In the last one week, Nigeria has experienced a throwback to the dark, sad days under the jackboots of its Armed Forces, as soldiers, acting on the directive of the Nigerian Army, launched brazen attacks on newspaper distribution channels in different parts of the country.
The onslaught against newspaper distribution points, vans and vendors in Maiduguri, Ibadan, Minna and several other places, and the seizure of major newspapers in some instances, began on Friday, June 8.
This crude descent to the use of military tactics against newspapers is an unconscionable affront to press freedom and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended). Section 22 of the Constitution, under Chapter 2, which outlines the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy, provides that “the press, radio, television and other agencies of the 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.”
The bid to silence the dissemination of opinion in the media, evidenced by the destruction and seizure of newspapers, also flagrantly flies in the face of Section 39(1) of the Constitution, which states that “every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”.
This disruption of the normal business activities of newspapers is, therefore, illegal and actionable. Already, the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) have condemned the development. The newspaper houses and the NPAN must not waste any time in legally challenging this tyrannical action of the military.
The government’s explanation of this assault on the press is decidedly spurious. Dr. Doyin Okupe, Senior Special Adviser to the President on Public Affairs, described the attacks as the military’s response to intelligence reports that newspaper distribution vans were being used to convey weapons across the country by insurgents.
This position, apparently, does not explain why newspaper vans were delayed for hours on end after they had been searched with no weapons found in them; why sales points and vendors were attacked, and certain newspapers seized.
This siege has achieved nothing other than bringing the government and people of Nigeria to odium, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms. It is not only impetuous and poorly thought out, it is a relic of Nigeria’s sordid military past. No country that is governed by a written constitution, whose provisions are explicit and unequivocal on press freedom, should be caught in the web of such barbaric conduct. In essence, such clampdown should not happen under a democratic government.
This, we believe, is the reason the Presidency has been laborious in its attempt to justify the noxious act. But, its explanation falls irredeemably flat on its face when juxtaposed with superior logic. For example, the military, under civilian rule, has no business continually disrupting the distribution of newspapers under the guise of a nebulous security report. The proper thing to have done if such report is received is to promptly check the vans and let them go about their business. In civilized climes, even this would have been done with the most profuse apologies to the van drivers. Again, the continuation of the searching of the vans, several days after the searches became public, does not make any sense. Certainly, no sensible group would continue using such vans for such sinister purpose, even if such a thing ever existed. The continuation of the searches lend credence to the argument that the target of the military is not to check the movement of arms, but to stymie the dissemination of unfavourable news and opinion articles by the press, the explanation that the authorities have nothing against the contents of the newspapers, notwithstanding.
If the government has any concerns at all about the contents of newspapers, the proper thing to do is to report offending publications to the NPAN, and the Nigerian Press Council (NPC), which is empowered to look into complaints against journalists and the media.
Harassment of newspapers is conduct unbecoming of a civilian government, and Nigerians must watch out as this may be the first step towards authoritarianism. This situation also calls for a reminder to all Nigerians to follow due process in everything they do. If newspaper vans must be checked, it must be done with promptitude and civility, and the vans released.
We urge President Goodluck Jonathan, as Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces to call the military to order because the buck stops on his table. He is expected to come out and be explicit whenever government agencies step outside their bounds.