IDEAS: Freedom of Speech under assault, Episode 46 (20/09/19)

IDEAS Radio 20 Sept 2019

Freedom of Speech under assault.

Aghogho Oboh: Alright, welcome to the Public Square.  Fifteen minutes past four. I am Aghogho Oboh. Rotimi Sankore, Ayo Obe always …

Ayo Obe: Hi Aghogho, 

Rotimi Sankore: Hi.

AO: I have to apologise that IDEAS is, IDEAS are burgeoning a little bit late, but we are nonetheless here.

AgO: Great!  Great to be here and we’re discussing big significant political issues that are happening everywhere in the country today.  Big story today: detained journalists charged with treason for criticising the government, and the list is growing. From what it looks like, a number of journalists have been detained by Federal as well as State authorities, accusing them of things like treason and just a host of other allegations against these journalists, and also bloggers, like Amnesty International did point out also.  

You can follow the programme on Twitter @PublicSquareNG, @Ideasradiong, @RotimiSankore, @NigeriaInfoFM.  Tweet at us at these different handles, and if you’ve got questions and comments, let us know.

And so, let’s begin with the IDEAS segment, Ayo.

AO: Okay, thank you very much Aghogho.  And I’ve … people may say: Well, Freedom of Speech, Press Freedom, what’s it got to do with Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability (which as you know, is what IDEAS stands for)?  But I think … I mean I find that a lot of the programmes that I present in this … on IDEAS have to do with Accountability. And of course, once you can’t be questioned, then the issue of Accountability goes a little bit out of the … out of the door.   So I think that’s the first thing that I would say, that we need … there’s a constitutional guarantee of Freedom of Expression which includes Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, and so on and so forth. And that Constitutional guarantee is what allows us to have Freedom of the Press, in fact the press are specifically mentioned in a sidebar.  So without being able to speak out, then you can’t question, and if you cannot question, then the person who exercises or wields power becomes unaccountable. So I think that’s the first thing. I don’t know whether … anyway, I can see that Rotimi is facing other things, so I’m going to continue with my monologue for a little bit.

Rotimi Sankore: No, I’m not, I’m following …

AO: But … looking at the issue, because the Federal Government tends to dress its own assault on Freedom of Speech (and I should also mention that we have Freedom of Assembly under the Constitution as well) … it tends to dress its own assaults on Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly under the rubric of ‘treason and security issues’.  And of course, with the headline that Nigeria is the country suffering most from terrorism in the world, you might say: Yes, there is indeed reason for the government to be concerned about security matters. Even … my immediate response to that, and I have to confess that this is me, my immediate response would be ‘Yeah, but you know, the people doing the shooting and the killing are the ones who are killing Nigerians in Borno State and so on, rather than the people who are organising demonstrations, whether it’s in Abuja or Lagos or Cross River State, or in the … in the Abia State, sorry, in Aba and places like that where IPOB and MASSOB have …”

RS: And also now in Akwa Ibom where a lady journalist has been arrested for taking pictures.

AO: So my … that’s my immediate response.  I can understand that yes, there’s an argument for saying: Part of the reason why we have this problem in Borno State is that we didn’t nip it in the bud early enough.  So there are always two sides to an argument, and I’m not saying that there is no merit whatsoever in the government’s concerns about security, but the question is: Are they being exercised in good faith in relation to … for example, let me take my young friend with whom … in whom I have a particular interest, Omoyele Sowore, who is in detention for calling for “Revolution Now!”, and … organising a demonstration, being … planning to organise a demonstration.  Now, in Cross River also – sorry, I keep on saying Cross River, in Akwa … in Cross River, the Governor has had Mr. Agba Jalingo arrested. Jalingo had been publishing stories about money, but the Governor’s complaint has been, the matter with which he has been charged, is that he wrote nasty things about the Governor, or rather, he wrote some things about the Governor which the people of Cross River State may not have found very palatable and therefore went on demonstrations, calling for the removal of the Governor.  Similarly … disturbing the police … disturbing the peace and so on. My sort of … so we have to face a fundamental question: Is it treasonable to call for the removal of a government, to call for, to organise demonstrations in which people call for the removal of a government, and even to – if we may use words lightly, ‘Revolution’? I mean, I’m speaking a student … I’m not … when I was young I went on student demonstrations, and I remember that … I mean it was … it was … I left Britain before Margaret Thatcher became the Prime Minister of Britain, but my friends and colleagues went on demonstrations, and the chant was “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! OUT, OUT, OUT!”  In other words, they were calling for her to be out of government.

