Concerns about freedom of expression in Nigeria: journalists arrested, protests repressed


According to the Amnesty International report 'Endangered Voices. Attack on Freedom of Expression in Nigeria', at least 19 journalists, bloggers and media practitioners have been subject to attacks between January and September 2019. These range from physical attacks, verbal assaults, death threats, surveillance, indiscriminate detention to pressure to reveal sources, mostly perpetrated by Nigerian security forces. A peak in media freedom violations also occurred around the 2019 general elections. For those journalists detained and prosecuted, many were charged under the Cybercrime Act and Terrorism (Prevention) (Amendment) Act 2013, and other laws. 

Covering protests: one journalist killed, several physically assaulted, arrested

Precious Owolabi, a trainee journalist for Channels TV died of injuries sustained by live ammunition while covering a protest organised by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) on 22nd July 2019, which also killed eleven protesters and a police officer (see under Peaceful Assembly). 

Police officers allegedly beat two journalists covering a violent protest on 24th September 2019 in Uyo in Akwa Ibom State against a recent ban on motorcycles, according to the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA). Okodi Okodi and Owoidoho Udofia, both journalists for Inspiration FM, and their driver, were approached by police officers when they returned to their car after covering the protest, and reportedly asked to remove their shirts and roll across the floor. Officers allegedly further beat the journalists while at the police station. One person reportedly died during the protests. 

#RevolutionNow protests

On 12th November 2019, agents of the Department of State Services (DSS) reportedly assaulted journalist Oludare Richards of The Guardian and other journalists of Arise Television and Galaxy Television while covering a protest to demand the release of Omoyele Sowore, the organiser of the #RevolutionNow protests in August 2019 (see under Peaceful Assembly and Association), in front of the DSS offices in Abuja. According to The Guardian, Richards was violently shoved, resulting in a head wound and bruises on his arms. Activist Yemi Adamolekun of Enough is Enough Nigeria was also assaulted when she attempted to film the attack on the journalists, according to news reports

On 5th August 2019, Victor Ogungbenro, video editor and cameraman for the online news outlet Sahara Reporters was beaten and detained by police officers while covering the #RevolutionNow protests in Lagos. The journalist said to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that he was slapped, kicked, dragged and sprayed with tear gas despite him having identified himself as a journalist. Ogimbenro was released on 6th August 2019 without charge after he provided a surety for his bail. 

Journalists Jeremiah Achibong of the online news outlet CrossRiverWatch and Nickolas Kalu of the newspaper The Nation were detained by police officers on 5th August 2019 in Calabar, Cross River State, while searching for information on the arrest of journalist Ugbal Jonathan. Jonathan, a CrossRiverWatch journalist, was arrested earlier that day while he participated in the #RevolutionNow protests. Nickolas Kalu was released later on 5th August, while the two CrossRiverWatch journalists were charged with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace, said CPJ, who saw the pair's charge sheet. The two were granted bail and were released on 7th August 2019. Their court date was adjourned several times as the prosecutor failed to appear in court.

In Ondo State, Sahara Reporters journalist Tosin Ajuwon was reportedly manhandled and arrested while he filming the protest in Ore city, despite having identified himself as a journalist. He was held in custody and interrogated for several hours before being released. 

Arbitrary detention and prosecution of journalists

On 8th November 2019, editor of the tabloid First Weekly Magazine, Dipo Awojobi was arrested following a defamation complaint by Olumide Aderinokun, a leading politician of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Ogun State, according to the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA). The complaint is reportedly related to an article published on 1st September 2019 alleging that Aderinokun was under police investigation for bank fraud. 

Editor of NewsDigest, Gidado Yushau, and the media outlet's webmaster Adebowale Adekoya were arrested respectively on 29th October in Abuja and 24th October 2019 in Lagos. According to media reports, the two were brought to Illorin, Kwara State, for further questioning following a complaint filed by a company owned by a Special Advisor to President Buhari, Sarah Alade. The complaint relates to an article published in May 2018 alleging that the company Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industry allows its workers to smoke cigarettes and hemp in the factory. Yushau and Adekoya were released on bail on 31st October 2019. On 12th November 2019, Yushau and the young journalist who authored the article, Alfred Olufemi, were arraigned before a court in Ilorin, Kwara State, where they were charged with defamation and criminal conspiracy. The case was adjourned to 13th January 2020. 

