”
Analysts are of the opinion that from experience, any murder case that is left in the hands of the police for action is as good as a dead case, because they have this uncanny way of continuing to investigate murder case till the second coming of the Christ. They expressed the urgent need for the United Nations, Civil Society Groups and other international human rights bodies to intervene in the slide towards total anarchy against journalists, by goading the reluctant Nigerian government to urgently embark on measure aimed at protecting journalists from harassment, intimidation, threat to life and above all, the menace of assassination.
As late Dele Giwa said in the Newswatch magazine of June 16, 1986: “One life taken in cold blood is as gruesome as the countless number that may go down a pogrom. So, let’s forget about number and talk about life.” The precious life!