THE invasion by the Police, of The Nation newspaper offices and the arrest of four editors and three other staff members in Lagos and Abuja was ill-advised. The police operation was barbaric and embarrassing in a democratic dispensation. Certainly, the police could have handled the situation more decently if indeed there was any infraction of the law.
The police claimed they were investigating an alleged criminality following the publication of an allegedly forged letter. Regrettably, the action portrays the crude tactics reminiscent of military regimes of the past. There is no basis in law for recourse to the rule of might such as that displayed by the police.
The Inspector General of Police Mr. Hafiz Ringim tried to justify the action by saying that the law enforcers acted upon a petition by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. The speed with which the police acted was, however unusual, raising curiosity on whether the authorities would have similarly responded had the petitioner been a less influential citizen. Ringim’s excuse has only raised posers about his operational style as the topmost law enforcement officer.
We do not question the duty of the Police to investigate crime or to prevent its commission. But this should be done within the limits of the rule of law. Against a newspaper that is ordinarily performing its constitutionally recognised duties, the police ought to exercise caution and reasonable decency in pursuing any inquiry, notwithstanding the source of the allegation. The need for such caution becomes even more expedient in the absence of any previous act of criminality on the part of the newspaper or its personnel.
It is also on record that many of the arrested workers of the newspaper actually went voluntarily to the police station in performance of their civic duties to help the police in their investigation. Clamping them subsequently into detention was an act that does not encourage the public to assist the police. In any event, couldn’t the police interrogate the editors and others summarily without subjecting them to incarceration overnight, or treating them like criminals? How then can the police absolve itself of suspicion of having intent to disrupt the newspaper’s operation or even prevent its publication the following day?
The police displayed ignorance of the operations of a media house – or pretended not to know – by shuffling even innocent non-editorial staff members into detention over a purely editorial judgment of the executives. President Goodluck Jonathan reportedly intervened at a point to direct the release of the last detained senior journalist, the Managing Editor, which was just as well. But must it take the president’s intervention to bring the police to order? Government too should have been more tolerant of media criticism or reports, considering that free information and expression of opinions are integral to the practice of democracy.
It is also curious that former President Obasanjo decided to petition the Presidency after he had publicly denied knowledge or authorship of any letter to the President on any public issue. Ordinarily his petition or apparent pressure on the authorities was needless, as he could have sued the newspaper for defamation, if he felt aggrieved by its publication. That is a much more acceptable way of pursuing grievances in a democratic setting. And as a former president, Obasanjo should have shown a credible example.
The police indiscretion has no doubt gone into the records of media monitoring groups around the world. The tragedy was instantly manifested at the Congress of World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and the World Editors Forum holding at the time in Austria. Yet it is the same police that would, at a much later date, deny breach of fundamental human rights when the documentation is presented for public consumption.
Government agencies, including the police, have a duty to better manage the country’s image, and by extension that of the government. They need to accommodate opposing views and display tolerance. They should be more civil in approach.
To perpetrate state terror in an atmosphere of freedom of information is antithetical to the new order. The editors’ travail was a major blow to freedom of the press enshrined in the constitution. It is an affront to democracy and a breach of the individuals’ fundamental human rights.
The watch-dog role of the press, as the fourth estate of the realm and custodian of the people’s freedom, ought to be guarded closely, and not allowed to be thwarted by some overzealous agents of the state. The groundswell of criticism that trailed the police action is a clear message – that the people are opposed to any brazen infringement of their rights, or arm-twisting by state officials. The police and other law enforcement agencies should learn a deep lesson from that message.
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