On 24th October 2019, two journalists - Joe Ogbodu of the online media outlet Big Pen Nigeria and Prince Amour Udemude of the newspaper National Mirror - were arraigned before a court in Asaba, in the Delta Province, on four counts of criminal defamation and disturbing the peace, reported the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The charges relate to a story published in Big Pen, accusing a businessman, Sam Ogri, of corruption and of financing youth to create turmoil in the community of Uzere, Delta State, which led to recent violence.  According to Prince Amour Udemude, who spoke with CPJ, he was arrested on 22nd October 2019 on accusations of having shared information on the alleged corruption and violence and was held for 11 hours at the Delta State Police Command office, where he was forced to write a dictated statement before being released on bail. The next day, he was held and questioned for 10 hours. Criminal defamation and disturbing the peace are punishable under Nigeria's Penal Code with up to two and three years in prison respectively. Angela Quintal of CPJ commented: 

"Criminal defamation is an arcane vestige of Nigeria’s colonial era. Laws that criminalise the press have no place in a modern society that aims to respect press freedom."

On 16th September 2019, Mary Ekere, journalist for the newspaper The Post was detained in Uyo, the capital of Akwa Ibom State, after taking pictures of an operation of the Environmental and Waste Management Agency task force at Ibom Plaza. She was released two days later on 18th September 2019. The following day, a court in Akwak Ibom struck out the case, but the journalist was ordered by the magistrate to delete all the pictures she took of the task force operation. Premium Times journalist Cletus Ukpong, who reported on the arbitrary detention, was threatened with imprisonment on the Facebook page of the media outlet by an individual believed to be close to the Governor of Akwa Ibom State, said MFWA. 

Publisher of the online news outlet CrossRiverWatch, Agba Jalingo was charged with treasonable felony and the disturbance of public peace on 30th August 2019. He was arrested a few days earlier on 22nd August 2019 in Lagos, and taken to Calabar, River State, were the media outlet is based. The two charges relate to an article published on 17th July 2019 alleging the involvement of the Governor of Rivers State, Benedict Ayade in diverting funds allocated to the creation of a micro finance bank. According to news reports, Jalingo was also accused of terrorism for allegedly being involved in the #RevolutionNow movement. On 24th October, CPJ reported that the federal High Court in Calabar granted anonymity to witnesses against Jalingo, while the public will have no access to the courtroom during the trial.

On 4th June 2019, a group of police officers brutalised, threatened and arrested journalist Kofi Bartels of the radio station Nigeria Info 92.3 FM after they saw Bartels filming police officers beating a young man in front of his home in Port-Harcourt, Rivers State, according to the journalist who spoke with CPJ. He was reportedly hit with pieces of wood and later threatened with being put in a prison cell where he would be raped by an inmate. An officer also allegedly told Bartels that he has 'been giving them problems for a long time'. The journalist, who identified the officers as members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, was released later that day, without charges. 

On 30th March 2019, journalist Abiri Jones, editor of the newspaper Weekly Source was arrested in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State by armed individuals believed to belong to the Department of State Services (DSS). He is facing charges of terrorism, economic sabotage and fraud for offences allegedly committed in 2016. He is accused of having sent threatening messages to officials at the oil companies Shell and Agip, to have threatened to blow up oil installations and having led a group of people to blow up oil pipes, similar allegations to those made against him previously. His arrest comes only nine months after his release, after spending two years in detention without being presented before a judge, as reported previously on the Monitor. Abiri Jones was released on bail on 24th October 2019.

On 1st March 2019, police officers arrested Obinna Don Norman, editor and owner of the online news outlet The Realm News, during a live broadcast on radio station Flo FM in Umuahia, Abia State. According to the MFWA, Don Norman is accused of allegedly having defamed and harassed the Abia State Senator in February 2018 and was charged with cyber stalking under Nigeria's 2015 Cybercrime Act and anti-terrorism and kidnapping laws of Abia State. 

