Abuja, March 31, 2020 — Authorities in Nigeria must ensure that measures taken to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic do not prevent journalists from covering the news freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Yesterday, Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed said that journalists would be required to carry a valid identity card to move around in the two southwestern states of Lagos and Ogun, as well as in the capital Abuja, as part of President Muhammadu Buhari’s lockdowns in those areas, which were imposed on March 29, according to a report by the privately owned Premium Times newspaper.
Mohammed did not respond to CPJ’s calls and a message today asking for clarification on what kind of identification cards would be considered valid, and what punishments journalists would receive for failing to carry such cards.
The declaration came after authorities suspended 92 journalists’ access to Buhari’s presidential villa on March 24, according to a memo issued to journalists, which CPJ reviewed; a report by privately owned Daily Trust newspaper; and five affected journalists, who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Those suspensions, which went into effect on March 25, were issued as part of public health restrictions on assembly, according to the memo. Only 16 journalists—from a combination of private and government-owned media outlets—retained access, according to the memo.
“Nigeria’s new restrictions on assembly and movement impose unnecessary burdens on journalists; at a minimum, the rules must be clarified so reporters can even follow them,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in New York. “All efforts should be made to enable the press to do their work and cover the coronavirus crisis safely and without risk of official sanction.”
The journalists who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity said they were concerned about how the suspension of access to the villa would affect their ability to report on the government’s response to the coronavirus, as government briefings are often held there.
Several said they wished the government had distributed safety equipment, rather than restricting their access. One said they considered the decision to be reasonable given that the numbers of other workers in the villa had been similarly reduced.
Ubale Musa, chair of the villa’s press association, a professional group of journalists covering the villa, told CPJ in a phone interview that he did not know the criteria used for selecting the journalists that retained access to the villa, but believed the choices were made in good faith. Musa said journalists who had been suspended from the villa could receive relevant news stories through messaging app groups via their colleagues who retained access.
Segun Adeyemi, a spokesperson for Nigeria’s Ministry of Information, referred CPJ to Femi Adesina, the senior special assistant to the president on media and publicity. CPJ’s calls and text messages to Adesina went unanswered.
Lanre Issa-Onilu, a spokesperson for Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress party, told CPJ by phone that he could not explain the decision, but considered it ”common sense” for the number of reporters at the villa to be reduced.