Faced with intimidation and violations, journalists must exercise their rights

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A view the room of Spain during the inauguration of the Spanish room at the United Nations in Geneva.

On Saturday March 18, 2023, the Arise Television crew covering Nigeria’s Governorship and House of Assembly election in the Elegushi palace area of Lagos state were attacked by suspected thugs.

Broadcast journalist and staff of Arise TV, Oseni Rufai, alerted the Nigerian public on the issue via his verified Twitter handle. According to him, the cameras and drone used for coverage were seized and a correspondent brutalised.

“Arise crew attacked in Elegushi. People issue threats and no one is arrested but the Arise TV crew was attacked and arrested in Ikate,” he tweeted.

The cameraman suffered facial injuries while a correspondent was “bruised.”

Since the issue was publicized through twitter the Police Public Relations Officer in the state, Benjamin Hundeyin, was bombarded with SMS and text messages for details of the incident. Unfortunately, the messages did not elicit replies. Subsequently, the Commissioner of Police, Idowu Owohunwa, promised to swing into action. More than two weeks after the incident, no arrests had been made and no sensible word from the police.

Lagos is one of the 28 states where the governorship elections held in Nigeria. To many Nigerians and journalists, the Arise TV crew is not unique. Harassment of journalists covering elections has been periodic. During the Presidential and National Assembly elections on February 25, 2023, at least 14 journalists were attacked, brutalised, or detained, a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) detailed.

The report also noted that 28 were attacked during the March 18 governorship and state assembly elections.

On its part, the International Press Institute (IPI) said it recorded 41 incidences of press freedom violations. Working with its local partner – International Press Center (IPC), it linked the incidences to overzealous political sympathisers, hoodlums, and security forces.

“At least seven journalists and media workers of three media houses, AIT, Arise TV News and News Agency of Nigeria were reportedly attacked in the March 18 elections in the federal city of Lagos, Ogun and Rivers states.

“The series of attacks, including denial of access and intimidation of journalists during the two sessions of elections, by both state security forces and political party supporters, are alarming and cast a further grim shadow on the press freedom situation in Nigeria,’’ the IPC noted.

The incidences above follow a particular pattern and reflect impunity on the part of perpetrators who believe the outcry of journalists will not go beyond “social media noise”. To a large extent they are right. Their goal is to force journalists and rights defenders to abandon reporting elections and the situation in voting communities.

But should journalists give up? Nicholas Agostini of DefendDefenders insists that journalists must not stand aloof or give up. According to him while speaking with a cross section of media practitioners and NGOs at the just concluded journalist training programme on the side-lines of the 52nd Regular Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, a journalist cannot sit on the fence. A journalist must expose perpetrators of injustices and remain steadfast in their conviction backed with facts.

But he goes further. He revealed that there are channels through which journalists can also seek justice that most journalists are ignorant of. One of them is through the Human Rights Council to increase the political cost of violations on the state that allows it.

Renaud de Villaine and Lino Owor, both, of the Rule of Law and Democracy Section of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) explain further.

They revealed that in 2022, 86 journalists were killed around the world, compared to 55 in 2021.  In their presentation on Media Safety and the Freedom of Journalists, they insist that,

“Beyond that slight increase, the impunity for these crimes remains of particular concern, with only 14 per cent of cases of killed journalists over the past two decades considered judicially resolved”.

According to them, detention of journalists has increased, reaching a record high of 323 journalists in prison at the end of 2022, as compared to 248 ten years earlier.

They also list laws used to suppress freedom of speech which include sedition and censorship. The laws have been  broadened to include criminal cyber-libel, anti-terrorism, cybersecurity and fake news laws. Additionally, libel, income tax or other financial investigations and vexatious and frivolous lawsuits, including Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), are commonly used to harass and intimidate journalists or media outlets.

They noted that women journalists particularly targeted by online violence with a 2020 UNESCO/ICFJ survey finding that 73% of the 635 women journalists interviewed reporting experience some form of online violence.

Further, 20% of respondents reported having been attacked or abused off-line in connection with the online violence they had experienced.

They then went on to list international covenants and instruments that protect journalists which practitioners can refer to including Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (proclaimed 10 December 1948 by the UN General Assembly) which states that  “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Article 19, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, entry into force 23 March 1976) which states the following:

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

For journalists who face intimidation or violation of rights may want intervention at the level of the Special Procedures, they revealed that it is within the purview of Ms Irene KAHN, the current special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

They concluded with the point that the pathway to justice may seem blurry, slow, and unpredictable but with determination, justice is sure.

Philip Jakpor was a participant at the Journalism training on Human Rights Council which held on the side-lines of the 52Nd Session of the Human Rights Council March 27-31, 2023, in Geneva, Switzerland

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