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Nigeria intensifies crackdown on journalists and free speech

Human rights activists and civil society groups say that the muzzling of the press under President Muhammadu Buhari has raised the spectre of a return to the dark days of military rule in Nigeria and at least three journalists are currently detained in Nigeria. Since 1992, eleven journalists have been killed in Nigeria and a recent Amnesty report stated that between January and September 2019, at least 19 journalists and media practitioners suffered attacks.

“These [recent] incidents suggest a disturbing trend towards repression of freedom of expression and create a climate of fear which may stifle the media,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “Throwing reporters in jail for doing their job of informing the public sends a chilling message to journalists, activists and citizens.”

Omoyele Sowore, an activist and founder of the New York-based online news agency Sahara Reporters, was taken by secret police from a hotel room in Lagos in August. Sowore, who stood as a candidate in February’s presidential elections and usually lives in the US, has been charged with treason, cyberstalking and money laundering for allegedly sharing false and insulting information about the president. Despite being granted bail earlier this month his lawyers said they were denied access to him, and he remains in detention and is currently on hunger strike.

“We sent people to get him; those we sent were teargassed. He has been detained for three months, and it simply means we are back to the days of full-blown dictatorship,” Sowore’s lawyer Femi Falana told CNN.

On Tuesday 12 November, protests calling for Sowore’s freedom took place outside the Department of State Services (DSS), the country’s intelligence agency, in Nigeria’s capital Abuja. An activist told CNN that DSS operatives opened fire to disperse the demonstrators and the journalists covering the protest.

“They attacked us and started firing live ammunition. Two journalists were injured in the chaos, and they even smashed the phones of an activist that got the incident on tape. Instead of them releasing the journalist, they addressed us with bullets,” Deji Adeyanju told CNN.

Jones Abiri, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Weekly Source newspaper, was arrested in May and charged with cybercrime, sabotage and terrorism. The case related to 2016 allegations of links to rebels in the Niger Delta, after which he was detained by Nigeria’s intelligence agency for two years without trial.

On 30 August, federal authorities in southern Nigeria’s Cross River state charged Agba Jalingo, the publisher of the privately owned news website CrossRiverWatch, with disturbance of public peace and treason for his writing and social media posts about Cross River Governor Benedict Ayade. On 24 October, the Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern over a Nigerian court’s decision to grant anonymity to witnesses set to testify against him and deny the public access to the courtroom during the trial.

Buhari, a former army general who has been president since 2015, was also Nigeria’s head of state in the mid-1980s, when he took power in a military coup. At the time he introduced the draconian Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) law, better known as Decree 4. The law targeted the press, criminalising the publication of information deemed injurious to the junta.

Concerns have been raised that journalists in Nigeria are increasingly under threat in the current administration. Jonathan Rozen, Africa research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote in April that the media watchdog had documented cases of assaults and harassment of journalists under Buhari’s government.

In January, Nigerian soldiers invaded the office of a local newspaper in Maiduguri, Borno state, and took away two reporters over an article the army claimed revealed classified information about its anti-terrorism operations in the country’s northeast. Nigeria ranks 120 among 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. The international organization said a climate of violence has made holding the powerful accountable “problematic” for journalists in the nation.

“The situation in Nigeria has escalated to a dangerous and critical place. I’m scared for my husband’s life and the lives of all journalists [..] and frankly, anyone who speaks the truth under Buhari’s rule,” Ope Sowore, the wife of Omoyele Sowore, told CNN.

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