Interview by Idowu Adewale (IA), Communications Officer of Media Rights Agenda, with Chioma Nwaodike (CN), Head of the Legal Department, on Ensuring the Safety of Journalists through Litigation
IA: Media Rights Agenda has announced that it is implementing a litigation project to ensure the safety of journalists and other media workers as well as to combat impunity for attacks and crimes against journalists. Why are you doing this?
CN: As you know, one of the things that Media Rights Agenda does is monitoring attacks against journalists and the media. From the data that we have gathered from carrying out this exercise over a period of many years, it is clear to us that the issue of the safety of journalists is now a huge one and the situation is getting worse. In fact, it will be fair to say that the situation is getting out of hand. For instance, if you study the data that we have gathered, you will notice that between October 19, 1986, when the late editor-in-chief of Newswatch magazine, Mr. Dele Giwa, was murdered through a parcel bomb that was delivered to him on that day at his breakfast table by still unknown persons, and May 29, 1999, when civilian democracy was restored in Nigeria, about seven journalists were killed in Nigeria.
Many people will tell you that this period of approximately 14 years is as among the worst times that Nigerians have experienced in terms of violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of citizens, including the right to freedom of expression and media freedom. This was a period of military rule and as you know, the environment was very hostile to human rights, to democratic principles and to journalists and the media in general.
But when you look at the period since then, that is the period between May 29, 1999 and now, which is about 22 years and a time when Nigeria has supposedly been under democratic rule, MRA has recorded at least 17 journalists murdered either in the line of duty or as a result of their work. So the rate at which journalists are killed has evidently risen very sharply far above what we experienced during military rule.
In addition, over the years since 1986, there have been hundreds of other crimes committed against journalists and other media workers. These crimes include kidnappings and abductions, forced disappearances; torture, degrading or inhuman treatment; arbitrary arrests and detention; assault, battery and other forms of physical violence; raiding of the homes and offices of journalists; as well as other forms of intimidation, threats and harassment. Some of these attacks have also been directed at family members and loved one of journalists.
It is clear from the figures and the situation that I have described that attacks against journalists and the media, besides the killing of journalists, have also increased significantly over the years that we can now say, quite unfortunately, that the period of civil democratic rule has been worse for the media than the periods when we were under military regimes.
IA: So what are you hoping to achieve through the project?
CN: One of the things that we have found extremely worrying over the years is the fact that when you look at these cases, there is no single one over which a serious investigation has ever been conducted nor is there any instance when the perpetrators have been arrested, prosecuted, jailed or punished in any other way for their crimes. In all the cases that we have documented, including where the perpetrators murdered journalists, they have done so with impunity as they got away with their crimes.
This sort of situation obviously sends a wrong message to the perpetrators that they can kill journalists, brutalize them and violate their rights in any other way and that there will be no adverse consequences for them.
In all cases, since 1986 and possibly earlier, law enforcement and security agencies have never conducted any serious investigation into any of these incidents or held anyone accountable for these crimes against journalists and other media workers.
Indeed, in many of the cases, law enforcement and security agencies as well as other government institutions and officials have been the perpetrators of the attacks against journalists.
We want to reverse this situation. Firstly, we want the government and government officials, whether at the Federal or State level, to know and be constantly reminded that they have a responsibility to protect journalists and the media in general to make the atmosphere conducive for media practice so that media professionals can continue to perform their duty of upholding the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people, as the Nigerian Constitution enjoins them to do.
We want those who threaten or undermine the safety or wellbeing of journalists and other media workers to know that there will be consequences to them for their actions and that they cannot continue to act with impunity. We expect that this realization, together with the consequences that flow from our interventions, will contribute to bringing about an end or significant reduction in the spate of attacks against journalists and the media.
IA: How do you expect to achieve these objectives?
CN: The project is supported by the Global Media Defence Fund (GMDF) through UNESCO. They have provided us with some resources to enable us undertake robust litigation to challenge attacks on journalists. As a result of this, MRA is able to provide legal assistance and litigation support to journalists in Nigeria whose rights are threatened or violated to protect their rights and combat the culture of impunity for such attacks.
We are also using litigation to try and bring about a safe social and legal environment for journalists and the media to effectively carry out their work.
We are currently working with a network of lawyers in different parts of Nigeria who are giving us the benefit of their knowledge, legal expertise and experience to initiate and defend cases free of charge on behalf of journalists and media organizations whenever the rights of such media practitioners or organizations are violated or threatened or where their safety or security is put in jeopardized.
We are doing this using various legal mechanisms or instruments at the national or regional level. So our preferred approach is to use national courts and mechanisms or instruments. But where they are not available or they are ineffective, MRA will take advantage of available mechanisms and instruments at regional and international levels as well as the protections and remedies that they offer. So we are using institutions like the ECOWAS Court and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to defend and ensure the safety of journalists.
Part of our strategy is that in every case we undertake on behalf of media victims of attacks, we will bring the full weight of relevant national, regional and international instruments and mechanisms to bear on the perpetrators, regardless of whether they are government officials, law enforcement and security agents, or if they are private citizens.