Security officers are seen in Abuja, Nigeria, on May 11, 2020. Department of State Services agents recently detained and interrogated journalist Saint Mienpamo Onitsha. (Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde)
Security officers are seen in Abuja, Nigeria, on May 11, 2020. Department of State Services agents recently detained and interrogated journalist Saint Mienpamo Onitsha. (Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde)

Nigerian journalist detained by security forces, interrogated over sources

Abuja, May 19, 2020 — Nigerian authorities should cease their intimidation of journalist Saint Mienpamo Onitsha and ensure that security forces permit the press to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

At about 1 a.m. on May 9, four masked Department of State Services agents forced their way into the home of Onitsha, the founder of Naija Live TV, an independent news website, in Yenagoa, the capital of Nigeria’s southern Bayelsa state, blindfolded him, and drove him around for more than three hours before bringing him to the department’s local headquarters, according to the journalist, who spoke with CPJ via phone and messaging app, and a report by the privately owned Sahara Reporters newspaper.

At the headquarters, agents interrogated Onitsha about his sources for two reports he had published, and threatened him with criminal prosecution on false news charges, according to the journalist and a report by the privately owned Daily Independent newspaper.

The agents held him until May 12, when Onitsha appeared at a press conference organized by the security agency, in which he apologized for his outlet’s reporting and denied allegations that agents had abducted him, and he was then released without charge, he told CPJ. Onitsha said he was coerced into making those statements in exchange for being released without charge.

The Department of State Services operates under Nigeria’s coordinator of national security, which reports directly to President Muhammadu Buhari, according to the National Security Agencies Act.

The officers also took five phones belonging to Onitsha and his wife when he was arrested and only returned the phones after he was released, he said, adding that he could not tell if anything was deleted from the phones or if they were tampered with.

“There is absolutely no justification for seizing journalist Saint Mienpamo Onitsha from his home in the dead of night and subjecting him to days of interrogation for his reporting,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in New York. “The Department of State Services is far too often involved in the arbitrary detention and intimidation of journalists in Nigeria. It’s a pattern that President Buhari should act swiftly to reverse.”

According to Nigeria’s constitution, any person detained by authorities must be arraigned in court within 24 hours if a court is within 40 kilometers of where they are detained. Onitsha told CPJ that the Department of State Services where he was detained was across the street from Bayelsa’s Federal High Court Complex.

Onitsha said the officers who took him into custody questioned him on May 10 about his sourcing for a December 2019 report alleging that a court in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, had ordered the arrest of Bayelsa Deputy Governor Lawrence Erwhudjakpo, and a May 2020 report on the alleged collapse of a COVID-19 isolation center in Nigeria’s Kogi State.

He said he was afraid that the agents may torture him, but said they did not.

Onitsha said he was questioned again on May 12 by a man he believed to be the Department of State Service’s Bayelsa state director.

Before his release, Bello Bina, a former local politician for whom Onitsha had previously worked, signed a document vowing that Onitsha would appear at the Department of State Services office whenever summoned, the journalist said.

Peter Afunaya, a spokesperson for the Department of State Services, did not respond to CPJ’s calls and text messages seeking comment.

Contacted by CPJ over the phone, a spokesperson for the Kogi State governor, Mohammed Onogwu, declined to comment on Naija Live TV’s article or on Onitsha’s detention, and told CPJ to contact the security forces.

Doubra Atasi, a media aide to Erwhudjakpo, told CPJ that the Bayelsa deputy governor had not filed a complaint against Onitsha and that he could not comment on the matter.