Physical assault of journalists

A group of journalists, who were conducting an interview as part of coverage of the Commission Nominees at the State Assembly of Ebonyi State in Abakaliki were assaulted and beaten on 30th July 2019 by a group of thugs on the orders of the State Assembly representative for the Afikpo South West Constituency Nkemka Onuma, according to the MFWA. Onuma reportedly interrupted the interview, and threatened to 'slap' the spokesperson for the journalists, Nwafor Samson of the newspaper Nigerian Pilot after the journalists protested against this action. Samson and fellow journalists Ogochukwu Anioke of the newspaper Nation and Grace Egbo of the Tribune Newspaper, who was pregnant at the time, were reportedly injured. The assault was condemned by the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ). 

Three journalists were shot and injured while covering a political rally of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Ikeja, Lagos, on 8th January 2019. It concerns Emmanuel Oladesu of the newspaper The Nation, correspondent for News Telegraph, Temitope Ogunbanke and cameraman for Ibile Television, Abiodun Yusuf.  According to MFWA, the journalists were injured when gunfire broke out between rival groups of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW). Emmanuel Oladesu was reportedly critically injured. 

Newspaper offices raided

On 6th January 2019, security forces consisting of secret police, soldiers and officers of the Department of State Services, raided the offices of the newspaper Daily Trust in the city of Maiduguri, in the north eastern Borno State, and detained two of its journalists, Uthman Abubakar and Ibrahim Sawab. Later on the same day, the headquarters of the Daily Trust in Nigeria's capital Abuja, were also raided by a group of security forces, who confiscated computers and detained the head of editorial production Hussaini Garba Mohammed. Security forces also surrounded the newspaper's offices in Lagos for about five hours. Military spokesperson Sani Usman reportedly said in a statement that the newspaper divulged classified military information in an article published on 6th January, and therefore undermined national security. The article claimed that the Nigerian military had planned an operation to take back the town of Baga and surrounding towns, reportedly seized by a Boko Haram faction in December 2018. Hussaini Garba Mohammed was released the same day, and Ibrahim Sawab early the next day on 7th January. Uthman Abubakar was released on 8th January. 

Media outlet suspended

On 6th June 2019, Nigeria's media regulator, the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC), suspended the broadcasting license of DAAR Communications Limited 'until further notice'. DAAR operates the television channel Africa Independent Television (AIT) and radio station Ray Station, and is owned by Raymond Dokpesi, a member of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The NBC said that the suspension was due to failure to comply with the NBC's directives and provisions of the law. In particular, the NBC accuses AIT and Ray Station of embarking on 'the use of inflammatory, divisive, inciting broadcasts and media propaganda against the government and the NBC for performing its statutory functions of regulating the broadcast industry in Nigeria', and of not meeting its financial obligations. 

According to MFWA, prior to the suspension, on 3rd May 2019, DAAR Communications Limited filed a petition in court, asking it to restrain the NBC from closing DAAR's media outlets, which was granted on 7th June 2019. Despite the court ruling, security forces surrounded the offices of AIT on 8th June 2019, according to the Group Managing Director of DAAR Communications. At the end of June 2019, the NBC lifted the suspension after reaching a settlement with DAAR Communications. 

As reported previously on the Monitor, DAAR Communications accused the NBC of intimidation and muzzling the constitutional right of freedom of expression.

Radio station Jay FM, operating from the city of Jos in Plateau State, was ordered by the NBC to close down on 1st March 2019. In a press statement, the management of the radio station said that agents of the Department of State Services (DSS) entered the radio station's premises demanding that the Station Manager accompany them for questioning, and took instead the Head of Engineering at the radio station, Ojingwa Oji, as the Station Manager was unavailable. Oji was released the same day. The following day the Station Manager was questioned by the DSS, allegedly on the radio station's coverage of the presidential elections of 23rd February 2019. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the NBC issued the shutdown of Jay FM on grounds of alleged violation of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code and the National Broadcasting Commission Act. In particular, Jay FM is accused of 'inciting broadcasts' which could 'lead to breakdown of law and order in the state', according to CPJ who saw the NBC's shutdown order. According to news reports, the radio station resumed broadcasting on 14th May 2019, following an out-of-court settlement with NBC. 

