Press Freedom and attack on journalists

By Editor   |   02 May 2010   |   10:00 pm  

AS the international community celebrates the world press freedom day today, it is sad that Nigeria is considered one of those countries where journalists have become truly endangered.

Barely five days after the killing last week of a journalist, Mr. Edo Sule Ugbagwu in his home at Egbeda, Lagos, death threats were also issued to four other journalists in different parts of the country. This again underscores the dangers faced by Nigerian journalists in the discharge of their constitutional responsibilities as society’s watchdogs. The various killings and threats are also reminders of the general insecurity of lives and property in the country which government has failed to address properly.

Ugbagwu, 42, was until his brutal murder, Judiciary correspondent of The Nation newspaper. He was shot dead by yet unknown gunmen, making him the fourth journalist in recent times to be killed in circumstances suggesting premeditated homicide. And in a terse statement, unmistakable in its menace, an anonymous GSM phone user promised to deal with Gbenga Aruleba of AIT; Yusuf Ali, The Nation; Olusola Fabiyi, The Punch and Chuks Okocha of THISDAY for allegedly initiating “bad stories and reports” that led to the sacking of Prof. Maurice Iwu as chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)._

Using GSM number 08063623794, the blackmailer stated: “You all have no hiding place. You must be happy now that Prof. Maurice Iwu has been sacked due to your bad stories and reports. We will deal with you soon. Remember Dele Giwa, Bayo Ohu and Edo Ugbagwu? Good luck.” These threats should not be treated lackadaisically, but with all seriousness, considering the gruesome murder of journalists in recent times. The Police should live up to its charge to prevent the commission of crime by ensuring the arrest and prosecution of whoever may be behind the threats.

Godwin Agbroko, Thisday Newspaper editorial board chairman was found shot dead in his car, with the engine running, along Oshodi-Mile 2 Expressway in 2006. On August 17, 2008, Abayomi Ogundeji, a member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board was also waylaid and killed on his way home by gunmen who are yet to be apprehended. Barely seven months ago in September last year, Bayo Ohu, the Assistant News Editor of The Guardian was similarly shot dead in his home, also in Egbeda. About a month ago, Police paraded two men as his killers, saying they were armed robbers, even though the only things they took away were Ohu’s phone and laptop.

The latest case involving The Nation’s Ugbagwu smacks also of pre-meditated murder. The killers shot him on the head and allegedly took nothing from his apartment. Minutes before then, Ugbagwu, who was out with his wife, had cause to return home after receiving a phone call in which he described the location of his home to his callers. He returned home to meet murderers.

Incidentally, two other journalists, identified as Nathan Dabak, Deputy Editor and Sunday Gyang Ewede, reporter, both of The Light Bearer, were reportedly killed (on the same day Ugbagwu was killed) in an outbreak of hostilities in Dogon-Dutse area of crisis torn Plateau State. They were attacked and stabbed repeatedly after running into an angry mob, while on an assignment, and despite identifying themselves as journalists. There were other incidents also involving journalists.

Barely 24 hours after the Ugbagwu killing, the Edo State correspondent of Vanguard Newspaper, Simon Ebegbulem while trying to escape from a car suspected to be trailing him, collided with a house gate and sustained head injuries; his car was damaged. At about the same time, seven armed men broke into the residential apartment of Mr. Kunle Johnson, Calabar Correspondent of The Nation Newspapers and robbed him of money and items worth thousands of naira._

The public concern that these incidents have generated is understandable. There is strong suspicion that they are related to journalism practice and desperate attempts to curtail press freedom. Sadly, the Police have failed to discharge the onus of disproving this suspicion, since none of the cases has been conclusively investigated, years and months after.

The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has appropriately described journalism as an endangered profession, tasking the Police to fish out the killers or lose public respect. The Action Congress (AC) has drawn attention to the similarity in the patterns of the killings. And the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) is holding a rally to demand “comprehensive investigations into the numerous killings of journalists.” The union has also rightly petitioned the police over the threat.

We associate fully with these protests. The Police hierarchy, including the Inspector General, Ogbonna Onovo, and Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Marvel Akpoyibo have promised “wholesale investigation” into Ugbagwu’s killing. It is important that they do their work, and ensure that the latest incidents and the ones before them, as well as the threats to life, do not end up unresolved. Nigerians want the killers and their sponsors brought to justice, be they armed robbers or hired assassins. In particular, we want to know whether these murders are linked with the performance of journalists’ professional duties as the facts suggest; or whether they are inspired by other circumstances.

However, journalists, and other victims of high profile killings, form only a tiny fraction of victims of pre-meditated murder and extra-judicial killings. Numerous similar bizarre incidents abound but are, unfortunately, never reported or investigated.

A recent example is the report in a national daily some days ago, of five men whose bullet-ridden corpses were found dumped in a farmland in Umuahia, Abia State. All the victims had only shorts or trousers on, and all had their hands tied behind them. The Police have failed to resolve too many high profile murders including those of Pa Alfred Rewane, Bola Ige, then Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Funsho Williams, Harry Marshal and Aminosoari Dikibo and others.

These incidents showcase the Police as grossly incompetent and inefficient. They show our society as belonging to an era where life was “short, nasty, and brutish,” and had no value. We challenge the Police to launch an offensive against the killers, and blackmailers, and sustain this until they are brought to book. The killing of journalists is an assault on press freedom; ultimately it is the people’s right to know that is imperilled.



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