The Safety of Journalists and the Impact on their families

This investigation is part of the Justice for Journalists Foundation Investigative Grant Programme and was originally published by Daily Trust).

Since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, no fewer than 19 journalists have been killed – mostly in questionable circumstances. Daily Trust Saturday tracks some of these murders, capturing the anguish of the victims’ families in search of justice.

Life has not remained the same for Mrs Bose Onifade since she lost her only son, Pelumi Onifade to a gruesome murder. At 20, Pelumi, a 200-level Mass Communication student at Taiye Solarin University (TASUED) in Ogun State was just starting out as a journalist with Gboa TV when he met his untimely death in the violence that erupted during the October 2020 #EndSARS protest in Lagos. 

Pelumi was reportedly shot dead by policemen attached to the Lagos State Task Force, who raided the Abattoir area of the state where he had gone to interview some traders whose shops were looted by hoodlums.

More than two years after, the grief is still fresh. Aside from the difficulty in getting justice, his bereaved mother is devastated that Pelumi’s corpse has not been released by the Lagos State Government for burial.

“It is only God that can judge those who killed him. In Nigeria, if you don’t know people you are nothing, but I have God. He went to interview some people in the Abattoir area that day. We were looking for him, only to find his corpse at the Ikorodu mortuary. We were later told that his body had been moved from the mortuary to another one.

“I am appealing to Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu to intervene so that Pelumi’s corpse will be released. They did a DNA test for me in 2021 at a government hospital in Ikeja to identify the corpse and promised to call me when the result was ready, but nobody has called me since then,” Bose said, sobing.  

As the first child, every member of the family looked up to Pelumi as a young, promising man who would liberate the family from the shackles of poverty. This was a lofty dream the family held dear, only to be shattered unexpectedly.

“We are poor people. Schools were on holidays due to the COVID-19 lockdown and he was working in a television station to raise some funds to buy books,” the grieving mother continued, trying to suppress tears.

She also said, “Pelumi was my ‘husband,’ friend and brother. Every day I remember him, it is a big sorrow. Before the incident happened, we were discussing my birthday and he promised that we would celebrate it, not knowing that two days to my birthday I would not see him again.

“Everything is in God’s hands, but I know that if Pelumi was alive, my life would be better. I miss him so much. I relocated from my former residence because I always took ill. My dad was sick because of Pelumi’s death. He didn’t have a male child, so he loved him so much. He died in October 2022.”

Bose said she attended a panel of enquiry set up by the state government to investigate the #EndSARS killings, including Pelumi’s, but since the panel concluded its enquiry, she had not heard anything about the case.

Asked why the corpse has not been released, the Commissioner for Information and Strategy in Lagos State, Mr Gbenga Omotosho said, “The mother can go to Yaba mortuary with a proof of evidence. She should go for the DNA result.

“Regarding the #EndSARS panel, we have done almost everything the white paper (on the panel investigation) stated. But we have no power to prosecute soldiers or policemen. We have sent those cases to the federal government,” Omotosho added.

One death too many

Pelumi was one of the journalists in Nigeria and across the world killed in the line of duty. Ahead of the International Human Rights Day, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on December 10, 2022 restated the need for the international community to take concrete action to protect the safety and freedom of journalists, saying it recorded a spike in the number of journalists killed or imprisoned in 2022.

The IFJ said it recorded 67 killings of journalists and media staff in 2022, compared to 47 in the preceding year – a reversal of the decline recorded in recent years.

Through its media freedom project, the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID) tracked cases of assault on journalists, including cyber attacks, which it said imperiled journalists from performing their job effectively.

In November 2022, the Media Rights Agenda (MRA) stated that at least 19 Nigerian journalists were brutally murdered since Nigeria’s return to democracy in May 1999. They include Fidelis Ikwuebe, a freelance journalist with The Guardian in Anambra State; Enenche Akogwu, a Channels TV reporter in Kano; Sam Nimfa-Jan, an NTA reporter killed in Jos; Maxwell Nashal of the Federal Radio Corporation (FRCN) in Adamawa; Precious Owolabi of Channels TV in Abuja; Titus Badejo of Naija FM in Oyo; Tordue Salem of Vanguard in Abuja, among others.

The MRA lamented that investigations and prosecution of the perpetrators were inconclusive. Bayo Ohu’s case is one of many.

An assistant news editor at The Guardian, Bayo, was shot dead in his home in the Egbeda area of Lagos one Sunday morning in 2009 – right before his then 10-month-old daughter, Modesodun, who is now 14.

In what was suspected to be an assassination, the assailants only went away with his phone and laptop and didn’t attack other residents within the compound. Although some suspects were arrested and paraded by the Lagos State police command, nothing has been heard of the case.

Getting closure to the tragic killing and ensuring that the perpetrators are brought to book is the least consolation Bayo’s wife, Mrs Blessing Ohu and his five children would want. However, the possibilities of achieving it narrow by the day as the police have failed to follow the case to a logical conclusion.

