The intimidation and harassment of journalists and bloggers, as well as violent crackdowns on peaceful protests, show the determination of the authorities to suppress the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Nigeria, said Amnesty International Nigeria on Thursday, World Press Freedom Day.
The organisation called on the Nigerian authorities to desist from the disturbing patterns of using security agencies to silence dissenting voices.
"Many Nigerians are becoming increasingly afraid of exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," said Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria.
Arbitrary arrests of journalists
On January 1, 2018, blogger Daniel Elombah and his brother Izuchukwu Elombah were arrested in Nnewi Anambra State and detained without trial for 25 days by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The blogger was unlawfully detained based on allegations that he published an article critical of the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris.
Tony Ezimakor, a journalist with Independent newspapers was detained by operatives of Nigeria's secretive service Directorate of State Security (DSS) on February 28, in connection with a story alleging that a ransom was paid to Boko Haram insurgents for the release of 82 of the Chibok school girls. Mr Ezimakor was held in DSS custody for seven days and was only released on March 6 after several attempts to force him to name his sources.
On March 13, Musa Kirishi, a reporter with Daily Trust newspapers was abducted by heavily armed police officers in the premises of the National Assembly, Abuja. Police officers told him that they had been given instructions to arrest him and take him to Kano State police command because of an advertorial his newspaper ran that annoyed a top politician. He was released later that afternoon.
"This trend of harassment and intimidation has created a climate of fear, whereby journalists are perpetually afraid of being arrested for doing their job. Journalists have a responsibility to the public, not the government, and must be allowed to do their job," said Osai Ojigho.
Increasingly, across Nigeria there are reports of people being threatened, and often arrested, for merely sharing their opinion via social media. In July 2017 Muhammed Kime was arrested by the police in Damaturu Yobe State for a Facebook post critical of a federal lawmaker.
Violent Crackdown On Protests
The recent response of Nigeria's security agencies to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly has been violent, the agency said.
On April 16, unarmed members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) who were protesting the unlawful detention of their leader, Sheik Ibraheem El Zakzaky, at Unity Fountain in Abuja were dispersed with live bullets, tear gas and water cannon. More than 115 protesters were arrested and many injured.
Subsequent attempts by IMN members to hold peaceful protests in other parts of Abuja were also dispersed violently by the police.
"IMN members have been peacefully demanding the release of their leader since December 2015 - the military killed more than 350 of them during those clashes in Zaria. The persistent use of excessive force by the police to disrupt IMN protests is clear indication that the repression of IMN members is set to continue," said Osai Ojigho.
On April 23 and 24, members of the "Bring Back Our Girls" movement were denied access to Unity Fountain where they have been holding a daily "sit-out" since 2014. Police used tear gas to chase away the activists, in spite of the fact that their advocacy has always been peaceful.
"Using the police to prevent these peaceful assemblies violates international and Nigerian laws. It is also worrying that police have always used excessive force on citizens exercising their rights," said Osai Ojigho.
"Security forces' arrest of journalists and violent disruption of peaceful protests are draconian responses to people exercising their rights."
Amnesty International is calling on Nigerian authorities to take urgent steps to end the use of excessive force by security forces to disperse peaceful protests and arbitrary arrests, intimidation and harassment of journalists and bloggers.
The authorities should launch a thorough, impartial, independent and transparent investigation into the allegations of violent crackdown on protests and arrests of journalists, and to bring those suspected to be responsible to justice.
Nigerians must rise to protect her rights, it said.
The spate of harassment and intimidation of journalists and violent disruption of protests by security agencies over the last year has created a constant atmosphere of fear and violence that should serve as a wakeup call for both Nigerians and the authorities.
"Nigeria's Constitution 1999 (as amended) guarantees the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, the government must therefore do more to protect these rights. Freedom to hold opinion without interference and peaceful protest are legitimate rights that no person should be denied. Protests should be seen as a positive sign of the willingness of Nigerians to express themselves," said Mr Ojigho.