The Department of State Services (DSS) about 10:30p.m on Tuesday released detained Tony Ezimakor, the Abuja Bureau Chief of Independent Newspapers.
Ezimakor was arrested on Wednesday, last week, by DSS over a publication on the payment of about $2 million ransom to Boko Haram for the release of 82 abducted Chibok girls and how it has turned into a business venture.
Apparently embarrassed by the publication, the DSS invited and detained Ezimakor after harassing staff of Independent Newspapers at the Lagos office.
The DSS had insisted that he disclose sources of his information as a condition for his release. But Independent Newspapers had asked the DSS to go to court if it felt aggrieved with the publication.
On Friday, operatives of the agency stormed his residence and took away his laptop, personal and official documents, among other things, after turning his flat at Tundun Wada Extension of the Federal Housing, Lugbe, Abuja, inside out.
The civil society organisation, OURMUMUDONDO Movement, led by Charles Oputa, a.k.a. Charly Boy, and other rights groups, had vowed to occupy the headquarters of Department of State Services (DSS) in Maitama today.
Before his release Tuesday night, constitutional lawyers in the country joined the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), civil society organisations, and other institutions and individuals to demand the unconditional release of Tony Ezimakor.
An Abuja-based constitutional and human rights lawyer, Ifeanyi Ejiofor, said the detention of Ezimakor was unconstitutional and a clear violation of his fundamental human rights.
“The detention of the Bureau Chief is barbaric, unconstitutional, wicked and an act of impunity of the highest order,” Ejiofor said.
“The constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended, never permits anybody to detain a Nigerian for more than 48 hours.
“The detention of Mr. Ezimakor for more than 48 hours without an order of court is in clear violation of the provision of the constitution,” the legal practitioner stated.
Similarly, Kayode Ajulo, another renowned constitutional lawyer, condemned the act.
He said: “The law is so clear, you do not have to detain any Nigerian for more than 48 hours.
“If you have a case against anybody, you have the right to file a charge against the person, and not to put the person in custody indefinitely.
“It is better to go to court to secure an order, and if the DSS flouts it, then it becomes contemptuous.”
The human rights lawyer insisted it was wrong to detain Ezimakor without charging him to court.
“The DSS is a creation of the constitution and other laws. DSS is subject to Nigeria’s constitution and must obey the laws of the land,” he stressed.
Femi Falana (SAN), Lagos-based human rights activist and legal luminary, said on Tuesday that the operatives of DSS cannot force Tony Ezimakor to disclose the source of his information.
Falana argued that the DSS ought to offer an open apology to him since the agency acted illegally and unconstitutionally.
In a statement, Falana described the harassment of Ezimakor as a sad reminder of the case of Messrs Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, who were tried, convicted, and jailed by the Buhari/Idiagbon junta in 1984.
The duo, Falana recalled, was incarcerated over their refusal to disclose their source of information pertaining to a story published in The Guardian newspaper over ambassadorial postings by the military junta.
Part of the statement reads: “Regrettably, the State Security Service is yet to appreciate that a journalist cannot be forced to disclose his source of information under the current democratic dispensation.
“It is high time the attention of the State Security Service was drawn to Section 35(2) of the constitution which provides that ‘Any person who is arrested or detained shall have the right to remain silent or avoid answering any question until after consultation with a legal practitioner or any other person of his own choice’.
“Since Mr. Ezimakor is constitutionally entitled to ‘remain silent’, the State Security Services lacks the power to subject him to disclose the source of his information.”
Falana maintained that by arresting and detaining Ezimakor for the purpose of compelling him to disclose the source of a story written by him and published by the Independent Newspapers, “the State Security Services has acted malafide, illegally, and unconstitutionally.
“As Mr. Ezimakor has not committed any offence known to law the State Security Services should release him unconditionally, and publicly apologise to him in line with the requirement of Section 35(6) of the 1999 constitution of Nigerian (as amended).”
For his part, Femi Aborishade, notable human rights lawyer, took a swipe at the DSS.
Aborishade said the journalist deserved to be celebrated not persecuted by the secret police for doing an investigative piece that would add value to the country.
He said Ezimakor’s action was duly protected under Section 22 of the 1999 constitution.
That section of the constitution imposes a constitutional mandate on the mass media to make those who hold the reins of power responsible and accountable to the people.
The lawyer said it was ironic that a government that claimed to be fighting corruption now detains a journalist who did an investigative reporting with findings which contradicted the Federal Government’s claim that no ransom was paid to the Boko Haram insurgents for the release of the abducted Chibok girls.
Aborishade remarked that one of the values of Ezimakor’s story was that it directed attention to the possibility the Boko Haram phenomenon might have been turned into a business venture through which some public officers squandered the wealth of the country.
He said: “A government that is serious about fighting corruption ought to have partnered a journalist like Tony Ezimakor to identify and expose those alleged public officials who might be unlawfully deriving pecuniary benefits from efforts to free the abducted Boko Haram victims and confer on Tony Ezimakor one of the highest national honours in recognition of his courage, skills, and sacrifices in helping to facilitate the attainment of the goal of fighting corruption, which is the central plank of the programme that brought the APC into power in 2015.”
Quoting Section 39(1) of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended, the lawyer said it guaranteed freedom of expression and the press, adding that the courts had interpreted this to include protection against disclosure of source of information by a journalist.
He added that Article 4 of the Code of Ethics for Nigerian journalists stipulated that “a journalist should observe the universally accepted principle of confidentiality and should not disclose the source of information obtained in confidence.”
The Code of Ethics for Nigerian journalists is made pursuant to Section 9 of the Nigerian Press Council Act.
In that case, he said, the Code of Ethics for Nigerian journalists has the force of law.
“We, therefore, condemn as not only unlawful but also unconstitutional, the alleged demand by the State Security Service (SSS) that Tony Ezimakor should disclose the source of his information as the condition for his release.
“As the Code of Ethics for Nigerian journalists prescribes, the right against disclosure of source of information is a universally guaranteed right and the courts, nationally and internationally, have upheld the right against disclosure of source of information,” he said.
He explained that under section 379 of the Criminal Code, the publication by Tony Ezimakor could be categorised as conditionally privileged, being a fair comment on issues of public interest and morality, which has not been established to be false or made in bad faith.
He implored the SSS to either charge Tony Ezimakor to court (if the authorities believed they could successfully press charges against him) or release him unconditionally and immediately.
“We shall resist, within the bounds of the law, any attempt by any regime to take us back to the dark days of military dictatorship under the repressive and obnoxious Decree No. 4 of 1984, which PMB used to viciously suppress press freedom as the then military dictator.
“The detention of Mr. Tony Ezimakor, the Abuja Bureau Chief of Daily Independent newspaper since Wednesday, 28th February 2018, allegedly by the State Security Service (SSS) without being charged to court is not only a sad reminder of brutal suppression of press freedom under Decree No 4 of 1984, it is an unacceptable violation of Sections 35(1) & (5) and 39(1), which provide constitutional guarantees for personal liberty, being brought before a court within reasonable time defined as one day where there is a court of competent jurisdiction within a radius of forty kilometers and freedom of expression and the press, including protection against disclosure of source of information,” Aborishade stated.