Now, is that … was that treasonable?  No! Anybody can say “Buhari should resign!”  “Governor X should resign”. “Governor X should resign because of A, B, C and D.”  And that is not treasonable. And I think that if we don’t get these basic norms fixed, we’re liable to run into a situation where a government in which the President is said, (and I only say is said, because he has not said this to me personally, if I’ve ever met him personally) but he is said not to want to feed his former reputation as a military dictator who enacted what we always are obliged to call “the obnoxious Decree No. 4”, which made it an offence – not to tell the truth about a government official, but even if you were to tell the truth, to bring that government official into  ridicule. And there seems to be this growing miasma, I mean, that’s the story, that the President does not want to give, he holds back because he doesn’t want to feed that image …

RS: He said he is a reformed …

AO: Yes, he can be reformed, but the thing is, that the people who are following him, or who are in government with him at different levels, don’t seem to have imbibed the same alleged restraint and since they are exercising these powers in his name, and even at the state level, we have to understand that the Nigeria Police is a unitary organisation which reports both on policy issues and on operational issues to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.  And so therefore, even if the police in Cross River State have decided to charge somebody with treason because he wrote things that made the government – made people in Cross River State go and demand that the Governor should explain himself and if he can’t explain himself, he should leave office – they are doing it under the operational command and control of the President. So even … so he cannot even, there’s none of this “Nothing to do with me, my hands are clean” approach.

RS: But there are two questions which we need to look at.  And one of them is: What is the difference between the state and the individual?  Because often when there is criticism of an individual’s action, or there is a report that points out that an individual has acted in a certain way in public office, which that person is not expected to, that’s one side of it.  The other side is, when the state by way of implementing or not implementing its policy, is reported on in a critical way, and so far it seems that many of the state governments increasingly cannot tell the difference between either the report on an individual in government, a report that points out action or inaction of the government, or something that is just done as basic freedom of speech, where someone says: I don’t think that person can be governor or president any more, because they have failed to deliver …

AO: Yeah.  I mean, you don’t …  Let me say, you … this idea that if I want to say  this man should resign, I have to give my reasons, and then you use those reasons to hang me.  I don’t think that really flies very well with me. But I think that as a demonstrator, as a citizen, it is not the citizen who is protesting who has to start distinguishing between the state and the individual.  However, the individual who happens to be exercising state power must make that distinction, because if the  individual is accused of being stupid, or clueless, or corrupt, those are accusations against the individual.  Now … 

RS: All of those are not offences.

AO: My point is that I can call someone, I can say: “This action is corrupt”, or “this person is clueless, this person is stupid, this person is incompetent, and all these things mean that they should go”, but when I now am called “clueless, corrupt” is it right for me to use the apparatus of the state to protect my own person and dignity, under some specious guise of the dignity of the office that blah blah blah.  And I think that this is the distinction, this is where the people who need to make the distinction between the individual and the state should … that’s where the issue should lie, not on the citizen who exercises their right to protest, to call for removal, even to abuse the holder of any particular public office. So I think that I would rather say that we the protesting citizen are not expected to become lawyers.  We can have our complaints, we can demonstrate, unless there is some concrete evidence, or some concrete case being made out, because I am very much aware that in the case of Sowore, the allegation is that he was meeting with IPOB in order to …

RS: That’s one of the allegations.

