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Arrest of Journalists: SERAP, NUJ drag FG, others to UN over ‘crackdown’

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Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) have sent an urgent appeal to Mr. David KAYE, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, requesting him to “urgently intervene to prevail on the Federal Government, the Nigerian Army, police and several state governments to end growing clampdown, intimidation and harassment of journalists, online newspapers, and bloggers.”

The urgent appeal followed the arrest yesterday of Dapo Olorunyomi, publisher of the online newspaper, Premium Times, and the medium’s judiciary correspondent, Evelyn Okakwu.

The appeal signed by Adetokunbo Mumuni, SERAP executive director and Abdulwaheed Odusile, President, Nigerian Union of Journalists expressed “concerned about the Nigeria’s government’s erosion of media freedom and continuing readiness of its agencies and state governments to limit the operation of online newspapers and bloggers in the country.”

The appeal reads in part: “We note that under international law criticism of public measures or comment on Government action, however strongly worded, would be consistent with the fundamental right to freedom of expression, and media freedom.”

“We believe that the crackdown and the increasingly restrictive media atmosphere and impermissible restrictions to freedom of expression has damaged Nigeria’s democratic credentials and violated its international human rights obligations. The crackdown has also impeded the ability of journalists, online newspapers, bloggers and the media in general to hold government authorities to account or scrutinize their activities.”

“The arbitrary arrest of Mr Dapo Olorunyomi, publisher of online newspaper Premium Times, and the judiciary correspondent of the online newspaper, Evelyn Okakwu would seem to mark an intensification of a crackdown on media freedom that has been going on for some time now. Both Olorunyomi and Okakwu were released last night but asked to report to the police this morning. We are seriously concerned that they may be re-arrested and detained for a prolonged period.”

“The Army had accused the online newspaper of ‘unwarranted serial provocative, unauthorised, libellous and defamatory publications against the person of Lieutenant General T.Y Buratai, the Chief of Army Staff, Nigerian Army and Nigerian Army counter insurgency operations in the North East,’ and threatened to take action against PT and Mr Olorunyomi.

“We argue that while public officials are entitled to protection of their reputation, including protection against defamation, as individuals who have sought to play a role in public affairs they should tolerate a greater degree of scrutiny and criticism than ordinary citizens. This distinction serves the public interest by making it harder for those in positions of power to use the law to deter or penalize those who seek to expose official wrongdoing, and it facilitates public debate about issues of governance.”

SERAP and the NUJ therefore asked the Special Rapporteur to: “Publicly express concerns about the continuing clampdown, intimidation and harassment of journalists, online newspapers and bloggers, and to insist that the Nigerian Army and police end attacks, harassment and intimidation of the Premium Times and its journalists; and that state governments and police authorities end increasing persecution of other journalists, online newspapers and bloggers in their various states;

“Hold that the Cybercrime Act is inconsistent and incompatible with freedom of expression and media freedom standards and Nigeria’s human rights obligations and commitments;

“Call on the government to withdraw and repeal the obnoxious Cybercrime Act, and other laws providing for criminal defamation or criminalizing insulting public officials, and bring Nigeria’s laws and practices into compliance with the country’s international and regional human rights obligations protect and uphold freedom of expression and media freedom, including under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights;

“Request to visit Nigeria to undertake fact-finding mission and investigate allegations of growing attacks, threats, intimidation and harassment of journalists, online newspapers and bloggers;

“Request the Federal Government and state governments to drop all charges against journalists, online newspapers and bloggers;

“Insist that the Nigerian authorities should not criminalize or subject anyone to threats or harassment, intimidation, persecution or reprisals simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression and doing their job as journalists and bloggers;

“Call for an immediate end to arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists and bloggers simply on the basis of the content of their journalism or media work”.

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