Safety of Journalists and Culture Of Impunity In Africa (II)

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When the army killed three of the children of Sheik Ibraheem Elzakzaky, the leader of the Shiites in 2014, Mr. Nasiru El Rufai paid a condolence visit to him in his residence in Zaria. He also visited the house to seek the support of the Shiites during the campaign for the governorship election in 2015. And when he won the election Mr. El Rufai sent his sister to thank the Sheik. But following the military attack on the Shiites in December 2015, the Kaduna State Government provided logistics for the mass burial of the 348 citizens who were massacred by the armed troops.

The Kaduna State Government also demised the house of the Sheik and other properties of the Shiites. Even though the government has not issued a white paper on the report of the Garba Judicial Commission of Inquiry which probed the military attack, Governor El Rufai has announced the proscription of the Islamic movement in Nigeria.

Scores of people were killed last week by the army under the pretext of enforcing the proscription. With the assistance of the rampaging troops, youths are reported to have set fire on the properties of the many members of the movement. In justifying the ban of the movement, the Kaduna State Government is said to have relied on the provision of Section 45 of the Constitution.

With respect, a state government has no power to proscribe any society in Nigeria. In Peace Corps v Inspector-General of Police (2012), the Federal High Court held that the proscription of the plaintiff without a court order could not be justified in law. Therefore, the purported ban of the movement without a court order is illegal and unconstitutional. It is hoped that the federal government will restrain the Kaduna State from plunging the country into another religious war.

The peaceful protests to press for the recognition of a Sovereign State of Biafra by the members of the Independent Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) have been violently suppressed by the security forces. In the process, many of the protesters and some members of the public have been illegally shot dead by security forces . The leader of the group, Nnamdi Kanu has been charged with treasonable felony by the federal government and remanded in prison custody by the trial court.

In view of the ongoing negotiations between the federal government and the Niger Delta Avengers the demands of the IPOB members should be addressed by the government. An administration that has entered into dialogue with the satanic Boko Haram sect for the release of the Chibok girls should not hesitate to withdraw the charges against the IPOB leaders and invite them to the negotiation table.

When seven judges were subjected to nocturnal arrest last week by the State Security Service, a section of the media accused the Buhari administration of engaging in Gestapo tactics. The allegation of the humiliation of the judges was well canvassed in the media to the extent that a first time visitor to the country might have been led to believe that criminal suspects are treated with dignity by security forces.

Before then the media had challenged the prison authorities for subjecting an influential criminal suspect to handcuffs. On that occasion I was compelled to condemn the hypocrisy of the media for not criticising the police for putting handcuffs and leg chains on petty criminal suspects.

However, having regard to the anger which has greeted the treatment meted out to the judges, I am compelled to reiterate my demand for the treatment of criminal suspects in strict compliance with the provisions of the Constitution and the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015. Meanwhile, I urge the media to defend the human rights of all Nigerians including the Shiites and the IPOB members and other victims of human rights abuse in the country.

Notwithstanding the claim of the government that press freedom is respected in Nigeria, the harassment of journalists has not ceased. On September 29, 2016, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on the federal government to release at least 11 journalists, bloggers and media support staff who were detained by security agencies across the country. According to the CPJ, “the impunity with which the Nigerian security forces have recently attacked the press is reminiscent of Nigeria’s darkest days of military rule.” See https:/cpj.org/2016/09/nigeria-detains-13-journalists-bloggers-and-media-php#more.

Apart from arrests and detention of journalists, some have been charged to court for criminal libel and seditious publications. Two journalists and the publishers of the Leadership newspapers were charged with forgery and false publications by the Jonathan administration. The case was discontinued when it was found that the government could not secure the conviction of the defendants.

Before then the same newspapers and staff were charged to court for reporting that the late President Yar’adua was indisposed. The editors of The Nation newspapers were also arrested and detained for allegedly forging the signature of former President Obasanjo even though they were not charged to court. The use of the police and the courts to intimidate journalists has continued unabated.

Some journalists who were kidnapped in Delta State to cover an official engagement were freed upon payment of ransom. A notorious militant leader kidnapped them. Even though the government ensured that the abducted journalists were freed, the kidnappers were not prosecuted.

On account of the economic recession in the country, a number of media houses are owing journalists and other media staff arrears of salaries. The development has undermined press freedom and exposed journalists to risk. In order to halt the killings, attacks and kidnapping of journalists, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights has appealed to the member states of the African Union to “fulfill their obligations of preventing and investigating crimes against journalists as well as bringing the perpetrators to justice.”

On September 10, 2016, the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights and the United Nations Educational and Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) convened a seminar on “strengthening judicial systems and African Court to protect the safety of journalists” in Arusha, Tanzania. Seminar participants regretted the lack of enforcement of the judgments of regional tribunals and that access to the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights is restricted to the seven member states of the African Union (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’ivore, Ghana, Mali, Malawi and Tanzania) which have made declarations accepting the jurisdictional competence of the Court pursuant to article 34 (6) of the Protocol of the Court.

In concluding the seminar, it was noted that “currently a decent tool-set to defend journalists is in place; a legal framework comprising both hard norms such as the various treaties and soft ones such as the UNESCO framework, solid jurisprudence from the African Court, and the eagerness of the various actors to make it work. Given the current state of play for press freedom in Africa, what now needs to be done is to figure how these tools can be used better.”

Finally, even though I do not share the optimism of the seminar participants, I am of the strong view that the provisions of local and international human rights instruments have made adequate provisions for the safety of journalists in Africa. But to ensure that the rights of journalists and other citizens are protected, the culture of impunity must give way to the rule of law. In this regard, civil society organizations should pressure the majority of the member states of the African Union to make the declaration allowing NGOs and individuals access to the African Court with a view to securing the enforcement of human rights including press freedom.

While urging the governments of Burkina Faso and The Gambia to comply with the judgments of the Ecowas Court and the African Court with respect to the killing of journalists I am compelled to call on the Nigerian Union of Journalists to ensure that the killers of Dele Giwa and Bagauda Kaltho are exposed and prosecuted without any further delay. However, if the State is unwilling to reopen the investigation the NUJ should pray the Ecowas court to compel the federal government to inquire into the reckless killings and prosecute the suspects.

Concluded

Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, presented this paper at NUJ Forum in Lagos.