ABUJA, NIGERIA - The release of journalist and activist Omoyele Sowore from a Nigerian prison this week has triggered negative reactions from press freedom advocates in the country, with one calling it “still a loss” for Nigeria.
Supporters and journalists chattered in excitement Tuesday at Department of State Security headquarters in Abuja as a vehicle carrying Sowore approached. He stepped out and spoke about his Christmas Eve release after being held since August, despite two court orders calling for his immediate freedom.
"The only thing is to thank Nigerians; they made this happen and they should not relent,” he said. “Nobody can take a people who are determined for granted."
The journalist was arrested days ahead of a nationwide “Revolution Now” protest against what Sowore and his supporters say is bad governance in Nigeria.
Authorities said the decision to release the journalist was intended to set a good example of compliance with the law. Critics, however, faulted the government for attaching restrictions to the release, including a travel ban and limits on public association.
Human rights lawyer Marshall Abubakar said, “The release is not a win. As a matter of fact, I think it's still a loss for Nigeria. … The attorney general of the federation, Abubakar Malami, made a statement that he has taken over the case of Mr. Omoyele Sowole. We've always insisted that the charges in the first place should not even be."
Critics consider Sowore's arrest and detention an effort by the Nigerian government to censor the press and clamp down on free opinion.
Although authorities deny the accusation, President Muhammadu Buhari's media aide, Garba Shehu, said in a statement that Sowore's criticism of the government came from an advantaged position as a journalist and publisher of Sahara Reporters, a New York-based online news organization.
A coalition endorsing the protection of whistleblowers and press freedom in Nigeria said there had been more than 70 attacks on journalists and the media this year alone in the country.
An incident Monday, barely 24 hours before Sowore's release, resulted in injuries to protesters and journalists. The leader of the protest, Deji Adeyanju, was badly beaten and was being treated in Dubai.
Human rights activist Adebayo Raphael, who was among protesters at the Monday incident, said, “It is important that this kind of repressive environment is not allowed to thrive. Do you know that in the last four years, human rights and rule of law have been seriously battered in Nigeria?"
Abubakar accused the government of trying to hide its shortcomings.
"There's a calculated attempt by the government to gag the media to ensure that people do not expose their inadequacies, incompetence or express dissent,” he said. “We all cannot have the same opinion on issues. We all cannot agree at all times on all things."
In 2015, Nigerian authorities used a cybercrime law to justify the arrest of bloggers and journalists. Lawmakers now are considering two bills to regulate free speech on the internet and social media.