AO: It’s one of them, but I mean, even on that one, as I’ve said, if I were looking for votes in a forthcoming election, I would certainly meet with an organisation which was instructing its own supporters not to vote, because I would say: “Come and get your people to vote for me!”  That’s a legitimate thing about which one could be having a meeting. So I’m not even … even the sort of idea of having meetings with people who the Nigerian state does not … or for whom the Nigerian state has no love and vice versa, that in itself is also not a cause …  After all, who knows? Maybe people are going to make peace.  You know, in Britain, the leader of the opposition is often accused of having “shared a platform” with the IRA, the Irish Republican Army, which was literally taken up arms to remove the government of Britain from Northern Ireland.  Now that’s an actual military campaign. But an organisation that has not set out on a military campaign, and you’re meeting with them to even persuade them not to … I mean, anyway, I’m not his lawyer so I’m not going to …

RS: And the accusers there then made peace with the IRA.

AO: Well they did.  And they spoke to them!

RS:  And they spoke to them.  And not only shared platform, but in some places, shared power!

AO: Yes.  So I think, that in this our, I think that what the discussion that we’ve had so far (and I know that you’re going to have Fiery Femi Falana and others on to … who are actually representing some of the people who are victims of this), but I think that the discussion that we are having so far underlines that it’s very difficult to just say: “These people are against government, and once you’re against …” because I remember during my time as CLO President, I was always being met: “Ah!  Haven’t they arrested you yet? Ha ha ha!” And I would say: “No, they haven’t arrested me.”

RS: And that was under the military.

AO: Under military rule.  But what I did notice was that while the military were not necessarily going to be arresting me for protesting about military rule and calling for democracy, anybody who got near their  money, their sources of money, and where they were squirrelling it away, how they were getting it; those were the people who were more in danger. Of course, once CLO and others started to actually threaten their grip on power, then we became targets for other reasons, but before they began to feel that the Nigerian people were no longer afraid of their bullets and so on, and were ready to rise up  throw them out, they were going after people who were talking about their corrupt deals and tracing their money and exposing those.

RS: Especially some investigative news magazines.

AO: Yeah.  And I do feel that in the way that we are seeing things in Nigeria today, the … a lot of what is being done …  As I said, there’s the security angle which already has its K-leg, but underneath some of it, particularly … certainly in this case in Cross River, it seems that what is really behind it, is that the man is saying is: “There’s corruption here, and we want to … we want an explanation”.  And the citizens are entitled to protest against that.

RS: And for that, the State Government there is  responding, using the apparatus of the state …

AO: Using the apparatus of the State …  

RS: … to silence journalists and critics 

AO: … and using terminology like treason and so on which has been made fashionable by the Federal Government …

RS: by the Federal Government 

AO: … itself, and the police now have  this ‘treason’ go-to tool in their pocket.

RS: In fact, at the state, this particular State Government not only drew up what to any reasonable person seems like  spurious charges, but then went on to link that particular journalist with Sowore.  

AO: Because of the Revolution Now

RS: Eh heh, in attempt  … and say they also know each other!

AO:  Yeah, a lot of people know each other, it’s not a … I mean, in a 170 million people, it’s still a fairly closed circle.  But I think that what I would end by saying (because I know my time is about coming up), is that when we have, there’s a lot of focus about what happens in Abuja, and what happens in Lagos, I mean, for example, the police go to seal up the offices of Sahara Reporters, it’s known about immediately.  We happen to know about …


AO: We happen to know about this situation in Cross River and there are more that are coming up, but it does seem to me that there are many more assaults on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly going on at the state level.  Laurie Lee talked about “incest flourishing in the places where the roads are bad”; I think that abuses of government power tend to flourish more in the places where the media eye is not so focused, and I think that is a danger for us, particularly those of us who are … saying that we need state police, we need decentralisation, we need a greater degree of federalism.  That when State Governors abuse their powers in these ways, it’s something that we who are possibly closer in the centre, we need to also keep our eye very much open to that. Luckily we have social media, that before, what you could keep hidden can no longer be hidden as it was, but even then, the national attention tends to be focused on what Buhari is doing, and not on what Governor X in State Y is up to.  And it all tends to the issue of Accountability. I think also that to me, when you use state power for personal things, it is in itself a corrupt act, and it says something about your lack of Integrity.

I think I better stop now, and ask that you join me on IDEAS Radio next week, because we always have plenty to say!

RS: Thank you so much Ayo.

AgO: Alright.  So we’ll take a quick break, and the conversation will continue right after this.  Please keep listening.

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