WASHINGTON - A journalist for VOA’s Hausa language service was detained for five hours Saturday while on assignment near Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
Grace Alheri Abdu was in Oyigbo, a town near the Rivers State capital Port Harcourt, to cover a story about protests in Nigeria and to speak with business owners and families affected by violence.
On her way back, she passed a police station that protesters had burned down. Abdu introduced herself to an officer there, and says she had her microphone and ID, showing she was a journalist.
But when she walked past the building to take photographs, a second soldier stopped her and demanded to know who she was and where she was going.
Abdu said the soldier knocked her phone to the ground, took away her microphone and threatened her. A group of about 10 soldiers detained and threatened to beat her, accusing her of being “enemies of the country.”
Army spokesperson Col. Sagir Musa referred VOA to his deputy for comment. The deputy did not respond to calls and a text message Wednesday. VOA did not receive a response to an email requesting comment, sent to an address listed on the army’s social media platforms.
A person who witnessed the incident sent an account of what he saw to a contact at the West African Journalist Association and asked them to contact the U.S. Embassy, to try to get help for the journalist.
In his account, which was later shared with VOA, the person said he saw the journalist walk toward soldiers in a tent, to ask their permission, and then proceed to take photos. “Suddenly the soldiers rushed her and seized her phone. They were cursing and insulting her,” his account said. VOA has not named the person because he feared retaliation.
Abdu says the soldiers took her to where they were stationed outside the burned police station. “Most of them looked high on something,” she said, and all were armed.
The journalist was held for five hours before being released without formal arrest or charge. She says soldiers accused her of lying and asked her to delete the images on her phone.
At one point, a commandant said Abdu would be released after she agreed to write a letter of apology. Abdu refused, saying, “I’m not apologizing for something I haven’t done.”
Eventually, Abdu was released and one of the soldiers flagged down a delivery driver to take her to her hotel. Later that night, some of the soldiers called and asked her not to tell anyone about what happened because they could get in trouble.
Abdu, who is usually based in Washington, D.C., was in Nigeria to cover protests against police violence.
Being detained by military was a first for Abdu, but she says the experience gave her the opportunity to speak with Nigerians about their lives.
“Riding with the delivery man offered me a rare opportunity to get a more deeper insight into the daily life and struggle of people like Mr. Peter, which I wouldn’t have heard in my two-day stay in Port Harcourt,” she told VOA. “The delivery van became a classroom for both of us.”
Abdu added, “My interaction with some of the military officers while under their custody made me sympathetic to their working conditions. My time with the delivery driver was priceless.”
It’s not uncommon for journalists at VOA or other networks under the U.S. Agency for Global Media to face intimidation or arrest. The reporters can face risks daily, and some are harassed or imprisoned for their work.
Elez Biberaj, acting director of VOA, said, “This incident is a reminder of the risks Voice of America journalists face in covering news in hostile environments. We will continue to aggressively cover the situation in Nigeria and in other trouble spots to bring fair and accurate stories to our audiences around the world.”