Nigerian police are searching for the suspects in the killings of three journalists in two separate incidents on 24 April. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Africa program coordinator Tom Rhodes says police so far have not been able to assign motives to either incident.
“In all of these murder cases, the evidence is incredibly murky, and it’s difficult to know if it’s a group or if it’s an individual or a combination of the two. The only trend which seems to be falling by the wayside is this near-assumption that all of these murders are simply the results of armed robberies. The facts on the ground simply don’t add up,” he said.
In one incident, amid Muslim-Christian tensions in the restive city of Jos, Plateau State, a mob of Muslim rioters killed two journalists, Deputy Editor Nathan Dabak, 36, and reporter Sunday Gyang Bwede, 39, working for the Christian newspaper The Light Bearer. The pair was covering a flare-up of Muslim rioters reacting to the alleged discovery of a Muslim corpse near a church and were stabbed while riding on a motorcycle to interview a local politician about the uproar.
Also on 24 April, armed gunmen entered the suburban Lagos house of The Nation newspaper reporter Edo Sole Ugbagwu. They shot him and fled without taking anything.
New York-based CPJ, which tracks assaults and murders of reporters around the globe, conducts its own probes of such incidents and, according to program coordinator Rhodes, heightened political tensions with the government – not necessarily simmering religious tensions in Jos -- are believed to be at the root of the violent deaths.
“The impression we get from a lot of journalists on the ground there is these are actually targeted killings, not necessarily from government authorities, but people that may have previously been in government or have ties to government who want to silence the critical reporting,” he said.
On 28 April, four other journalists who covered the recent dismissal of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission Chairman Maurice Iwu, received anonymous death threats, which suggest that they, too, would suffer the fate of Nigerian journalists, including Ugbagwu, who were eliminated. Identical text messages read, “We will deal with you soon. Remember Dele Giwa, Bayo Ohu, and Edo Ugbagwu?”
CPJ’s Tom Rhodes says Ugbagwu was a court reporter for the Nation, who had not been working on a particularly sensitive story prior to his murder. Ugbagwu’s brother, Okhlaho, told reporters that he witnessed his brother’s execution by two armed gunmen who drove off in a red Honda without taking any money.
“What makes this case interesting in comparison to the case of Bayo Ohu, who was a news editor for The Guardian, who was also killed in roughly the same Lagos suburb area last year, the police almost immediately passed it off as an armed, violent robbery and took the case as such. In this case, they are not jumping to that conclusion so quickly, which makes one wonder that perhaps, it is a targeted killing,” he pointed out.
Ugbagwu is the third journalist killed in the Lagos suburbs in less than two years. In addition to Bayo Ohu, who was shot at his home last September, a member of This Day’s editorial board, Paul Abayomi Ogundeji, was gunned down in August, 2008. Rhodes says Lagos police have not been able to solve any of the murders.
“In the case of Bayo Ohu, they have five suspects currently in custody, and they have claimed that they have recovered the laptop Bayo Ohu was using. However, according to journalists, the laptop is not the right one. So, it’s still in the air whether they’ve arrested the appropriate suspects or not,” he said.
Although the Committee to Protect Journalists finds the process of ranking countries in terms of violence or press freedoms is often subjective and possibly misleading, CPJ recently issued a ranking of countries noted for violent crimes against reporters. For Africa, he admits there is a good correlation between good governance and how much of a free press a country has.
“We released quite recently the Impunity Index, countries where the unsolved murders of journalists have ranked the highest in terms of the killers getting away with the murder itself. One of the countries, which lands quite high on the list from sub-Saharan Africa is, of course, Somalia,” he notes, citing the Horn of Africa country’s inadequate justice system.
While Nigeria does not rank among the top 10 worst offenders for impunity, Rhodes says its impunity index is quite high because there have been a host of gradually drawn out, unsolved murders of Nigerian journalists since 1986, when Dele Giwa, the editor and founder of Newswatch magazine, was killed by a mail bomb in his home.