MRA Wins Court Battle to End Impunity for Attacks Against Journalists

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Media Rights Agenda (MRA) has won a major legal victory in its battle against impunity for attacks against journalists as it obtained judgment on February 16, 2024 at a Federal High Court in Abuja which ordered the Federal Government to investigate all attacks against journalists, prosecute and punish perpetrators of such attacks and take measures to prevent further attacks on journalists.

In his landmark judgment in a suit filed by MRA against the Federal Government, represented by the Attorney-General of the Federation, Justice Inyang Ekwo held that “journalism and media practice are constitutional professions in their respective rights” as it is the exercise of the rights provided for in Section 39(1) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution that gives foundation for journalism and media practice.

Noting that journalism and media practice impose a duty on the practitioners to source, gather and in most cases visit the locus in quo for information which they are obligated to disseminate, Justice Ekwo said: “The society is better informed, educated, enlightened and properly guided where there is effective press.”

He ruled that “It is therefore a breach of the constitutional right of journalists and media practitioners where they are attacked, tortured, maimed or killed in the course of doing their duty.”

In the suit filed on behalf of MRA by Abuja-based human rights lawyer, Mrs. Mojirayo Ogunlana-Nkanga, on October 26, 2021, the organization complained about the violation of the fundamental rights to life and freedom of expression of Nigerian journalists and media practitioners who were murdered at various times over the last few decades in the line of duty or under circumstances relating to the discharge of their duties as journalists and the failure of the Federal Government to protect them, carry out effective investigation, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of the murders.

MRA named some of the murdered journalists as the late Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch magazine, Mr. Dele Giwa, who was killed on October 19, 1986 by a parcel bomb in his home in Lagos; Ms Bolade Fasasi, a member of the National Association of Women Journalists and former treasurer of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), who was shot dead by three unidentified gunmen in Ibadan on March 31, 1998; Mr. Edward Olalekan Ayo-Ojo, who was found dead beside his car on a road in Lagos in the early hours of June 1, 1999; and Mr. Omololu Falobi, a former features editor of The Punch and founder of the media advocacy group, Journalists Against AIDS (JAIDS), who was gunned down on October 5, 2006, as he left his office in Lagos.

Others are Mr. Godwin Agbroko, the Chairman of the Editorial Board of This Day newspaper, who was murdered by unknown gunmen on December 22, 2006; Mr. Abayomi Ogundeji, a member of the Editorial Board of This Day newspaper, who was shot dead on August 17, 2008; and Mr. Edo Sule-Ugbagwu, Judicial Correspondent of The Nation newspaper, who was murdered in his home in a Lagos suburb by a gang of armed men on April 24 2010.

After reviewing the evidence before the court and the arguments of lawyers for MRA and the Federal Government, Justice Ekwo noted that the crux of MRA’s grouse is that there have been various violations of the fundamental rights to life and freedom of expression of Nigerian journalists and media practitioners who were murdered at various times in Nigeria in the line of duty and under circumstances relating to the discharge of their duties as journalists and that despite the obligations imposed upon the Government under various domestic, regional and international instruments, it has failed, refused, neglected and omitted to effectively investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators of the killings of Nigerian journalists.

He stated that Nigeria ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1993 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) earlier in 1985 and had also signed the ECOWAS Revised Treaty of 1993 in 1993. He also made copious references to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Nigeria has acceded to and domesticated as well as Principle 20 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, adopted in 2019 by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, pursuant to the Charter.

Accordingly, the judge said, “I find that Nigeria having ratified the treaties stated above is legally bound by them and is obligated to enforce same within its territory. The effect of this is that any person who is affected by breach of the terms of such treaty can have recourse to the Court to enforce his/her rights thereof.”

Justice Ekwo said he had studied the Government’s response to MRA’s deposition before the court and found the Government’s averments to be generic in nature and failing to controvert the case made by MRA specifically.

He noted that MRA had stated the names of the journalists killed and when they were killed but that the Government neither denied that the killings took place or that the persons killed were journalists or media practitioners, adding that “The position of the law is that affidavit evidence which is not challenged or controverted howsoever, is deemed admitted and can be relied upon by a Court”.

Besides, Justice Ekwo said, the averments of the Attorney-General of the Federation regarding what the Government has done about the killings are “far too generic in nature to address the issue of specific response of the government to each killing”, pointing out that “A more satisfactory response would be averments detailing the investigation and findings on each killing, and the specific identification of the perpetrators and the action taken thereof.”

