Journalists covering the Protest Movement in Nigeria have been Beaten, Harassed & Fined by Law Enforcement – Global Problems

Photojournalist Eti-Inyene Godwin Akpan reported on the 2020 protests against police violence in Nigeria. Cedit: Eti-Inyene Godwin Akpan per CP
  • Opinion by Jonathan Rozen (New York)
  • Inter Press Service

One year after Akpan posted the photos on social media, he planned to show them in Lagos at a museum exhibition marking the anniversary of the protests against police brutality that swept Nigeria late last year.

But he postponed the show indefinitely after receiving two calls calling him, without explanation, to the local offices of the Department of State Services of Nigeria (DSS), a federal security agency.

“I now sleep with one eye closed, trying to look at my back every second,” Akpan told CPJ via a phone call. “They know I know a few things and I have a few pictures …”

The calls came minutes after Akpan gave a live interview on local television about his work documenting the 2020 protests. Akpan said he asked the callers for a formal email call.

He feared that without it, the DSS could mistreat him or hold him for a long period of time without access to a lawyer or his family, the kind of behavior that CPJ has documented in the past. The calls echoed intimidating tactics he said he had faced a year earlier after his post on social media about the shooting shooting – tactics that led him to flee the country temporarily.

Reached by CPJ via a messaging program, DSS spokesman Peter Afunanya denied that his agency had called Akpan in early October 2021. He also dismissed concerns about DSS’s history of arresting journalists.

“Right before my eyes, I saw dead bodies,” reads the caption in Akpan’s Instagram post of the October 2020 shooting that killed protesters, according to local and international media and rights groups. It was the deadliest incident in last year’s protests, known as the End SARS movement – a reference to the call by the protesters to dismantle Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad unit.

Journalists covering the protest movement were beaten, harassed, and fined by police. One reporter, Onifade Emmanuel Pelumi, was found dead in a morgue on October 30, 2020; he was last seen alive in police custody after he covered up unrest around the protests in Lagos.

Images of Lekki Toll Gate’s murders are particularly sensitive, Akpan told CPJ, as they contradict the government’s account. In a press conference, Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed marked October 20 this year by calling it “the first anniversary of the ghost massacre” that took place “without blood or bodies”. Last year the Nigerian army confessed to using live shots at the toll gate, but said its forces were only firing into the air.

After Akpan first posted the images, he told CPJ that anonymous callers pressured him to remove the Instagram post and replace it with one saying the images were fake. He said his bank account was frozen and DSS agents arrived at his office looking for him, which DSS spokesman Afunanya denied.

After that, Akpan decided to heed the advice of friends to leave the country. In the days before he fled, Akpan told CPJ that he believed the images he had captured could contribute to the historical record of the protests. But to protect this proof for future generations and continue his work, he had to be safe.

He fled to Ghana crossing land through Benin and Togo – a journey of hundreds of miles facilitated by CPJ and Maxime Domegni, editor of the Global Investigative Journalism Network.

Akpan knew no one in Benin or Togo. Nor did he speak the local languages ​​of those two French-speaking countries. But CPJ introduced him to two local investigative journalists – Igance Sossou in Benin and Ferdinand Ayité in Togo – whose help would be invaluable.

Sossou and Ayité both faced retaliation for their work and told CPJ in separate interviews that they agreed to help Akpan out of journalistic solidarity.

“I understand that the risk hangs over journalism in the West African subregion,” he told CPJ Sossou, who was arrested in late 2019, jailed for six months and fined for social media posts, to CPJ via a message program. “If you are a journalist who has experienced what I experienced between 2019 and 2020 in Benin, you are definitely sensitive to the case of Eti-Inyene.”

After Akpan slipped across Nigeria’s western border, he met Sossou in Cotonou, Benin’s economic capital. Sossou said he helped Akpan change his money into local currency and find a car and driver to transport him to the Togolese border, which Akpan crossed on foot before finding a cab to Lomé, the capital of Togo.

Ayité, whose newspaper The Alternative was repeatedly suspended and who continues to face harassment from authorities, told CPJ he met Akpan in Lome. Ayité arranged and paid for Akpan’s dinner and overnight accommodation as well as a motorcycle driver who was able to safely navigate the border with Ghana the following morning. Once across, Akpan caught a bus from the border town of Aflao to Accra.

“We are just journalists and we have no borders. Wherever one of us is threatened, all journalists are concerned, ”Ayité told CPJ. “Solidarity must be the cardinal value of our profession and I think that’s what led Ignace Sossou and my modest self to help.”

Akpan told CPJ that his trip through Togo and Benin would have been “so difficult, if not impossible” without this help. “I would have been attacked or tricked,” he said. “It was an amazing collaboration.”

After arriving in Accra, a friend helped Akpan find an apartment. He remained in hiding for four months, but decided to return to Nigeria in February 2021. The tensions of exile, exacerbated by the pandemic, led him to struggle with loneliness and depression, he said.

“I felt there was still work for me to do in Nigeria. These stories have yet to be told, ”Akpan said, adding that he initially avoided telling his mother and sisters about his return because that would worry them.

Despite the advice of one sister never to set foot back in Nigeria, he felt that the protests had diminished enough to reduce the risk. But the scary calls came back this October as Akpan advertised his photo exhibition.

Akpan told CPJ that the callers claiming to be DSS agents never sent him an email call, as he requested. After their calls, he received other calls from people asking him questions about his photography.

He said the people claimed to be potential customers, but when he asked the callers to send their details via email, they never followed through, increasing his fears. He said he is now taking extra precautions to secure his communications and preserve his information.

However, Akpan did not stop trying to record historical events. He came out with his camera on this year’s October 20 anniversary to photograph a monument marking the killings of Lekki Toll Gate, where journalists were again attacked by police.

The solidarity he has experienced over the past 12 months has given him courage and strengthened his commitment to tell the truth, he told CPJ. “I’m sure I’m not alone,” he said.

Jonathan Rozen is Chief African Researcher at the New York Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)


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© Inter Press Service (2021) – All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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