MRA Condemns Attacks on Journalists Covering COVID-19, Calls on Government to Respect Media Freedom

Mr. Ayode Longe, MRA's Programme Director
Mr. Ayode Longe, MRA’s Programme Director

Media Rights Agenda (MRA) has condemned the increasing cases of attacks by law enforcement and security agencies on journalists covering the Coronavirus pandemic and other issues and called on the Federal Government to ensure respect for the fundamental rights of journalists and the media.

In a statement issued in Lagos, MRA’s Programme Director, Mr. Ayode Longe, said: “We are constrained to remind the Federal Government that it has obligations under various international instruments which it has voluntarily acceded to, particularly Article 66(c) of the Revised Ecowas Treaty, to ensure respect for the rights of journalists. We are gravely concerned by the rampant cases of attacks by law enforcement and security agents on journalists carrying out their professional duties as well as the obstruction of such duties. This situation is unacceptable and will no longer be tolerated.”

He cited as one of the latest of such incidents, the attack on March 28, 2020, by an operative of the Department of State Security (DSS) on the Imo State correspondent of Leadership newspaper, Ms Angela Nkwo-Akpolu, while she was taking pictures of a hotel in Owerri where guests were forcibly quarantined by security agents allegedly because the hotel failed to comply with government’s directives on checking the spread of COVID-19.

The DSS operative is reported to have manhandled Ms Nkwo-Akpolu, forcibly seized a pair of prescription eye-glasses belonging to her as well as her ipad and deleted several pictures she had taken. The security agent stopped short of beating her up and smashing her ipad on the ground owing to the intervention of other journalists present at the scene.

In yet another incident, at about 4.00 am on March 30, 2020, a group of soldiers manning a checkpoint at Mbiama, a border town between Rivers and the Bayelsa States, attacked a circulation vehicle belonging to The Punch newspaper, which was on its way to distribute copies of the newspaper in states in the South-South zone, and damaged the car.

According to the driver of the vehicle, Mr Sunkanmi Olusola, when he got to Mbiama, the soldiers stopped him and the driver of the circulation vehicle of The Nation newspaper and refused to allow them to continue their journey. His appeal to the soldiers to allow them to leave apparently angered one of them who brought out a knife and slashed one of the vehicle’s front tyres into shreds. Mr. Olusola said the soldier had initially tried unsuccessfully to smash the windscreen of the Passat Golf 3 car before deciding to use the knife to tear the tyre.

Condemning these incidents, Mr. Longe described as tragic the frequent resort to violence and brutality by law enforcement and security agents in their dealings with members of the public, including journalists, without any civility or respect for the basic constitutional rights of citizens.

He said: “these incidents are doubly tragic because a free press and respect for the rule of law are necessary conditions in a democracy. Unfortunately, these security agents have consistently demonstrated that they are either not aware of these fundamentals of democratic rule or that they have no regard for them. This cannot be allowed to continue unchecked.”

Mr. Longe noted that at a time such as this when the world is confronting an unprecedented public health challenge in the Coronavirus pandemic, the role of the media is more important than ever before, given the imperative of citizens having access to accurate information about the nature of the threat it poses and the means to combat it, among other issues.

He argued that “In a situation such as this, there can be no justification for these types of actions by the Government or its law enforcement and security agencies. The Government has a heightened responsibility to ensure that journalists and the media are able to perform their duties.  This should necessitate taking extraordinary measures to protect journalists and their work and fully implementing all laws aimed at ensuring that journalists and citizens have uninhibited access to information. Unfortunately, we are constantly faced with a situation where the Government, which should be the protector, is the principal impediment.”

Mr. Longe called on Yusuf Magaji Bichi, the Director-General of the DSS, and Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai, the Chief of Army Staff, to call their officers and men to order and provide them with the necessary training about their human rights obligations to citizens and internationally recognized acceptable modes of engagement by law enforcement agents with citizens and civilian populations.