2019 elections: media freedom violations and unprecedented level of disinformation

Nigeria had its presidential and National Assembly elections on 23rd February 2019 and state assembly and governorship elections in 29 (out of 36) states on 9th March 2019. Supplementary elections in five states were organised on 29th March 2019, while governorship elections in Kogi and Bayelsa states were to be held on 16th November 2019. The election campaign was marred by political violence, in which an estimated 626 people were killed between the start of the election campaign in October 2018 and the elections in March 2019 according to the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, a platform of more than 70 CSOs working towards credible and transparent elections. In its final report issued on 30th July 2019, the Situation Room said that the 2019 elections failed to meet the threshold of credible elections. 

There were reports of voter intimidation and violence, both at the hands of security forces and individuals hired by political parties and candidates, vote-buying, rigging and other problems. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Bauchi, Benue, Kano, Sokoto, Plateau and Rivers states were most affected by electoral violence. In addition to the electoral violence, there were attacks by Boko Haram in the north east of the country, violence between herdsmen and farmers, banditry, kidnappings and killings in the Kaduna, Katsina and Zamfara states in the north west of Nigeria.

Several press freedom organisations have highlighted press freedom violations in the run-up to and during the presidential, federal and state assembly elections. Instances of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary detention and physical assault of journalists were reported, perpetrated both by state agents and non-state actors, while some reporters were denied access to polling stations and forced to delete photographs. In addition, an unprecedented level of disinformation on social media, was reported.

Media organisations CPJ, BBC Africa, Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism, the International Press Center (IPC) and others have condemned the harassment and detention of journalists while covering the elections. Some of the reported incidents include:

  • Armed men reportedly stopped the car of Nigeria Info radio station news editor Nonso Isiguzo, and forced Isiguzo and the driver to get out of the car and took the car keys. The two, who were travelling between polling stations in the Ahoada West local government area in Rivers State, were released after two hours.
  • BBC journalist Ajoke Ulohotse was reportedly physically assaulted by a local politician, Segun Adewale in the Lagos-Abeokuta area on 9th March 2019. A police officer and others allegedly assaulted another BBC journalist, Dooshima Abu, while she was filming a procession in front of the Benue State government house.
  • After Premium Times journalist Kunle Sanni took pictures of children in the queue with voter cards in Plateau State on 9th March, 'political thugs' forced him into a car and drove to an unknown destination, where he was compelled to delete pictures. According to the Premium Times, agents of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), instructed thugs loyal to the APC to surround the polling station to prevent the journalist from exiting. After Sanni broke free, he was forced in the car.
  • Officers of the Nigerian army reportedly detained journalists Musa Mingyi, of the newspaper Blueprint and Hamisu Kabir of the Daily Trust newspaper for over an hour in Damatuzu, Yobe State.
  • Collin Ossai of Channels TV station was reportedly blocked from reporting at a polling station in Iruekpe, Edo State.
  • In Lagos State, The Guardian journalist Benjamin Alade was attacked by about 15 thugs at the Community Primary School in Idimu area on 9th March after he took pictures of a group of protesting members of the National Youth Corps who were owed allowances. According to The Guardian, the thugs demanded Alade delete the pictures, and seized his phone after the journalist refused. Alade was reportedly harassed and threatened by police officers when he tried to report the incident at the Odimu police station.
  • A group of journalists, including Amos Tauna of Daily Post, was physically assaulted by political thugs in Kaduna State while they were covering alleged irregularities. Their phones and cameras were reportedly destroyed by the thugs.

The presidential elections of 23rd February 2019 was preceded by disinformation, said Reporters without Borders (RSF). Besides conspiracy theories that were widely spread, supporters of the presidential candidates and the campaign teams of the two main candidates -  incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar - 'weaponised' information by using political disinformation campaigns. Idayat Hassan of the research institute Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) said to RSF:

“Fake news has reached unprecedented heights. The main political parties have turned their campaign headquarters into “fake news factories.” 