In May 2012, the court freed three suspects charged with Ohu’s murder, on the ground that the prosecution failed to prove the case.

After searching for justice for years to no avail, Blessing said she had decided to move on with life.

“The police paraded some criminals and it was even televised. After that, I don’t know what happened again. If there was any development, perhaps they would have called me, but nobody did. Everybody knows that in Nigeria, when it comes to justice, until you get it you can’t be sure of it. I won’t say that justice was served because I only knew they paraded some suspects.

“We all know what is supposed to be done, but I never heard that somebody was jailed because of the matter. But if the police feel that justice has been served, I leave everything to God,” she remarked, solemnly.

Recalling how the murder occurred, the widow said she had to weather the storm and step in to fill the vacuum left by her husband’s sudden death.

She said, “It is God that has kept us through. I would describe that day as one of the darkest parts of my life because one minute you were out happy, the next minute you were back, sad and sorrowful.

“I went to church that day, and barely 40 minutes after, I got a call. The person was screaming ‘come home.’ My baby was 10 months old then and I wondered what could have happened to her. As I was pondering over it, my little niece, who was staying with us, came and said armed robbers came to the house and shot my husband.

“I fainted at that moment. After I was revived and got home, his body had been taken away. There was blood everywhere. The children were very young then, so for a long time they believed that their dad travelled and would come back. Dad never came back and I kept telling them that he had gone to heaven. That was how they began to understand that he would no longer come back.

“The burden of taking care of the children is on me, but I must pick up the challenge. What I can do, I do and leave the ones I can’t to God. Bayo was a loving father and husband. He was the eyes of the extended family and made sure everyone was happy.”

Like Pelumi and Bayo’s cases, the mystery behind the gruesome killing of Zakariyah Isa, a reporter at the Nigerian Television Authority, has remained unresolved since October 2011.

Isa was shot dead in front of his residence in Maiduguri, Borno State by some Boko Haram terrorists who reportedly accused him of spying on them for the Nigerian security authorities.

Neighbours who were alarmed by the gunshots that night reportedly caught some people suspected to have carried out the dastardly act. But that was all the family knew of the case, 11 years after.

Overwhelmed by the burden of looking after seven children, Isa’s wife, 42-year-old Maryam Isa, told Daily Trust Saturday that the family had resigned to fate, believing that justice may be elusive after all.

She said, “I don’t know if the security agents have arrested the people that killed my husband, and I can’t tell if those caught were the killers. For me, it is past; my only prayer and hope is to get the support for my children to live well and get the best.”

Maryam revealed that before the incident, they depended on Isa’s income to eke out a living, noting that his death had further impoverished the family.

She said, “I will never forget the day he was killed. It was October 22, 2011, around 7pm, after the evening prayer. I was inside the house nursing Hafsat (the last child) and preparing dinner when I suddenly heard gunshots. I was scared.

“It was like a dream to me. He was buried the following day. The then Governor Kashim Shettima attended the burial. After his death, life became more difficult for us. I wanted to withdraw the children from school, but one of my late husband’s colleagues in the NTA sponsored their education.

“She also bought a grinding machine for me and encouraged me to be strong. Hafsat is in Primary 5; her sister just finished junior WAEC and will be entering SS1. My son, Umar, got admission into a polytechnic, but I don’t have money, so he is at home.”

Children grapple with sorrow

One of Isa’s children, Nufal, was enjoying fatherly pampering when the tragedy struck. She had no inkling that the bond would be cruelly truncated.

“I miss my dad so much. Sometimes when I see my friend’s fathers buy things for them, I feel sad and wish my father was alive. I think of him anytime I am alone,” the 14-year-old girl disclosed.

Gibson Godfrey Boyi is in the same shoes as Nufal. He was about six months old when his father, Samson Boyi, a photojournalist at the Adamawa State-owned newspaper, The Scope, was killed.  Samson was shot dead in 1999 by some gunmen who attacked the convoy of a former governor of the state, Malam Haruna Boni.

Gibson, now 22, grew up to know his father on photographs. He told our correspondent that his father’s untimely demise threw the family into a huge financial crisis. His education and that of his five siblings is stuck after secondary school. They are now into farming to fend for themselves and their mum.

He said, “I was told about his death. I don’t know my father; I only saw his pictures. His death affected us seriously. Life is very hard for us. If he was alive things would not be this bad. All of us could not proceed beyond secondary education because of funding.”

He said the family had taken solace in God as they don’t know anyone that could help them get justice on the matter. 

“No effort to ensure justice because we don’t have people who can fight for our cause. We can’t tell the government what to do. But I believe that God would fight on our behalf,” he added.

25 journalists killed in Sierra Leone, Ghana, others

Apart from Nigeria, in English-speaking West African countries comprising Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia, The Gambia and part of Cameroon, at least 25 journalists have been killed in controversial circumstances, records have shown.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 18 journalists were killed in Sierra Leone between 1992 and 2022, either while covering dangerous assignments or through targeted murder. The CPJ also noted that 2067 journalists were killed globally during the period, 934 of which were directly linked to reports done by the deceased. Sadly, of the 2067 killings, 2004 cases, representing about 97 per cent, remain unresolved.   