The judge said: “The taking of lives by extra-judicial killing is an unconstitutional act. An unconstitutional act cannot take place and nothing is done about it. A breach of the Constitution is an injury to the corpus of the nation. The perpetrators of such killings have demonstrated themselves as lawless people who ought not to be allowed to continue to live freely in the society. The government owes a duty of protection to those whom the Constitution has given fundamental rights.”

He remarked that from the evidence in the case, it is not hard to see that there has been extra-judicial killings of journalists and media practitioners and the action has brought the issue to the fore and that none of the persons mentioned by the Government in its response as having been arrested and prosecuted was linked to the killings complained about by MRA.

Citing Section 39(1) of the Constitution, Justice Ekwo said “freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information are to be exercised and practiced without interference” adding that “By this, the Law forbids whatever act that might amount to assassination, bodily harm or any other impediment in the course of the journalist or media practitioner carrying out his/her professional duty. It is to be noted that the phrase ‘without interference’ confers immunity of a very large degree on the journalist and media practitioner.”

He referred to the Government’s claim about the creation of a Citizens Right Department in the Federal Ministry of Justice, the creation of the National Human Rights Commission, the National Orientation Agency (NOA), the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, and the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), whose core mandate the Government said includes disseminating information to members of the public to educate them on various issues including the prevention of violation of human right of Nigerians which includes that of journalists and media practitioners.

The judge stressed that what is required is not merely the existence of these institutions but effective measures being taken to raise awareness and build the capacities of various stakeholders, particularly journalists and other media practitioners, policy makers, law enforcement, security, intelligence, military as well as other officials and relevant stakeholders on the laws and standards for ensuring the safety of journalists and media practitioners.

He ruled that MRA had “established its case by credible evidence” and was entitled to the reliefs it sought before the court and consequently gave judgment in favour of the organization, declaring that:

• The killing of various journalists and media practitioners in Nigeria is a violation of their fundamental right to life as encapsulated in Section 33 of the Constitution and Article 4 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act, Cap A9. Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004.

• The killing of the journalists and media practitioners while carrying out their journalistic duty is a violation of their rights to freedom of expression and the press as contained in Section 39 of the Constitution and Article 9 of the African Charter.

• The failure of the Federal Government to fulfil its statutory and treaty obligations to guarantee the safety of journalists and other media practitioners in accordance with the provision of Principle 20 of the Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, amounts to a violation of the Declaration and a breach of the statutory duty imposed on it by the African Charter and Nigeria’s treaty obligation under the African Charter.

• The failure of the Government to ensure the safety of journalists and media practitioners who have been attacked as it is required to do by Principle 20 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, is a breach of the statutory duty imposed by the Declaration and the African Charter.

• The failure of the Federal Government to take measures to prevent various forms of attacks on journalists and other media practitioners, including murder, extra-judicial killing, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests and detention, enforced disappearance, kidnapping, intimidation, threats of physical violence, beatings and assault, unlawful surveillance, among others, as required by Principle 20 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, amounts to a breach of the Government’s statutory duty under the Declaration and the African Charter.

• The failure of the Federal Government to take measures to raise the awareness and build the capacities of journalists and other media practitioners, policy makers and other stakeholders on laws and standards for ensuring the safety of journalists and other media practitioners in accordance with Principle 20 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa amounts to a breach of its statutory duty under the Declaration and under the African Charter.

• The failure of the Federal Government to take effective legal and other measures to investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators of attacks against journalists and other media practitioners as well as the Government’s failure to ensure that the victims of such attacks have access to effective remedies in accordance with Principle 20 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, is a breach of the Government’s statutory duty under the Declaration and the African Charter.

• By failing to guarantee the safety of journalists and other media practitioners in accordance with Principle 20 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, the Federal Government has breached its statutory duty under the Declaration and the African Charter and, therefore, bears responsibility and is accordingly liable for the actions and conduct of law enforcement, security, intelligence, military and other officials and agents that threaten, undermine or violate the rights and safety of journalists and other media practitioners.

Justice Ekwo accordingly issued the following orders:

• An order directing the Federal Government to take measures to prevent attacks on journalists and other media practitioners;

• An order directing the Government to investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators of all attacks against journalists and other media practitioners, and ensure that all victims of attacks against journalists have access to effective remedies; and

• An order directing the Government to take measures to raise awareness and build the capacities of various stakeholders, particularly journalists and other media practitioners, policy makers, law enforcement, security, intelligence, military as well as other officials and relevant stakeholders on the laws and standards for ensuring the safety of journalists and media practitioners.