Fears over crackdown on free speech as Nigeria refuses to release prominent journalist
Posted November 14, 2019 7:04 a.m. EST
CNN — A former presidential candidate and journalist is being held by Nigeria's security forces despite being twice granted bail, his lawyer told CNN.
Omoyele Sowore, is an investigative journalist and founder of the New York-based news site Sahara Reporters, who was arrested in August by the country's intelligence agency, the Department of State Services (DSS).
He is charged with treason felony for organizing a Revolution Now protest, which the government said was an attempt to disrupt peace in the nation.
He is also charged with cyberstalking President Muhammadu Buhari and money laundering. Sowore has pleaded not guilty to the charges. One week after meeting his bail conditions, the journalist is still being held, his lawyer Femi Falana said Wednesday.
'A full-blown dictatorship'
DSS officials said in a statement sent to CNN that Sowore was yet to be released because the appropriate persons -- his sureties-- had not come to pick him up and those that have shown up are not his recognized sureties.
They added that Sowore's lawyer is aware of the procedures that have to be met before his release.
"For the avoidance of doubt, the service restates its commitment to the rule of law and particularly (with) respect to the court. It, therefore, calls for calm but states that it will not be intimidated or harassed into hasty actions," DSS said in a statement.
The journalist's lawyer has denied the claims.
"We sent people to get him; those we sent were teargassed. He has been detained for three months, and it simply means we are back to the days of full-blown dictatorship," Falana told CNN.
The journalist had previously been granted bail in September after six weeks in detention but the DSS failed to release him. Instead, Sowore was hauled back to court in October where another judge set new, more stringent, conditions for his release.
An activist told CNN that DSS operatives opened fire to disperse demonstrators and journalists covering protests calling for Sowore's freedom outside the agency's office in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, on Tuesday.
"They attacked us and started firing live ammunition. Two journalists were injured in the chaos, and they even smashed the phones of an activist that got the incident on tape. Instead of them releasing the journalist, they addressed us with bullets," Deji Adeyanju told CNN.
DSS spokesman Peter Afunnaya denied officers fired bullets at demonstrators. He said the crowd was unruly and had tried to break into the agency's office to free the journalist.
But activists have shared videos showing security operatives spraying tear gas at protesters. In one video, gunshots can be heard as people run in different directions.
Rights group Amnesty International Nigeria condemned the attack on a reporter and activists during the protest.
Sowore's arrest and continued detention have led to other protests and criticism against the government about press freedom in the West African nation.
Demonstrations calling for Sowore's release were held in New York in September outside the UN General Assembly, while in October, residents in the New Jersey neighborhood, where his family lives, took to the streets to protest against his detention.
A climate of violence
Concerns have been raised that journalists in Nigeria are increasingly under threat in the current administration.
Jonathan Rozen, Africa research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote in April that the media watchdog had documented cases of assaults and harassment of journalists under Buhari's government.
In January, Nigerian soldiers invaded the office of a local newspaper in Maiduguri, Borno state, and took away two reporters over an article the army claimed revealed classified information about its anti-terrorism operations in the country's northeast.
Two other journalists, Jones Abiri and Agba Jalingo are currently facing charges related to their reporting. Abiri was previously detained by security forces for two years, without access to a lawyer or his family.
Nigeria ranks 120 among 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. The international organization said a climate of violence has made holding the powerful accountable "problematic" for journalists in the nation.
CPJ said at least four journalists covering the Revolution Now protests organized by Sowore were detained in Rivers state in August.
'A dangerous and critical place'
Sowore's wife expressed concerns for the safety of her husband and those calling for his freedom.
"The situation in Nigeria has escalated to a dangerous and critical place. I'm scared for my husband's life and the lives of all journalists -- and frankly, anyone who speaks the truth under Buhari's rule," Ope Sowore told CNN.
"Guns fired at journalists. Witnesses describe a violent scene erupting at the hands of DSS armed guards and evidence of journalists being beaten and injured," she added.
Presidential spokesman Garba Shehu said the Buhari administration respects the constitutional rights of citizens and opposition to protest peacefully, but he said that was not what Sowore was trying to do.
"Sowore is an opposition (member) who is seeking power through another means," Shehu told CNN. "We cannot say that is about the media. The government has not prevented journalists from carrying out their assignment and duties."
Sowore has been an outspoken critic of past Nigerian governments. A former student union activist-turned-journalist-turned politician, he has been particularly critical of Buhari, whom he ran against in the country's general elections in February.
The anti-corruption campaigner has been scathing of Buhari's economic and security policies.
"This is the most difficult time to be a Nigerian. This country is not safe. ... This country is not working and the people who are leaders of this country are incompetent and they are not ready to change their ways," Sowore said in an interview with Arise television in July.
"There is hunger, starvation and insecurity in the land, the government has failed and until we take that necessary big step, not next level, Nigeria will not attain its potential," he said.