IN a bizarre exercise that lasted for hours on Sunday, soldiers invaded and occupied the head office of Media Trust Limited, publishers of the Daily Trust titles, in Abuja, sending away journalists and other staff. They ransacked the newsroom, carted away dozens of computers and effectively strangulated the production of the Monday edition of the paper. This was the culmination of the assault on the media house which began earlier in the day when a detachment of soldiers and other security operatives stormed the Maiduguri regional office of the company and arrested the Regional Bureau Chief, Uthman Abubakar, and a reporter, Ibrahim Sawab. In the same vein, soldiers stormed the company’s office in Agidingbi, Lagos, crippling its operations.
In reaction, the Federal Government directed the soldiers to vacate the newspapers’ premises. According to the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu: “Issues between the military and the newspaper as they affect the coverage of the war in the North-East will be resolved through dialogue.’’ On its part, the Daily Trust management detailed the assaults on the paper, indicating that they could have been influenced by its lead story on Sunday which dwelt on the military’s efforts to retake some towns recently reported to have been lost to insurgents. During the invasion of its premises in Maiduguri and Abuja, it said, the soldiers asked for the reporters who wrote the story.
But in a statement apparently targeted at damage control on Monday, the Nigerian Army said it invaded the offices of the publishing company to invite its staff over its lead story which “divulged classified military information, thus undermining national security.” Its grouse: the story gave the Boko Haram sect prior notice of the Army’s plans, thus sabotaging the planned operation and putting the lives of troops in imminent danger. Naturally, though, the crude assault on press freedom was received with outrage in the polity. For instance, reacting to the incident in a statement signed by its National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Kunle Edun, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) condemned the invasion, insisting that neither the Army nor any agency of the government was permitted to operate outside the ambit of the law.
It said: “While the NBA is loath to speculate on the motives behind the said invasion, it is instructive to state that respect for the rule of law is an integral part of any democratic culture and, therefore, all agencies and departments of government cannot be seen to be acting above the law. The power of arrest, detention and prosecution for any civil offence remains within the purview of the Nigerian Police and other prosecutorial agencies. The Nigerian Army is not one of them.” It enjoined the military authorities and other agencies of government to exercise great restraint and follow due process in their operations.
On its part, the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) declared that the army’s action was not expected in a democracy, as it amounted to the intimidation of the media which had always partnered with it. According to it,“The picture painted by this brutal and primitive incursion into the workplace of a media organisation in a democracy in the 21st century not only does incalculable damage to the psyche of Nigerians, young and old, it also de-markets the country before the rest of the world. The manner of this operation hatched with precision and coordinated fashion at three different locations shows that it was planned and painstakingly executed for maximum effect. It is a throwback to the dark days of the military rule, an era Nigerians do not remember with an ounce of nostalgia.”
It is indeed difficult to rationalise the assault on Daily Trust. If indeed all that the army planned to do was to invite the paper’s editors and reporters, it could have done so in a courteous and democratic manner, thus avoiding the psychological trauma it subjected them to in the name of national security, and the portrayal of the country in bad light. If anything, it has provided no basis as yet for concluding that the paper is not a partner in the counter-terrorism efforts in the North-East. More fundamentally, journalists disclose information about military operations because that information is made available by the military itself. Truth be told, the pattern of military operations are indicated in the press releases that it issues from time to time, often without circumspection. For instance, in December, no less a personality than the Chief of Army Staff, Lt-General Tukur Buratai, indicated that the army now had new uniforms that could save soldiers’ lives. According to him, “The uniform is technology-based, it will be tagged wherever you are; it sends signals when you are in danger.” Pray, what could be more classified than this information provided by the army boss in an open forum?
The foregoing notwithstanding, the press is duty-bound to be highly selective in publishing stories on issues of national security. It is standard practice for the heads of the security agencies to brief media chiefs on ongoing operations at a private forum, and to solicit cooperation with regard to the coverage of certain stories. This, we hasten to say, the press has always done. The assault on Daily Trust is completely unjustified and, beyond expressing a readiness for dialogue, the government and the army must tender an unreserved apology to the paper and pay compensation to it for the material losses it incurred following the army invasion. Needless to say, such incidents must not recur.