Abuja, Nigeria, September 29, 2016 -- Nigerian authorities should immediately release at least 11 journalists, bloggers, and media support staff detained in recent days across the country and stop harassing the media, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
"The impunity with which Nigerian security forces have recently attacked the press is reminiscent of Nigeria's darkest days of military rule," said CPJ West Africa Representative Peter Nkanga. "We call on President Muhammadu Buhari's administration to reverse this alarming slide and let journalists do their jobs without fear of reprisal."
At around 1:45 a.m. on September 21, military soldiers and officers of Nigeria's special police, the State Security Service, arrested 10 journalists and media workers from the independent news website Watchdog Media News at the Douban Hotel in Benin, the capital of the southern Nigerian state of Edo, their employer reported. The crew was in the city to cover gubernatorial elections scheduled to take place today, according to news reports. Watchdog Media reported that the journalists were "brutalised," and were arrested wearing only their underwear. Taiye Garrick, the editor of Watchdog Media, told CPJ that witnesses said the crew were beaten with barbed wire and had cold water poured on their bodies before they were arrested. The elections were initially scheduled for September 10, but were postponed based on fears that "hoodlums" were planning to disrupt voting, according to press reports.
According to press reports, army spokesman Col. Sani Usman said in a September 22 statement that the army acted on "credible security reports" that hired "hoodlums" were in the hotel preparing to attack the state. He said the journalists were arrested in possession of incriminating, sensitive election material, without elaborating, and that they had not identified themselves as journalists. "All the suspects were treated humanely and in the most dignified manner," he said, according to the Premium Times. Watchdog Media subsequently published pictures of the crew conducting interviews on the streets of Benin while wearing their press credentials.
Garrick told CPJ that the SSS is targeting his newspaper because of material the staff collected while covering the Edo South senatorial district before the elections, which were initially scheduled for September 10, but postponed over security concerns. The crew returned to the state on September 20 to cover the Edo North and Edo Central senatorial districts ahead of the September 28 elections. Garrick said he refused an SSS invitation to visit its office in Edo State, where his crew has been held without access to family or a lawyer, because he feared arrest himself, according to news reports.
The 10 journalists and media workers have not yet been arraigned.
"The Edo State government wants to stop us from reporting the elections because, sincerely, the facts we were getting from the opinion polls we were running from our call centre and 'vox-pop' interviews with people on the streets were really damaging against them," Garrick said.
According to press reports, those arrested include: production manager Tony Abulu; reporters Richard Hasley, Opara Uche, and Handy Romeo Eze; video editor Kelvin Toryila; information technology specialists Lanre Ogunleye, Balogun Ehigie, and Kenneth Danpome; a logistics manager identified only as Mathew; and driver Joe Epi.
At a press conference in the city of Benin yesterday, the head of the Edo State branch of the Nigerian Union of Journalists, Roland Osakwe, said the union was "seriously embarrassed" to discover the detained men were not journalists, and "disclaimed" them on behalf of the union "as a way of sending a clear message to those who find it most convenient to impersonate members of the pen profession for pecuniary gains."
Asked about the NUJ's statement, three journalists at Watchdog Media's Abuja office and Garrick, the website's editor, today told CPJ that those detained were their colleagues. Garrick said he was planning on bringing a defamation suit regarding Osakwe's comments on behalf of the NUJ.
In a separate event, police from the northern Nigerian state of Katsina on September 19 arrested Jamil Mabai -- the publisher of Cliqq Magazine and a columnist with Katsina Reporters - in the neighboring state of Kaduna after Mabai on September 6 took to social media to criticize Aminu Masari, the governor of Katsina State, over the government's distribution of 3,000 coffins to mosques while it was unable to pay civil servants their salaries, according to news reports.
Katsina Police Commissioner Usman Abdullahi said that Mabai was arrested following the state government's complaint over his tweets, according to news reports. Abdullahi justified Mabai's arrest by saying "We had to invite him to assist the police."
Abdu Labaran, Masari's spokesman, denied that the state reported the blogger to the police, the reports said.
A magistrate court on September 22 said it had no jurisdiction in the case and remanded Mabai to prison pending a trial before another court. Peter Israel, Mabai's lawyer, told CPJ that police charged Mabai with inciting disaffection against the government. In a second session today, the magistrate insisted on remanding Mabai to prison custody until the prosecution could apply to try the case before a competent higher court, Israel said. Mabai remains in state custody.
Bloggers Bashir Dauda and Umar Faruq were detained on September 19 and arraigned September 22 on charges of abetment for writing about Mabai's story with the "intent to cause civil disturbance" and "to expose governor Masari to public ridicule," news reports said. Israel told CPJ that the two were released, pending trial, on September 27.