In Ghana, three journalists were killed between 2007 and 2019. They are George Abanga of Success FM, Samuel Enin of Ashh FM and Ahmed Hussein Suale, who was shot dead in Accra. Suale worked with an undercover reporter, Anas Aremeyaw Anas of Tiger Eye Private Investigations, to uncover corruption in Ghanaian football.

In another calculated murder, a Liberian journalist, Tyron Brown, 24, was killed in April 2018. A black vehicle reportedly dropped Brown’s corpse outside his home and zoomed off.

One of the most respected journalists in The Gambia, Deyda Hydara, was killed in December 2004. In July 2019, Al-Jazeera reported that an army officer admitted before a truth commission that he was involved in the act and accused former President Yahya Jammeh of ordering the journalist’ murder.

“We opened fire, myself, Alieu Jen and Sana Manjang,” Lieutenant Malick Jatta said at the public hearing.

“Our commander, Captain Tumbul Tamba, was communicating to the former president, Yahya Jammeh, on the phone during the operation,” he said.

Jatta told the commission that his commanding officer later gave him an envelope containing dollars, which he said was a “sign of appreciation from the big man (a reference to Jammeh),” a reference to Jammeh.

In Cameroon, a freelancer, Ngota Ngota Germain, 38, was killed in April 2010, while a broadcast journalist, Samuel Wazizi, who had been imprisoned since August 2, 2019, died in detention in suspicious circumstances. Wazizi, a presenter on Chillen Media Television (CMTV), died in a military hospital in Yaoundé.

“I am deeply concerned about the circumstances surrounding the death of Samuel Wazizi,” the director-general of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, had said, calling on the authorities of Cameroon to investigate the death.

Police fail to provide update on cases

Daily Trust Saturday reached out to police public relations officers in Lagos, Adamawa and Borno to find out the current status of the cases tracked by this paper, but none of them could give update for more than a week.

The Lagos police public relations officer, SP Benjamin Hundeyin, said he contacted the State Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department to get information on Bayo’s murder but was yet to get a feedback.

When contacted in December, the police spokesperson in Adamawa, Sulaiman Nguroje, said it would be difficult to find records on the murder of Samson Boyi, which occurred in 1999.

He promised to get back as soon as he got details of the case. Subsequently, he did not pick calls from our reporter or respond to a text message sent to him.

Efforts to speak to the spokesman of the Borno command, Mohammed Shatambaya on Isa’s case also proved abortive as he did not respond to phone calls and text messages.

Meanwhile, the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) said there was the need for an overhaul of the country’s criminal justice system to ensure prompt prosecution and dispensation of justice.

The CDHR president, Dr Osagi Obayuwana, observed that victims of crimes lost interest in pursuing the matter on account of delayed prosecution, and sometimes, intimidation.

He said, “The victimisation of journalists arising from the discharge of their duty to the society tends to be a matter that is perpetrated by the government – probably because they stumbled into some sensitive information which the government feels embarrassed about. We remember Dele Giwa’s case, Tunde Thomson and others.

Journalists suffer unjust deprivation of their liberty for being the watchdog of the society.

“However, there is an issue of funding of the police to work effectively and commit to professional excellence. So, cases that end up being prosecuted are a very small percentage.  When we have a Nigeria of our dreams that is more responsive, these issues will be resolved. Civil servants are not motivated to show commitment to excellence.” 

CJP, NUJ condemn murders, demand justice

Jonathan Rozen, a senior researcher at the CPJ, said attacks against journalists in Nigeria remained a serious problem and posed huge obstacles to freedom of press entrenched in the constitution and international conventions.

He observed that too often, journalists in Nigeria experienced threat or violent attacks, and in some cases, killings, without those responsible being held accountable.

“Impunity is a major issue. What we really need to see from the authorities – those with the mandate to investigate crime against journalists and curb impunity – is the political will to act and deliver on that mandate,” he told Daily Trust Saturday.

Rozen noted that oftentimes, authorities in Nigeria and around the world spoke of accountability, but failed to act.

“In order to curb impunity, there is a need for action for justice in these cases so that the families can receive closure on these killings,” he urged.  

The national president, Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Chris Isiguzo, said the union would not relent in demanding justice for slain members, adding that it was working with other organisations to ensure that rights of journalists are protected.

“Where we need to engage the service of a legal practitioner, we do, but we can only do this when members of the union are involved. We continue to say that if you are a practitioner, ensure that you regularise your membership with the union so that when there is an issue, the union can take it up,” he said.

Instructively, organisations like the CJID, MRA, NUJ, CPJ, CDHR and other civil society organizations, are unequivocal in their demand for protection for journalists and justice for those killed in the line of duty. They want the relevant authorities to pursue the cases to a logical end and bring the culprits to book.