Officers of the Nigeria Police on January 13, 2017 arrested Desmond Utomwen, Publisher of Fresh News, an online newspaper, in his Abuja office at about 11.34am.
Utomwen was accused of criminal defamation of character and threat to life and property. After the officers led by Anthony Enobakhare and ASP Abubakar Iweafeno, showed the warrant of arrest, they searched the publisher’s office and later arrested him.
He was denied access to his lawyer and phone by the officers, citing that the phone was an exhibit and could no longer be accessible by him.
According to a source, “he (Utomwen) demanded for the alleged petition conveying the claims of criminal defamation of character and threat to life and property, which he was accused of. The officers refused and instead did a thorough search of his office for alleged incriminating evidences. At the end, they confiscated his Laptop, Mobile phone, file and other official documents before whisking him away to the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department, FCIID in Area 10, Garki, Abuja, for thorough questioning and tutoring on how to practice journalism”.
Later at the FCIID, Utomwen was given access to see the said petition titled: Threat to life and property. He was told that one Umar Farouk, a senior officer of the Nigerian Customs’ Service, wrote the petition against him alleging defamation and threat to his life. “The petition written by a counsel on behalf of Farouk alluded to the fact that we contacted Farouk for his response to the allegations against him and that he has not heard from us afterwards. However, he wanted the Police to intervene by bringing me and my organisation, FreshNEWS to book” he stated.
Mr Utomwen was reported to have contacted Farouk via a text message since August 2016, to get his side of the story before publishing, but never got a feedback.
“In regard for the journalistic ethos of fairness and balance, Utomwen resisted the temptation to publish and waited for Farouk to reach him at his convenience. But instead of availing himself the opportunity to clear his name by talking with the reporter, Farouk chose to bring the police in,” another source said.
The police on their own part did not bother to verify if the journalist had actually published the story, which was said to have defamed Farouk. When they eventually got to know that the story had not been published, they decided to lecture the journalist on how to practice journalism, telling him he ought to have reported the matter to the police. He was further asked to disclose the source of his information on Farouk, to which the reporter declined.
He was eventually released on bail following the intervention of Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Centre Against Brutality and for the Safety Of Journalists in Africa (CABSOJA).
The Nigerian Constitution guarantees all working journalists and news outlets some protection from public officers, especially of the military and security agencies who are charged with the duty to secure and protect Nigeria and Nigerians, their lives and property, and maintain law and order.
Section 39 (1&2) provide that” every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference; and that without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions.
Section 22 of the same Constitution stipulates the obligation of the mass media and provides that “the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people.