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Death of Nigerian Journalist Sharpens Focus on Declining Media Environment


Torkwase Kuraun, Sister of missing journalist Tordue Salem, looks at pictures of him in the family photo album at her home in Abuja, Nov. 4, 2021. (Timothy. Obiezu/VOA)

In an upper-class estate on the northern fringes of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, a black gate with iron bars leads into a cream-colored duplex that offers a good view of the city.

It is home to businesswoman Torkwase Kuraun and her husband Jeffrey Kuraun, a geologist with the Department of Petroleum Resources. And for two months, it also was home to Kuraun’s younger brother Tordue Salem, a parliamentary journalist for The Vanguard.

Salem moved in temporarily after gunmen attacked his apartment in Lugbe, some 20 kilometers southeast, in September. He escaped by a whisker.

When VOA visited earlier this month, a quietness had fallen around the house — a reflection of the uncertainty the family has faced since October 13.

That was the day when Salem, 43, went missing. For 28 days, his family and colleagues waited for news.

Finally, on November 11, they learned the journalist was dead.

An image of Nigerian journalist Tordue Salem from his Twitter account.
An image of Nigerian journalist Tordue Salem from his Twitter account.

National police said Salem had been hit by a car and his body taken to a hospital, which had not been able to identify the missing journalist.

Nigeria’s press community is mourning the reporter’s death. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives held a minute’s silence in his memory.

But Salem’s colleagues and family are not convinced by accounts of how he died. The Nigerian Union of Journalists has demanded an independent investigation.

Police have said that Salem had identity cards on him when he died, and a family friend, who had spoken with the journalist's relatives, said the body appeared to show signs of torture. The friend, who asked for anonymity out of concern for her safety, believes the journalist was privy to information that cost Salem his life but did not provide further details.

Police spokesperson Frank Mba did not respond to several calls requesting an interview.

Prior to Salem’s body being identified, police said they had questioned six people whom the reporter was in contact with the day he went missing. On Friday, the day after Salem’s body was identified, Mba paraded a man whom he says was driving the car that hit the journalist.

Torkwase Kuraun stands at the spot were her brother, Tordue Salem, was standing the morning of Oct. 13, 2021, the she last time she saw him, Nov. 04, 2021. (Timothy Obiezu/VOA)
Torkwase Kuraun stands at the spot were her brother, Tordue Salem, was standing the morning of Oct. 13, 2021, the she last time she saw him, Nov. 04, 2021. (Timothy Obiezu/VOA)

Dangers for media

Journalists in Nigeria have on occasion been attacked, abducted, or detained because of their reporting.

And while no one has been able to prove that Salem's disappearance is work-related, the earlier attack gave his family reason to be worried.

His sister Karaun said she had been worrying about her brother for months.

Holding back tears, she recalled the last time she saw Salem. "He was in front of the gate when I was leaving, so I just waved because he was on the phone.”

Salem was the only son in a family of seven — a big deal for a typical African home. His first name, Tordue, means “A King is Born” in the Tiv language of Nigeria's central Benue State, where the family are from.

His late parents waited so long for a son that they held a big celebration to mark his birth, Kuraun said, adding that she and Salem were always close.

"He's always there with me sitting on this couch and watching the television, news he likes. News, he doesn't watch football," she said, sobbing as she sat upon an L-shaped grey sofa.

With her younger sister, Angela Kpamkwase, who runs a restaurant business in Lagos, Kuraun launched a social media campaign to raise awareness of their brother's case. Kuraun created a WhatsApp group, adding journalists, friends, volunteers, private agents.

Bystanders read newspapers on a stall in Onitsha, Anambra State, southeastern Nigeria, on Nov. 5, 2021.
Bystanders read newspapers on a stall in Onitsha, Anambra State, southeastern Nigeria, on Nov. 5, 2021.

Colleagues in the media also campaigned, marching to police headquarters in Abuja last month and demanding action. The police spokesperson Mba addressed the crowd of journalists who were holding placards that read "Free the Press," "Enough is Enough," "Free Tordue Salem" and assured them the police were on top of the matter.

The Abuja march was an opportunity for many to address a wider issue – attacks on the media. In October alone, news crews were harassed while covering the anniversary of mass protests against police brutality, and they were barred from entering an Abuja courtroom during the trial of a separatist leader.

Arise News correspondent Adefemi Akinsanya is one of the reporters harassed while covering the October 20 protest memorial. She says police tried to seize the media company's drone and her colleague.

"They were trying to forcibly take our cameraman into custody, they were grabbing him off the ground, it was quite a scary experience,” Akinsanya said.

Security had cordoned the entire Lekki toll gate area — a flashpoint since the October 2020 protests known as the End SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) movement.

Videos of Adefemi and the security agents appeared on social media. She says the Lagos state police commissioner later apologized, but at that moment, she feared for her life.

"You see you cannot tell the story of End SARS without the toll gate, that's just it," freelancer Peter Oboh told VOA.

The Lagos-based videographer says he was filming in April, when police seized his camera, slapped him and dragged him into a vehicle.

At a police station, officers asked Oboh why he was trying to film the toll gate and searched his camera before releasing him after about two hours.

Such attacks come as civil society and media advocates warn of a poor climate for journalists under President Muhamadu Buhari’s government. News outlets have been fined, journalists harassed or detained, and the president in June banned Twitter after the social media platform deleted a comment he posted about a separatist group.

The Twitter ban was widely criticized by rights groups. But the government defended its decision, saying the platform too often has been used to promote violence and fake news.

Nigeria has declined five points on the media freedom ranking, falling to 120 out of 180 places, where 1 is the most free, according to Reporters Without Borders.

But Nigerian press freedom activist Raphael Adebayo says journalists must remain resilient and firm.

"We must continue to denounce very strongly this incessant desire to rein in freedom of expression, freedom of the press and all types of freedom that makes our democracy strong."

Media freedom also is important to Adefemi, who told VOA, “It's the hallmark of a free and just society and that is what we want from Nigeria, a free and just place.”

Nigerian journalists agree that without better treatment from authorities, the country will become too risky a place to work. But for Salem, those risks already may have cost him his life.

Back at the Kuraun house, Salem's room looks the same. His bed is made, and his clothes hang just the way he left them. The reporter’s family will be grieving his loss for a long time, and they will be waiting for answers that never may come.

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