Detention of Leadership journalists – Punch

By The Citizen

IT is gratuitous and reprehensible of the Goodluck Jonathan administration to have used the police to harass, arrest and detain four journalists with Abuja-based Leadership newspaper over what it called an 'unfavourable' story about the government that appeared in the publication on April 2. It is an unacceptable act in a democratic milieu for the government to resort to Gestapo tactics against harmless journalists who are merely discharging their constitutional duties. No society can develop in an atmosphere of fear and disregard for the rule of law. The administration should stop this banality and repression of human rights. These rights are guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution, which Jonathan swore to uphold.

The overriding necessity now is to prevent more arrests, ideally, by a resort to legal redress.  Thirteen years into our latest democratic experience, the President and the police hierarchy ought to have known that the detention of Mrs. Chinyere Fred-Adegbulugbe, Messrs Chuks Ohuegbe, Tony Amokeodo and Chibuzoh Ukaibe is not only unwarranted, it is an uncivilised way of seeking redress for a perceived slight. This mean act shows that the administration has not learnt anything from our repressive past, when journalists were bruised by military dictators who masqueraded as political messiahs upon assuming power.

Jonathan will do well to remember that he is brutalising the Fourth Estate of the realm that valiantly risked everything it had to fight his cause not too long ago when a tiny, power-hungry, Nigeria-hating cabal was trying to deny him his legitimate right to be the acting president of Nigeria even though it was clear that the late Umaru Yar'Adua was incapacitated and could not continue as president. How can the President forget this so soon, and set about hounding this same media? He should understand that power is transient.

It is inexplicable that Jonathan and Mohammed Abubakar, the Inspector-General of Police, do not know their constitutional limits: the arrest of the Leadership Four is tantamount to hijacking the duties of the judiciary. The detention and questioning, over a 48-hour period, which is just within what the law prescribes, are a gross assault on the right to freely disseminate information. This same administration, in October 2011, illegally ordered the detention of four senior journalists with The Nation newspaper.

Our statutes have adequate provisions to deal with infractions, especially those that border on libel and publication of falsehood. The proper thing for the overzealous minders of Jonathan to do was to have charged the Leadership Four to court if they believed they had committed an offence. An elected government must go through the proper legal channel; a resort to repression is unwarranted. As officials of the Nigeria National Committee of the International Press Institute rightly noted, 'Detaining journalists while investigating their alleged professional infractions is a throw-back to the best-forgotten dark days of dictatorial regimes. The courts, not detention centres, are the proper place to take alleged offenders.'

That exactly is the point. The government's defence that the journalists were arrested for publishing 'falsehood that can create tension in the country' does not sound credible; it is like burying its head in the sand. There are far more serious problems - like fast-tracking the power reforms or tackling the Boko Haram insurgency decisively - that demand more presidential attention than chasing a group of harmless professionals contributing their own quota to the development of the nation.

Suppressing the media via brute force sends a wrong message to the world that Nigeria is operating a dictatorship, not a democracy, and perhaps indicates that the administration is losing its bearing. That goes to the root of the problem. It is an assault on everything that is decent; the President should wean himself from such, even if some misguided aides and political jobbers are misadvising him on how to handle our boisterous media.

Keeping a tight rein on the media will be counter-productive. Many governments had treated the media the same brutal way in the past. However, the President and his strategists should go back to history, which has seen the media surviving every attempt to brutally muzzle it. No government takes on the media and wins. The Jonathan Administration will not be an exception.