Outrage and disbelief enveloped the country on Sunday after heavily armed soldiers invaded the Abuja head office and other outposts of the Daily Trust newspaper. Soldiers sealed off the newspaper’s offices in Maiduguri (Borno State) and Lagos, chasing away members of staff and carting away computers in an occupation that lasted about five hours. The reckless invasion is a stark reminder of the brutal violations that were pervasive in the dark days of military dictatorship. To curb this illegal and indefensible assault on the media, those who ordered it should be exposed and made to account for their brutish act.
Two journalists – Uthman Abubakar and Ibrahim Sawab – were whisked away from the Maiduguri office. A production member of staff in the Abuja office also suffered arrest. The attack on the newspaper is an attack on the Nigerian media, which, through their unalloyed dedication to duty and patriotism, have been in the forefront of the campaign to enthrone democracy in Nigeria. It is shocking, therefore, that 20 years into the Fourth Republic, the military could still go ahead to seal off a newspaper house.
The military defended their gangster-like assault by alleging that the Daily Trust’s cover story, entitled, “Military prepares massive operation to retake Baga, others,” had detailed how Nigeria had lost territories to a terror group, the Islamic State in West African Province. It also delved into the efforts of the military to recapture them. “The newspaper disclosed details of planned military operations against the Boko Haram terrorists,” a Nigerian Army spokesman, Sani Usman, said belatedly after the irreparable damage had been done. A statement from the Presidency states, “The Federal Government has directed the military to vacate the premises of Daily Trust and the order has been complied with. Issues between the military and the newspaper as they affect the coverage of the war in the North-East will be resolved through dialogue.’’ This is just an afterthought. These premeditated attacks on the media have to stop.
The clampdown evokes a sense of déjà vu. It is an aberration they have been accustomed to. It all began during Yakubu Gowon’s regime when a Port Harcourt correspondent of Nigerian Observer, Minere Amakiri, was brutalised at the behest of the then military governor of Rivers State, Alfred Diete-Spiff. His head was shaved with broken glass for reporting a teachers’ news conference, where they demanded better pay and improved working conditions. Since then, it has been either killing or incarcerating journalists or shutting down newspaper houses for untenable reasons. These abuses hallmarked the dictatorships of Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha.
Buhari’s regime promulgated Decree 4, with which he harassed the media. Under it, Messrs Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor of The Guardian stable were jailed in 1984 for carrying a story on 11 diplomatic postings, which military personnel were the most beneficiaries. The clampdown assumed an alarming turn under Babangida with the murder of Dele Giwa, the founding editor of Newswatch, in a letter bomb, two days after he was quizzed by Military Intelligence officers on a story they considered injurious. In April 1990, his regime proscribed The PUNCH for its story on the Gideon Orkar coup and it remained closed until May.
In 1994, June 11 precisely, Abacha’s goons squad stormed The PUNCH again and sealed off the premises, just as the National Concord and its sister titles suffered the same fate. Many editors were incarcerated during the junta’s era: Chris Anyanwu and Ben Obi of Weekend Classique; Niran Malaolu from The Diet; Femi Ojudu and Kunle Ajibade of the TheNews were jailed for life, for their alleged involvement in a phantom coup. A “final solution” treatment was given to Bagauda Kaltho, a northern correspondent of TheNews with his bombing to death in 1996.
Surprisingly, the jackboot mentality has endured under a supposedly democratic dispensation. But as it refused to be crushed by the military, the press will not surrender its statutory responsibility and journalistic courage to a fleeting government. In June 2014, under Goodluck Jonathan’s Presidency, soldiers and operatives of the State Security Service intercepted and seized copies of Daily Trust, Leadership, The Nation and The PUNCH as they were being circulated nationwide. In some extreme cases, copies were destroyed. The laughable reason the military authorities gave was that “intelligence report” had it that “materials with grave security implications” were being moved across the country, “using the channels of newsprint-related consignments.”
This is the time to say, “Enough is enough.” The military should be made to respect the rule of law and democratic values. In 1964, the United States Supreme Court said, “Public discussion is a political duty.” That discussion must be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” and “may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” The Nigerian press is an inseparable part of democracy. As the Fourth Estate of the Realm, Section 22 of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution provides that “the press, radio, television and other agencies of mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.” As other critical democratic institutions are not perfect, so also is the press. As The Registrar, a US newspaper, argued pointedly, the press is not the enemy of the people. Its primary goal is to provide information to the public and provide a check on all three branches of government. This is critical in a democracy.
Of course, there is no denying that the media, covering fast-breaking news events on a 24-hour cycle, are prone to mistakes. Errors of fact and misguided news judgement are foibles of the profession. So is the appearance of bias. “The plain task of finding out what is true and making it comprehensible and interesting is an honourable trade. Honest journalism is a vital part of any decent society. Fearless journalism is a sign, and a part of the defences, of any free society,” says The Guardian of London.
However, in a democracy, there can be no excuse under the sun for soldiers to raid a newspaper outfit. This is a gratuitous assault on democracy, free speech and media freedom. The Nigerian press cannot be cowed.