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[Opinion] The Assault on Daily Trust - reuben Abati 

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On Sunday, January 6, a combined team of the Nigeria Army and Nigeria Police stormed the offices of the Daily Trustnewspaper in Maiduguri, Abuja and Lagos. They disrupted the newspaper’s operations, arrested journalists and carted away computers and documents. They wanted to know the source of a story they claimed compromised national security which revealed counter-terrorism operations against the Boko Haram. They accused the newspaper of breaching national security. It all looked very much like a return to Buhari’s 1984 when the government of the day trampled on the freedom of the media and made it near-impossible for civil society to express itself freely. 

 

In a poorly conceived press release, the Nigeria Army has quoted the Official Secrets Act, an odious piece of legislation, already abridged by the Freedom of Information Act as a kind of additional defence for its action. It is unacceptable. The gestapo-style assault on the Daily Trust is ill-advised. It casts the Buhari administration in bad light. Those soldiers and policemen embarked on a futile adventure. Whoever gave the orders for that misadventure has done greater damage to the Buhari administration. Not only does it confirm to  a stereotype opinion about the General turned democrat, it further sets him up against all local and international agencies and stakeholders committed to the freedom of the press. 

 

It should be clear to the military and police authorities that no journalist is under any obligation to reveal his source(s). Journalists are expected to discharge their duties under the Constitution (Sections 22 and 39 thereof, 1999 as amended) with a sense of responsibility and in line with professional codes of ethics, but to assume that a soldier or a bloody policeman can dictate how journalism should be practised is the very height of presumptuousness. What the military and the police did on Sunday is nothing short of a resort to self-help. In a country that is governed by law, that is sheer, irresponsible conduct. If either the army or the police has any grievances, the best place to seek redress is the court of law, not through extra-judicial actions that remind us of the military era. 

 

The question must be asked: who in fact defines national security? The advanced conception of state security is that it is a collective responsibility and not the preserve of a clique. However, Nigeria’s security agents have over the years defined security in a narrow and patronizing sense, more for their own benefits than the collective interest of the state. They have created a divide, a spectre of alienation that promotes a culture of fear and oppression. It is important that the people see the security establishment as a promoter of the people’s welfare rather than a vindictive and oppressive force with colonial and military tendencies. The media, in particular, must be seen more appropriately within the context of its constitutionally assigned role in Section 22 of the Nigerian Constitution, and not as an adversary that must be trampled upon and humiliated. Our job as journalists is to hold everyone accountable and to shake as many tables as frequently as possible for the benefit of the people. No amount of intimidation will change that.  

 

I congratulate the editors of the Daily Trust newspapers on their courage and resolve, their insistence as it were on the people’s right and need to know. Many years ago, I wrote an essay which became a chapter in a book, in which I tried to examine the ethnic and political bias of the Nigerian media, and I argued with available evidence that the Northern media in Nigeria, even in its most radical appearance, tends to support any Northerner in power on the basis of religious affinity and ethnic proximity. The root of that bias can be traced all the way back to the emergence of theGaskiya Ta’fi Kwabo, which promised to promote the truth but ended up doing so within an ethnic, and narrow religious prism. Other publications toed the same ideological line. I am tempted to update that thesis statement because what we have seen in recent years, is a more radical, more liberal Northern media – print, broadcast and social media. 

 

The media in the North has broken free, almost completely, and has become a strong platform for the progressive forces. This may be in part due to the increased privatization of the media, the democratization of the instruments of public opinion, and the radicalism of an emergent younger generation with a different sociology. I make general statements of course in this regard but take this as a prolegomenon to what should be a rigorous and evidence-driven, properly-referenced inquiry which cannot be attempted in a newspaper column. But what we know is this: across Nigeria indeed, there is a growing population of soldiers of truth, the middle class in the North is more radical today than it has ever been, that class no longer panders to the shackles of religion and ethnicity as before. Those who bought into the politics of deception in 2014/2015 have regained their sight. Those who bought into the politics of propaganda have seen the light. Nigeria today is divided between those who promised change and could not deliver and those who insist that this country must change for good, for better. The Buhari government has produced more radicals than at any other time in Nigerian history. People are just angry and frustrated. 

 

It is futile to turn guns on the media and those who think and write. A thousand machine guns will not stop the soldiers of truth. Tell the Inspector General of Police and the Chief of Army Staff to release the journalists of Daily Trust and their computers.   

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