Uproar yesterday trailed arrest of news agents and vendors by operatives of the Intelligence Response Team of the Inspector General of Police, which arrested no fewer than seven newspaper vendors and distribution agents in Imo State.
The police operatives swooped on them, yesterday, at their 5, Rotibi Street, Douglas Road, Owerri, base as the circulation of the day's newspapers was ongoing.
Other vendors and distribution agents who ran away, told journalists that the gun-wielding police operatives accused them of circulating newspapers, magazines and publications that had stories on the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB.
Although, four of the vendors were said to have been released at press time, vendors in the state have vowed to begin stake, today, over increasing harassment of their members.
No hands in this -- Imo govt
This came as the state government washed its hands over the matter. Imo State Commissioner for Information, Mr. Declan Emelumba, in a text message said: "The Imo State Government did not order arrest of vendors. The exercise was purely a security operation by security operatives obviously for informed security reasons. However, the arrested vendors have been released."
One of the vendors, who escaped arrest said: "As we were circulating our newspapers for the Monday edition, policemen putting on jackets that had IRT inscription swooped on us and started arresting us. The ones they took away were the ones that had newspapers that had IPOB stories and the ones they said were against the government."
Some of the vendors and distribution agents arrested by the IGP's team are Nnamso Okoro, Nelson Enyiama, Blessing Isinwa, Onyebuchi Iwundu, and Michael.
Imo State Circulation Manager of the New Telegraph Newspaper, Chuks Ugwuibe, is still being held in an undisclosed security facility after he was arrested in Orlu, last Tuesday by security operatives while taking his weekly returns from vendors.
The arrest of the newspaper vendors and distribution agents elicited reactions as residents of the state asked the government to stop press clamp down.
The arrest affected circulation of newspapers in the state, yesterday, as the other vendors and distribution agents fled over the fear of being arrested.
'Stop gagging the press'
At the Government House Roundabout, Owerri, where people usually gather to read newspapers, some people fumed, and called on the government to stop gagging the press.
"Do they think that arresting vendors and distribution agents and journalists will stop us from knowing the truth. They don't know journalists, the more you arrest them, the more they write.
"Journalists are very strong people. Journalists are stubborn. They are very courageous. Journalists are trained to expose the evils in society. Journalists are always on the side of the people," one of them said
Another aggrieved resident said: "This administration is very clueless. Just look at the insecurity bedeviling our country; the only strength they have is to arrest newspaper vendors and distribution agents who are doing their lawful businesses. Why is it that this administration hates press freedom? Why is it that this administration does not like the truth?
"Insurgents have taken over LGAs in Bauchi, Kaduna, Zamfara, Niger, and Nasarawa states and they are about entering Abuja and the only response this government has is to arrest vendors and distribution agents.
"Very soon, they will start arresting journalists, but that will not solve the problem. Government should be proactive not this petty approach."
Contacted, the Commissioner of Police in the state, Abutu Yaro, said the operatives were not from his command.
Contacted also, the Force spokesperson, Frank Mba. promised to get back to him but was yet to do so as of press time.
Imo vendors begin strike today
Meanwhile, four of the arrested vendors have regained their freedom.
In another development, the Nigeria Newspapers Distribution Association, Imo State chapter has declared its readiness to partner with the security operatives on how to curb insecurity in the state.
The Chairman, Ikechukwu Tasie, made this statement in Owerri, while condemning the arrest of his members.
He said: "The harassment of our members started last two weeks, I have made efforts to reach out to the government to know what we, vendors, can do in partnership with the government about the insecurity situation in the state.
"If the government is saying don't sell this particular paper because of insecurity let us know, let us interface on how to solve this whole issue. However, we condemn what happened on the arrest of our members. Do you know that even the government-owned newspapers, Statesman newspapers were confiscated?
"As a result of this, we will be going on strike from tomorrow, Tuesday. We expected the security agencies to write to us if there is any paper they don't want us to sell. We have a union and there is a leadership. When things like this happen you write to us so that we meet and interface to know the solution,"Tasie said.
New dimension to assault on press freedom - IPC
Condemning the arrests, Director of the International Press Centre, IPC, Mr Lanre Arogundade, said: "Arresting vendors for the content of newspapers they sell is a new dimension to the assault on freedom of expression in Nigeria. It also marks the targeting of peoples means of livelihood in the name of fighting the proscribed IPOB both of which are not acceptable.
Following the N5million fine imposed on Channels television for interviewing a spokesperson of IPOB, the government through the security agencies are sending the warning that the Nigerian media must not report the activities of IPOB. But this is impossible with the organisation still carrying out series of activities which the government and the army actually acknowledge. Before the Channels interview for example, the Army said it raided an IPOB operational headquarters in Imo State and killed the commander.
"Democracy is threatened when the media is chained and unable to report issues of public interest."
NGE decries harassment of vendors
Piqued by the development, the Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE, condemned the reported harassment of vendors in Imo State, and demanded immediate release of those arrested.
In a statement by its President, Mr Mustapha Isa, the Guild said it "fully supports efforts in checking the attacks on security agents but opposes any attempts to harass vendors who form an integral part of the newspaper industry"
It added: "Those arrested were said to have been selling pro- Biafra newsletters. The body of editors demands their immediate release.
"The Guild fully supports security agencies in their efforts to deal with the individuals behind the mindless attacks on police stations and Killing of officers. However, vendors shouldn't be harassed in the process."