11 January 2013

Nigeria: An Ominous Path to Tread


On Christmas Day, two journalists of Al-Mizan, Hausa newspaper based in Kaduna, were abducted by operatives of the State Security Services (SSS) and held against their will for eight days without trial.

At the time of their release on Tuesday last week, they had still not been told what offence they committed; rather they were told that they could be called back for more questioning. The reason for the detention of the journalists -Musa Muhammad and Aliyu Saleh were not officially disclosed but, according to accounts, it may have something to do with what the newspaper published pertaining to the tactics of the Joint Task Force (JTF) in its engagement with the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East; in Yobe in particular as well as the fact that Al-Mizan published reports of summary execution of people by the military unit.

The JTF is on an onerous task of combating the insurgency that has undermined the security situation of large part of the North East region, rendering it unsafe for social and economic activities. Yet, even as important and patriotic as its assignment is, the JTF should not expect that what it does in attempting to rid that region of the security threats would be allowed to pass without scrutiny, or that because of the salient nature of the assignment, its members and those working on its behalf would be allowed to trample on individual liberty as provided for in Section 34 of the 1999 Constitution.

Muhammad and Saleh's abduction and incarceration violated that provision, and therefore constituted a flagrant abuse of power and unlawful abridgement of their personal liberties. It is the law also that an individual so apprehended should not be held beyond twenty four hours after which he should be taken to the court of law if he has a case to answer. Seizing people from their homes or their work places, and holding them hostages and denying their relatives access to them amounts to acting with impunity in total disregard of the law.

During the military era, the tendency to resort to draconian and extra-legal measures through display of official high-handedness and callous disregard of the due process elicited deserved opprobrium. Regrettably, many years after Nigeria had put authoritarian rule behind it and become a democracy, a section of its security outfit still finds it difficult to outlive such odious resort to unlawful measures. Nigeria is a democracy where the supremacy of the law as interpreted by the law courts is the guiding principle by which disputes are resolved. This fact must be borne in mind by every law enforcement personnel, particularly the overzealous officials who have a tendency to act according to their vindictive whims by taking the law into their hands, thereby subjecting otherwise law abiding individuals to unwarranted indignities and molestation.

Of course, this position should not be misconstrued as a tacit support for reckless journalism with no regard to the dictates of the law of the land and tenets of the profession. It will be a totally feckless editor who publishes material, particularly one as weighty as the JTF campaign, without verifying its veracity or otherwise. It is also important that even after a story passes the test of truth, but is capable of undermining the wellbeing of the state, editors are enjoined to exercise restraint in such a circumstance. Good journalism cannot always be 'publish and be damned', even at the risk of bringing down the entire structure of society; just as it would also not be worthwhile for newspapers to be reduced to lapdogs of government, or of anyone else for that matter.

In the final analysis however, throwing journalists into jail for doing their job is an act that belongs to a disreputable era that is past, and which no one should bring back.

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