I am appalled the Kebbi State government could suppress, in a brutish manner, the right of a journalist to report news without hindrance…
There is something ludicrous but nevertheless grave about the ongoing incarceration of The Sun newspaper’s reporter in Kebbi State, Olarenwaju Lawal. The reporter was picked up by police detectives on Monday, December 10, 2018, while he was on an official assignment. His cardinal sin was an online report of the kidnap of a high-profile member of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the state. The report was said to have outraged senior officials of the state government and the police. Lawal was accused of engineering the report, which the police classified as false because he did not contact them to verify the accuracy of the story prior to publication.
The reporter was questioned briefly by police and dragged to a magistrate’s court in Birnin-Kebbi, where he was charged with publishing fake news. This was done even though Lawal had no legal representation. He pleaded not guilty to the one-count charge but that plea did not earn him a temporary release or freedom from prison custody.
Despite the intervention of the state’s branch of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) and despite communication the NUJ national president Chris Isiguzo had with the state and police officials, Lawal’s bid to secure bail has so far been unsuccessful. You would have thought a case such as this would have been sorted out between the state officials, the police, and the management of The Sun newspaper, Lawal’s employer. You would be wrong because Lawal is still in custody and his fundamental rights are being violated. Lawal’s plight would make you wonder whether we are in a democracy or in an authoritarian state. It is only in a repressive state that journalists are denied the right to report news freely. However, we live in Nigeria, a country that marked the return of democracy in May 1999. That was more than 17 years ago. Is Nigeria going backwards or making progress? A country that claims to be a democracy must stick to and respect the principles of democracy. I am appalled the Kebbi State government could suppress, in a brutish manner, the right of a journalist to report news without hindrance, intimidation, harassment or constraints of any kind. In a democracy, journalists have the right to report news, and the public has the right to know how their state is being governed. Rather than preoccupy itself with monitoring, harassing, and intimidating journalists who report critically on the activities of government, the Kebbi State governor and his officials must commit to work tirelessly to provide citizens with basic infrastructure such as good roads, well-equipped hospitals that will take care of the healthcare needs of the people, potable water, steady electricity, and other important services. A state government that runs after journalists with the consuming passion to put them in prison for doing their job is an idle government in search of enemies.
The 19th century utilitarian philosopher, John Stuart Mill, a forthright libertarian and defender of free speech during his lifetime, presented an outstanding thesis in which he argued that it was sacrosanct to silence an opinion because to do so would amount to stifling – the truth. He said a wrong opinion might contain some elements of truth necessary for discovering the whole truth. Mill advocated for an “open marketplace of ideas” because he believed it was the right forum and space in which the “weak and the strong”, men and women, “minorities and majorities” should freely express themselves in their search for the truth. In societies that block journalists’ rights to report without hindrance, the overriding reason has always been to obstruct the publication or broadcast of material that state officials deem inappropriate for public consumption.
The arrest, detention, and ongoing trial of Olarenwaju Lawal, The Sun newspaper’s reporter inKebbi State, should be discontinued forthwith. By continuing to humiliate the journalist and deny him his rights, the Kebbi State government is only squashing a housefly with a jackhammer in its silly attempt to cast a veil of secrecy on its activities. Notwithstanding the nature of Lawal’s report, if at all the report contained certain blemishes, the continued trial of the journalist cannot be justified on any ground. The unfair treatment of Lawal based on phony charges will not uplift public rating of the state government or strengthen the practice of democracy in the state. A professional journalist has an obligation to report news that exposes criminal activities in a state.
The report could motivate the government to strengthen citizens’ security, wellbeing, and address the decrepit state of law and order. Critical news reports must not be perceived as toxins, in the way Nigerian political leaders seem to believe. If the Kebbi State government is uncomfortable with the news reported by Lawal, the best way to deal with the journalist is not to order his arrest and prosecution. The first line of action should be to make an official complaint to the editor-in-chief and other senior management of the newspaper. The idea that a state government can order the arbitrary arrest and detention of a journalist is absurd. The NUJ must resist and challenge tyrannical and Gestapo-style mistreatment of a journalist doing his job in Kebbi State. This is a case of a state governor and his officials exceeding their constitutional powers. Democracy in Nigeria will be imperilled the moment state governors constrain journalists from carrying out their responsibility to the society in which they operate. A docile press is a danger to democracy. An uncritical press contributes nothing to the political, economic, social, and educational development of a society. Just in case state officials in Kebbi State do not know, the press has the social responsibility to scrutinise political leaders. That right is guaranteed in our Constitution and in Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which states unambiguously that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression – and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any medium and regardless of frontiers”.
The Kebbi State government should be reminded that Nigeria is a signatory to Article 19 of the United Nations. It was the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, who encapsulated the factors that inspire citizens to rise against their political leaders.
He said: “The most compelling reasons for revolution throughout the ages are injustice, crushing poverty, marginalisation, rampant corruption, lawlessness, joblessness, and public disaffection with the ruling elite.”
I would argue forcefully that state governors who enjoy immunity from prosecution under our Constitution should not have the right to prosecute citizens. If state governors have the right to sue, citizens should also be accorded the same right to take legal action against state governors. The law must operate on a level playing field. State governors should never forget that power is transient.