President Buhari refuses to sign the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill

In March 2019, president Buhari refused to sign the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill into law, saying that the Bill 'covers too many technical subjects and fails to address any of them extensively', a decision widely criticised by media rights organisations. The Bill, which had been in the National Assembly since 2016, was approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2018. The Bill aims at protecting internet users from infringement of their fundamental rights. 

Akin Akingbulu of the Institute for Media and Society (IMS) said

"The refusal of assent by Mr President will send negative signals to the international community on the government's attitude to freedom of expression and human rights in general as well as its approach to policy-making on issues which are central to building a democracy." 

Following president Buhari's refusal, the CSO Paradigm Initiative engaged with stakeholders to find a way forward for the Bill. A revised Digital Rights and Freedom Bill was submitted to Nigeria's National Assembly, where the first reading of the Bill occurred on 16th July 2019. 

New stringent accreditation guidelines for the National Assembly

Media organisations have denounced the new guidelines for accreditation of media outlets to the National Assembly introduced in May 2019. Some of the new requirements include the submission of proof of media outlets' tax returns for the past two years, proof of circulation of at least 40,000 copies per day (for print media) or 5,000 daily views (for online media). Journalists are required to have at least two years of experience covering the National Assembly. Christopher Isiguzo of the National Union of Nigerian Journalists said to MFWA: 

“We reject this crude abrasion of our constitutional rights to freely disseminate information. It cannot stand."

Peaceful Assembly

#RevolutionNow protests: at least 56 arrested, excessive use of force

On 5th August 2019, people in various cities across the country attempted to gather to participate in the #RevolutionNow protests, or 'Days of Rage' protests. The protests were called by Omoyele Sowore, the publisher of the New York-based online media outlet Sahara Reporters and who also ran as a candidate in the March 2019 presidential elections. Two days before the protests, on 3rd August 2019, Sowore was arrested by the Department of State Services (DSS) in Lagos (see under Association). Heavily armed security forces used tear gas to disperse the protesters at the Lagos National Stadium. Authorities in Rivers State banned the protest. In Ibadan, a heavy deployment of security forces at the entrance of the University of Ibadan prevented protests from taking place In Abuja, a few protesters gathered in front of the offices of the National Human Rights Commission to demand the release of Sowore. At least 56 protesters and journalists (see under Expression) were arrested in the states of Lagos, Cross River, Ondo, Oguna and other states across Nigeria, according to lawyer and activist Inibehe Effiong in a Facebook broadcast on 5th August, quoted in news reports. 

On 12th November 2019, about 80 protesters gathered at the DSS headquarters in Abuja to demand the release of Omoyele Sowore and Olawale Bakare, where DSS agents used excessive force to disperse the protesters. The protest followed a Federal Court order compelling the release of Sowore and Bakare on bail as they met the bail conditions on 6th November 2019, but the DSS declined to release the two. At least three journalists and one activist were reported to have been attacked by DSS agents (see under Expression). According to news reports, security forces used tear gas and fired shots in the air, denied by the DSS. 

Staged protests against Amnesty International Nigeria

On 2nd August 2019, a protest, believed to be staged and sponsored, took place in front of the offices of Amnesty International Nigeria in Abuja, with protesters demanding the organisation to leave the country.  According to news reports, the protest followed reports alleging government plans to place Amnesty International on a surveillance list following the organisation's perceived endorsement of the #RevolutionNow protests and two days after the organisation asked authorities, in a tweet, to respect the freedom of peaceful assembly of the #RevolutionNow movement.  In a statement, Amnesty International Nigeria said it would not stay silent on rights abuses: 

"Despite sponsored protests, we will not stay silent. In the face of efforts to evade responsibility or to smear our organisation, we will continue to raise our voices whenever and wherever we see injustice, sexual abuse, discrimination against women, or any other violations of human rights in Nigeria."

As reported previously on the Monitor, sponsored staged protests, threats and smear campaigns against the human rights organisation have taken place before in Nigeria.

Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) protests: many killed

On 22nd July 2019, at least 11 protesters, a journalist and a police officer were killed and dozens injured during a protest organised by the Shi'a movement Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). Several thousands marched towards the Federal Government Secretariat in Abuja, when clashes reportedly occurred. According to an AFP journalist who claims to have witnessed the protest, police officers initially used tear gas against the protesters, who responded by throwing petrol bombs. Security forces subsequently fired live ammunition, according to the witness. According to authorities, 54 IMN members were arrested. According to a statement by Amnesty International on 5th August 2019, three injured detainees were denied medical assistance and died in custody between 22nd and 24th July 2019, while 15 others, including two minors, were in critical condition and have been held incommunicado at the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) facility. 

On 27th and 29th October 2018, security forces used excessive force during IMN protests in Abuja and neighbouring Nasarawa state, leading to the killing of at least 45 people, according to research conducted by Amnesty International. The human rights organisation said it had credible evidence that the military used automatic weapons during the protests on 29th October 2018, which killed 29 people and injured at least 122 people who sustained gunshot wounds. Osai Ojigho of Amnesty International Nigeria said: 

"We have seen a shocking and unconscionable use of deadly force by soldiers and police against IMN members. Video footage and eyewitness testimonies consistently show that the Nigerian military dispersed peaceful gatherings by firing live ammunition without warning, in clear violation of Nigerian and international law."

IMN has been protesting since the movement's leader Sheikh Ibrahim El Zakzaky was arrested in 2015. Security forces killed at least 350 IMN members between 12th and 14th December 2015. 

Women protest to end impunity for sexual assault by police officers

On 4th May 2019, hundreds of protesters gathered in Abuja to demand an end to impunity for sexual assault allegedly perpetrated by police officers, according to news reports. The protest, organised by women's rights groups and other CSOs, followed police operations which saw dozens of women arrested in raids on bars and nightclubs with some being accused of prostitution. The protesters accuse the police officers of having sexually assaulted some of the women after their arrest. 


Pro-democracy activists arrested and prosecuted for #RevolutionNow protests

Pro-democracy activist Omoyele Sowore was arrested by the Department of State Security (DSS) on 3rd August 2019 in Lagos. Sowore, who is also the publisher of the New York based online investigative media outlet Sahara Reporters and ran as a candidate in the March 2019 presidential elections, called for nationwide protests on 5th August 2019 to demand good governance, under the banner #RevolutionNow or 'Days of Rage' (see under Peaceful Assembly). On 8th August 2019, the Federal High Court in Abuja granted the DSS permission to detain Sowore under section 27(1) of the Terrorism Act, allowing the DSS to detain him for 45 days without being arraigned in court. On 30th September 2019, Sowore appeared before a court in Abuja, where he pleaded not guilty on charges of fraud, treasonable felony, cybercrime and money laundering, among other charges. On 4th October 2019, Sowore was granted bail, but under severe bail conditions Sowore was not able to meet. Later, the Federal Court reviewed the bail conditions, and ordered Sowore's release on 6th November 2019. Sowore remains in detention despite the court order. 

Activist and student Olawale Adebayo Bakare was arrested during the #RevolutionNow protest on 5th August 2019 in Osogbo, Osun State, and is being prosecuted alongside Omoyele Sowore. 

#ArewaMeToo activist detained, released

On 19th February 2019, officers from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) arrested activist Maryam Awaisu, one of the leaders of the #ArewaMeToo movement seeking justice for victims of sexual violence, in her office in Kaduna, the capital of the Kaduna State in the northwest of Nigeria. According to Amnesty International, the SARS officers tried to access Awaisu's phone and laptop by force. Osai Ojigho of Amnesty International said: 

"Maryam and the other brave human rights defenders working with the #ArewaMeToo movement must not be silenced or punished for the vital work they do. For too long, Nigeria’s women have been facing various kinds of sexual violence that seldom receives proper attention from the country’s law enforcement agencies. It is unacceptable that women working on behalf of these victims are subjected to such arrest and intimidation, and we fear that these actions may prevent victims of sexual violence from pursuing justice."

Maryam Awaisu was released a few hours after being detained.