•Media, police chiefs seek end to attacks against Nigerian newsmen
By Simeon Mpamugoh
It was a media roundtable in commemoration of the International Day to End Immunity for Crimes Against Journalists. But the brainstorming session was more like putting the Nigeria Police on trial.
Held at the IPC, Ogba, Lagos, the event was organised by the International Press Centre and the Open Society Foundation.
IPC helmsman, Lanre Arogundade, said the programme was aimed at facilitating a free and safe environment for journalists and other media professionals in Nigeria, and to draw the attention of media and institutional stakeholders to the impunity of attacks on Nigerian journalists.
He said indications from media monitoring and journalists’ safety help desk showed that journalists in Nigeria were subjected to attacks for bringing news and information to the public. He lamented that the security agencies were the principal perpetrators of attacks on journalists.
Equally worrisome, he noted, was the reality that the crimes committed against journalists had never led to any conviction in the country. Such has, therefore, emboldened the perpetrators of the crimes even as it has left a chilling effect on society, including journalists. He condemned the media relegation of issues of journalist’s safety to the inner and back pages while issues relating to politicians were prominent on the front pages.
“The harassment of journalists in the course of their legitimate duties has shown that press freedom still remains under threat in the country despite the efforts that have been made to widen the scope of freedom of expression and uphold the right of the public to know the truth since the return of civil rule,” he said.
Frank Mba, an Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) and former police spokesman in Lagos, represented the Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Mr. Fatai Owoseni, at the session. Mba noted that a major factor that predisposed journalists to risks was the nature of their job, which, he noted, was a risky endeavour.
“If journalists don’t understand this, they would continue to cry, complain and stumble from one problem to another. And this is where journalism and policing have a convergence,” he declared.
He urged journalists to prepare themselves physically and mentally for the challenges of telling the truth, even if doing so oftentimes lands them in trouble.
“The nature of the government in place where a journalist is working is also very important as well as the environment,” he noted. “If you are working in an environment where the government in power is a dictatorship, you must know that, as a journalist, you are in trouble and you must watch your back all the time. But if you are reporting in a democratic setting like we have in Nigeria, where at least progress is being made as evidenced by the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA), the situation is different. And we cannot compare Nigeria of today with Nigeria under the military regime.
“Even if government is not coming after you, criminal gangs, touts and established militant groups and leaders of mafia would come after you when you write something that offends them. For instance, we have been at a time when Boko Haram launched attacks on media houses. It was not an attack by the government but by the organised Islamic sect. So, you must be professional enough in the way you do your job. This helps a lot. But If you engage in acts like blackmailing, blatant and outright distortion of facts, you would be looking for trouble,” he said.
Mba called for understanding between the police and journalists, adding that the conflicts between journalists and the police would be easier to handle if the perception crisis, which historically dates back to colonial rule, were removed.
Said the ACP: “We must continue to work together, create an environment where the police and the media must have constructive engagement. The conflicts between journalists and the police are exaggerated; sometimes they are blown out of proportion. Let the average police officer begin to see a journalist as a partner, because so many crimes the police have been able to solve in the past were because of clues churned out by intelligent journalists.
“There is nothing wrong with the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Nigeria Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) sending resource persons to the Police College as guest lecturers. And when that begins to happen, it will enable us to close the gap between the force and media practitioners.”
In her paper, “The Role of the Guild of Editors in Ensuring the Protection of the Rights and Safety of Journalists,” president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), Mrs. Funke Egbemode, said it was time the Nigeria Police broke away from its history of hostility. “With every degree of responsibility, I’ve not seen the Nigeria Police transit democratically as the nation marks her democracy. Some of the officers behave as though they are still in that same old mindset of dictatorship,” Egbemode, who was represented at the event by Mr. Ken Ugbechie, asserted.
She stated that the NGE understood the need to protect Nigerian journalists, explaining that this had formed part of the guild’s deliberations at its standing committee meetings and different conferences.
She noted that: “When a journalist goes out of his way to blackmail somebody, he is wittingly or unwittingly putting himself at risk, and when danger comes such a journalist shouldn’t run to the Guild or NUJ because we believe in absolute professionalism. However, if a journalist writes a story that is distasteful to anyone, in the spirit of democracy, the court is there to approach, instead of being violent and bestial. The rule of law is the oxygen of democracy.”
Egbemode, who is the Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of New Telegraph newspapers, said the NGE believed that a journalist’s best friend should be a policeman: “That is why, in the media, the Guild encourages her members to treat matters of the police with such degree of preference, not in the sense that when it is black we will call it white, but in the sense that it has a partner in the police. Both have been marked out in the line of fire, so why can’t we work together?”
Also speaking at the event was the Police Public Relations Officer for the Lagos State Command, Mrs. Dolapo Badmus. She described journalists as a special breed because of their responsibility of monitoring government policies and bringing them to critical analysis. She wondered who should be held responsible when a journalist is assaulted but the news does not make the front pages. “When a policeman hits someone because of, say, N100 naira, it makes the cover page, but when he puts his life on the line, disarms armed robbers and arrests kidnappers, it is either not mentioned or tucked away inside the newspaper. Sometimes, it doesn’t get an earpiece treatment,” she said.
She canvassed the celebration of police officers that put their lives on the line, adding that the police have an onerous role to prevent crimes as well as arrest and prosecute offenders.
Badmus, who spoke on the theme “The Nigeria Police and Journalists: Ensuring an Enabling Environment for the Safety and Protection of the Rights of Journalists in Lagos State,” agreed that journalists were an endangered species. She said it was obvious that, when a newsman walked into a territory and there was someone who had something to hide, the person would not want to see the reporter.
She wondered why a journalist would move into a dangerous territory without confiding in the police or any other law enforcement agent: “And even when he is assaulted, does he feed the police back? No! It will just appear in the newspaper and in the social media. And the police have to stumble on it in the media. The funny thing is that most of these assaults don’t even come to the police, yet they are held responsible for the act. When there is an attack, how quickly do we inform the police? At times, it is after the attackers have left the scene that the police would be invited to go after them.”
Guests at the event included Deji Elumoye, NUJ chairman in Lagos State, artiste and Nigeria Police ambassador, Korede Bello, as well as the representative of the Lagos State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Steve Ayorinde.