…Lai Mohammed Faults Claim The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-profit organisation that champions press freedom internationally has called for the release of a Nigerian Journalist, Jones Abiri who has been held by the Department of State Security (DSS) for nearly two years. In a letter addressed to Minister of Information and National Orientation,
…Lai Mohammed Faults Claim
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-profit organisation that champions press freedom internationally has called for the release of a Nigerian Journalist, Jones Abiri who has been held by the Department of State Security (DSS) for nearly two years. In a letter addressed to Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mr Lai Mohammed and signed by Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director, it wants the DSS “to be held accountable for its attacks against journalists in Nigeria”.
But the Information Minister says no Nigerian journalist is being detained. “Let me state here, without equivocating, that contrary to the report by the Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ), no journalist is in detention in Nigeria. Clement Abiri, who is being referred to as a journalist, is not one. He does not belong to any chapel of the Nigerian Union of Journalists. He was arrested for pipeline vandalism and crude theft, including militant activities in the Niger Delta,” he said.
CPJ’s letter, also signed by 19 other organisations, said, “We were disappointed that, after repeated requests during CPJ’s visit to Nigeria in April 2018, we were not permitted to visit Abiri in detention. In a meeting with CPJ on April 24, 2018, Garba Shehu, your presidential spokesperson, confirmed that Abiri remained in DSS custody and said he would be charged in court on allegation of being a militant. Yet after almost two years behind bars, Abiri has not seen a courtroom, nor has his family been given any information about his health and well-being”.
“The DSS operates under Nigeria’s coordinator of national security, which reports directly to you, according to the 1986 National Security Agency Act. During a visit to State House in April, Garba Shehu also told CPJ that you would be made personally aware of Abiri’s ongoing detention. We therefore call for your swift action to ensure Abiri’s release and that those responsible for his prolonged and illegal detention are held accountable.”
It recalls that in February and March 2018, the DSS also arrested Tony Ezimakor, the Abuja bureau chief of the privately owned Daily Independent newspaper and documented his week-long detention without charge or court appearance, during which the DSS threatened the journalist with terrorism charges for his reporting.
“Over the last two years, CPJ has repeatedly tried to contact Lawal Musa Daura, director general of the DSS, and Gbeteng Bassi, director of operations of the DSS, without success. Nigerian journalists have similarly told CPJ, with dismay, that they are unable to reach the DSS for comment, regarding the arrest of their colleagues or otherwise. During the same April 2018 meeting with CPJ, Garba Shehu confirmed that the DSS has not designated anyone responsible for communicating with the Nigerian public. We urge you to improve accountability and make the DSS accessible to the press. This includes the appointment of a DSS spokesperson.”
“Your action to ensure the safety of journalists and the promotion of open dialogue through the press is made even more important because Nigeria will hold elections in February 2019. Around the world, CPJ has documented how attacks on journalists have escalated during election periods and other political processes. It is in this context that we urge you to take decisive action to ensure that journalists are free to report on matters of public concern, and that a culture of self-censorship does not cloud public decision-making processes. As part of this, Abiri should be released without delay”, the letter said.
Prominent among other organisations that also signed the letter are the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Caucasus Civil Initiatives Center (CCIC), Association For Human Rights In Ethiopia (AHRE), West African Human Rights Defenders Network (ROADDH/WAHRDN), Amnesty International, Nigeria, Media Foundation for West Africa, the PEN Nigeria and the PEN International.
Lai Mohammed, who issued the refuttal at the Gala/Award Night of the International Press Institute (IPI) in Abuja at the weekend, said the person the CPJ was referring to was never a journalist and restated the commitment of the present administration to press freedom and gave the assurance that the media has nothing to fear under the present dispensation.
“In my opening comments at the 2016 IPI Congress in Doha, I said we as a government view the media as a partner. That remains true. I also said the media in Nigeria has nothing to fear from this Administration, and that – if anything – we as a government are the ones who have to fear the media. Also, that has not changed”.
“We are proud that the Nigerian media is one of the most vibrant in the world. We are proud of the role that the Nigerian media has played in our long march to democratic governance. This administration will continue to provide the enabling environment for journalists to function unmolested,” he said.
While speaking on the theme of the 67th IPI World Congress, which is “Why Good Journalism Matters,” the Minister said apart from alerting the government to the indispensable role of the media in the society, it reminds it of the purpose of journalism which is to serve all citizens in a democratic society and to tell the truth.
“If we all agree about this obligation, then it behoves the media to tell the truth, not just to power, but to the people, making it easier for them to get the facts in the right context, thus facilitating their decision-making process. But in an era of growing cases of fake news and disinformation, can we still say the media – whether traditional or new – is living true to this dictum? If the answer is no, what does this portend for the profession in particular and the society in general? I am sure this congress is examining the issue critically in the course of its deliberations,” he said.
Nine armed agents of Nigeria’s state security service, an elite police force, arrested Jones Abiri, the publisher of the Weekly Source tabloid newspaper, at his office in Yenagoa, in Nigeria’s oil-rich southern state of Bayelsa, on July 21, 2016, according to news report. The operatives searched Abiri’s office and confiscated documents, the reports said.
The security service emailed a statement to Nigerian journalists on July 23, 2016 accusing Abiri of being the leader of the separatist group Joint Revolutionary Council of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force. In the statement, the security service also said that the publisher had confessed to bombing oil pipelines, planning attacks in the capital Abuja, sending threatening messages to international oil companies, and being the mastermind of a hoax military coup against President Muhammadu Buhari.
CPJ could not confirm that Abiri had made a confession.
Members of Abiri’s family told CPJ they believe his arrest is connected to a July 10, 2016, edition of Weekly Source that republished a report stating the military was contemplating a coup against Buhari. The claim was originally published in June 2016 on the news website Point Blank News.
Abiri’s brother, Wariebi Abiri, told CPJ by telephone in mid-2016 that the allegations against his brother were strange because “[Abiri is] the type of person who stays away from trouble.”
Jackson Ude, the publisher of U.S.-based Point Blank News, told CPJ that since publishing the story he received threats from people he believes are working with the security services, and said he has been asked to remove the story from the website. Ude said he was warned that if he returned to Nigeria he would be arrested.
Another of Abiri’s brothers, Daniel, told CPJ on November 11, 2016, that the family petitioned the Bayelsa State High Court to seek Abiri’s release, but the judge declined to hear the case because lawyers for the state security service said Abiri had committed a treasonable felony and remained a threat to the nation. Daniel Abiri said the security services had not formally charged his brother, and that the family and the journalist’s lawyer have not been able to see or speak with him. Daniel Abiri said his brother is being held at the State Security Service headquarters in Abuja.
John Angese, the Bayelsa state chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, told CPJ the state security service has rebuffed all of the union’s efforts in Abiri’s case.
When CPJ contacted the state security service in July and November 2016, the officers who answered the telephone calls said they were not authorized to speak about Abiri’s case.
In October 2017, the state security service director general, Lawal Musa Daura, did not answer CPJ’s repeated calls.
CPJ has not been able to determine whether authorities have charged Abiri or confirm where the journalist is being held.
“We don’t know where he is and we don’t know what he has been charged for,” Abdulwaheed Odusile, president of the Federation of African Journalists, told CPJ on October 25, 2017. Late in 2017, neither Daniel or Wariebi Abiri answered CPJ’s calls.