From Ogbonnaya Ndukwe, Aba
Newspaper distribution and vending in Nigeria especially in the South East, is becoming more dangerous these days.
In the past, vendors were regarded as a special breed alongside the journalists, who risk their lives to scout for and report the news proper.
However, in recent times, there have been troubling stories on brutality and unwarranted attacks by various security agencies on media practitioners and their ancillary agents.
In Imo and Abia States; security agencies in the wake of the clampdown on pro-Biafra campaigners had bared their fangs on newspaper distributors and vendors.
Many journalists on line of duty, are always under threat and hounded, while vehicles carrying logistics materials for newspaper production get unnecessarily delayed at security checkpoints, with threats to “finish the driver if necessary”, since after the EndSARS protests.
Delivery vehicles of newspaper companies including The Sun Publishing, carrying newly printed newspapers to locations in the Southeast and South south zones, have variously been detained and stopped from plying the Enugu/Port Harcourt Expressway, until daylight.
Also, trucks carrying newsprint had been “arrested” by men claiming to be working on directives from above.
So, with the increase in armed banditry and youth agitation for self-determination in the Southeast, newspaper sellers whose stands have become outlets for leisurely storytelling, seem to have become exposed as unnecessary security risks.
This has been the unfortunate fate of the Aba newspaper sellers who, recently got caught in a flimsy web of ‘assisting and abating acts against the authorities’.
On Sunday, May 30, Anthony Acho, a 77-year old vendor, in the business for more than 50 years in a strategic location in Aba, was arrested by men he thought, had come to buy newspapers from him.
The operatives, identified as members of the Special Weapons Anti Robbery Team (SWART), had on reaching their Eziama Aba Divisional Police station base, accused him of providing information and being a supply-chain to those they referred to as IPOB (Indigenous Peoples of Biafra).
According to reports, attempts to get him released failed as the police authorities allegedly asked for a ‘bail money’ of N100,000 from his relations to effect his release.
This did not go down well with his colleagues, who after an unsuccessful meeting with the authorities, engaged in a peaceful protest in the morning of Friday, June 4.
The Aba Newspapers and Magazines Distributors Association (ANMDA), decried the constant harassments, intimidations and arrests of its members by security operatives with impunity.
In a statement to journalists; the group specifically mentioned the May 30 arrest of Acho, a hypertensive patient, whom the police had denied access to medication of his prescribed routine drugs and refused to be released or charged.
The statement by the group’s Chairman, Ike Celestine, and Secretary, Godswill Okon, said: “We, the members of Aba Newspapers and Magazines Distributors Association, Abia State, wish to use this medium to alert the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Guild of Editors, Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, human rights organizations, Nigerian Bar Association, Federal and state governments, on the constant harassments, intimidations and arrests of our members by the SWART security operatives in Aba.
“A case in hand is the arrest of one of us, Mr Anthony Acho, a 77-year-old man, who is hypertensive.”
It said that Acho had been in police custody since then at Eziama, Aba North where SWART office is located and was refused release, or allowed access to his drugs.
It noted that the refusal was another form by the authorities to gag the press as its members remained street vendors whose duty was to disseminate information to the people.
The vendors called on the State Police authorities, the Abia State Information Commissioner and other relevant authorities to mediate and get Acho released by June 6, or they would suspend sales until he was released and compensated adequately.
Chairman of the vendors, Ike, had told Daily Sun during the protest, that the family of their arrested colleague, had earlier begged the police to accept N30,000 for his release, an amount he said was rejected.
He said there was no going back on their plan to down tools and reach out to their other branches nationwide, should the police continue to keep their member by Sunday.
However, Daily Sun gathered that the Area Commander, the following day, June 5, ordered his immediate release and the septuagenarian reunited with his family after six days in police custody.
Prior to the Aba incident, some vendors and newspaper distributors in Owerri, Imo State, including the sales representative of The New Telegraph newspaper, Chuks Ugwuoke, were arrested for allegedly propagating Biafra and IPOB.
Those arrested were Nnamso Okoro, Nelson Enyiama, Blessing Isinwa, Onyebuchi Iwundu and one Michael.
Ugwuoke landed in police detention for reportedly being in possession of pamphlets from the stable of pro-Biafra activists. He has since been released, but media men in the state expressed fears that, if the matter was not addressed, the situation might lead to endangering press freedom.
Chairman of the correspondents’ chapel of Nigeria Union of Journalists in Imo, Chris Njoku, who spoke jointly with the South East Bureau Chief of the New Telegraph newspaper, Steve Uzoechi, when they led a delegation to the State Commissioner of Police, had decried the harassment, intimidation arrest and detention of some newspaper distributors, sales representatives and circulation staff by the police and called for its immediate stoppage in order not to stifle information dissemination by journalists.
Some police officers believed to be operatives of the Intelligence Response Team (IRT) of the Inspector General of Police had arrested no few than seven newspaper vendors and distribution agents in the state.
One of the vendors who escaped arrest disclosed that the operatives had besieged the No. 5, Rotibi Street, along Douglas Road, Owerri, on that fateful Monday morning, while the circulation of newspapers was in progress.
He said: “As we were circulating our newspapers for the Monday edition, policemen putting on jackets that had IRT inscription swooped on us and started arresting us.
“The ones they took away were those with newspapers that had IPOB stories and the ones they said were against the Government”.
Condemning the clampdown on vendors and journalists in particular, the Coalition of South East Igbo Youth Leaders (COSEYL), said such was a coup against democracy.
President General of the group, Goodluck Ibem, described the attack as a travesty of the Nigeria Constitution that gives citizens right to life, freedom of speech and association.
“Even in a Banana republic journalists are respected. In times of war, journalists are permitted to perform their legitimate duties. Now, why is the army arresting and torturing journalists and vendors in Imo? Are they arresting and torturing them because they are Igbo?
“As representatives of the youths in the South East, we demand a halt to the wanton arrest of journalists, vendors and unlawful, barbaric and wicked killings of Igbo youths. It appears that the army are only efficient when they are deployed to South East zone.
“In South East, the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as enshrined in the Nigerian constitution are threatened by hate, conspiracies and lies,” Ibem stated.