BY ALFRED OLUFEMI
Although I have read about the victimization of journalists and the repressive attacks on press freedom, last week added to my first-hand experiences of the travails of journalists, particularly some of us who have decided to ply the dreaded route of investigative journalism.
It was hectic journeying to two states just to respond to invitations from two judicial institutions. One was to continue proceedings in a magistrate court in Kwara state and another is the invitation from the Zonal headquarters of the police in Osogbo, Osun state capital over reports written in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
I had always expected these would come someday but I did not envisage that they would come this early. Kunle Ajibade’s life imprisonment sentence, Dapo Olorunyomi’s exile, the detention of Babafemi Ojudu without trial and many more are documented testimonials of the hazards that come with critical reporting.
I was about writing my final exams at the Obafemi Awolowo University when I received my first summon by the police operatives in 2019. It was owing to a critical report detailing how the smoking of Indian hemp was permitted in the premises of a rice factory, a subsidiary of HillCrest Agro-allied industry owned by Sarah Alade, a former CBN chief and an Economic Adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari. The story was published on NewsDigest, a news platform I once wrote for as a student journalist, in 2018.
I responded to the summon after consulting Alhaji Yushau Shuaib, the owner of Image Merchant Promotions, Idris Akinbajo, my editor at Premium Times and some other distinguished colleagues. I was quizzed by the police and after I refused to disclose some vital sources, myself and Gidado Yushau, the young editor, were billed for arraignment the following week. I stood by the story as the author and Gidado Shuaib, NewsDigest editor, also vouched for the credibility of the story.
It was a case of defamation of character which I vehemently denied during the first court appearance last year. Since the case is already with a competent court of law, I would not like to speak more about the proceedings and some of my reservations.
However, the second appearance, which was on Monday, 13th of January 2020, came with a twist. Since we are already undergoing a criminal prosecution in the magistrate court, we had expected that the complainant would await the verdict of the court but No! The company had filed another lawsuit at the Kwara state high court, requesting for 500 million-naira damages amongst other things.
Gidado, who received the writ of summon as a co-defendant adjusted his cap upon the sight of the demands of the company. Of course, it was mouth-gaping but I was not too surprised trusting some of our evidences and logical arguments. Meanwhile, on a lighter note, I do not think I can raise two hundred thousand naira from my personal savings at that moment let alone a million naira. I smiled moving to the dock with the mustered courage.
While facing the Magistrate, thoughts of how I started writing in 2017 as a 200-level student in the university ran across my mind, I could recall the threats, impacts and accolades that some of my reports have earned me and the masses.
“We are bringing our witnesses next sitting,” the prosecutor said, informing the court after a failed attempt to provide the witnesses that Monday. Without much ado, the next date of adjournment was fixed but I could not help but to glance through the writ of summon intermittently- the lengthy pages are enough to make any young journalist back out of the struggle. Alas! For me, not anytime soon.
With a good friend and colleague of mine, Adejumo Kabir, we laughed over some events in the courtroom and reflected on some national issues, essentially the Amotekun kerfuffle. It was in high spirit that we left the court premises after some discussions with our legal team ready to fire back with a detailed response to the writ of summon.
What next? Amala joint. The dose of Amala was to prepare us for another journey to the Zonal headquarters of the police the following day.
A Tuesday for the police
The appearance in the Zonal headquarters of the police in Osogbo, Osun state capital, was sequel to a 2019 report exclusively published by Premium Times newspaper. It was about one Abdulrahman Habeebulah who admitted to have slept with a 16-year-old girl. He claimed to have married the teenager but my interviews and investigations proved otherwise.
The paper also reported how the cleric apologised to the victim’s family and the controversies that led to a settlement out of court. None of the updates, from the beginning to the out-of-court settlement, went without being reported. In fact, when he was rearrested by police in November 2019, this paper updated the public.
Nonetheless, in December 2019, five months after the report, I got a call from one Sergeant Adisa, a police officer in the zonal headquarters. I initially doubted the credibility of the call because all he provided was “there is a petition against you sir and we need you to appear in our office.”. The caller could not answer the question of who wrote the petition and the content of the allegations.
I had written so many controversial reports that the aggrieved party may have loved to petition me. So, I needed a background information of the petition for me to know the right documents and materials to go along with. Sergeant Adisa promised to call back but did not.
The next I heard was on January 8. The family of the victim contacted me through the uncle of the victim, Muyideen Oloyede, that morning. I was told that the police had claimed that I did not respond to the calls and as such written the Vice Chancellor of my Alma Mata.
I requested that the phone was passed to an officer, identified as Mr Tanimola, and we fixed the next Tuesday for the meeting.
It was around 1:00pm when I reached the premises of the police headquarters in the company of my colleague, Mr Adejumo. I wore the most civil and humble countenance following telephone calls from friends and colleagues who had advised that I thread softly. But in the real sense, have I committed any crime in reporting atrocities? Indeed, that shows how journalism has been criminalised in Nigeria.
After signing in at the station, we were welcomed by Sergeant Adisa and Mr Tanimola.
When given a copy of the petition, I could spot a lot of factual errors. That was after we schooled the Police officers about the process of sending such summons. If not for my magnanimity and Premium Times’ commitment to transparency and accountability, I would not have honoured the invitation because of the flawed process. It should be noted that the petition was against the uncle of the victim, Premium Times newspaper and myself. And guess who the complainant is? The embattled Islamic cleric. His major claim was that he never granted any interview with me. I laughed. After recording my statement and answering questions from the ‘bullying’ sergeant Adisa, we proceeded to some senior officers’ offices. It was a confrontation with all parties- the family of the victim, Mr Abdulrahman and myself. This was the moment I was proud of ethical journalism. Mr Abdulrahman contradicted himself even in his narration.
“He was disturbing me. I told him to stop calling me. I gave him some numbers to call” these were the words of the cleric, who earlier claimed that his reaction was not sought in some of the reports. He tried to shift the focus of the police from the rape allegations by saying “It has been settled out of court.”
The Senior police officer cut in. “We cannot treat the smoke without treating the fire,” He countered the cleric.
At a point, Sergeant Adisa shut my colleague up when trying to make some clarifications. We did not flinch. Not even for a second.
It was almost getting dark and spending the night in the police custody occurred to me but it was not an option. This is because, except for Sergeant Adisa, every other cop was civil.
After minutes of heated arguments, we were transferred to the office of the Deputy commissioner of Police (DCP). The officer who appears to be in his mid-fifties also sought every parties’ side of the story. He promised that the newspaper will be contacted officially as against the error of the police officer handling the issue initially. A final meeting was however fixed for the 30th of January. “I will go through all the documents before me and all you have said,” the DCP assured.
The time was around 6:30pm and the night was really drawing closer but before we reached out to the door, the Officer-in-charge of the legal unit asked a question. “But how old is the girl in question?” He asked. Mr Oloyede swiftly replied “sixteen!”
The legal officer, who listened to all the narrations with rapt attention, beamed a smile when the cleric alongside his lawyer countered Mr Oloyede saying the age of the girl is contentious. Perhaps, he was aware of the legal implication of sleeping with a 16-year-old.
If the invitation were to be a stage play, at that point, we drew the curtain. It took me less than five minutes to sign my bail documents and was released by the police officers. I was tired. Unarguably, it was really a hectic day. As we were about to leave the premises, I whispered to my beloved friend; “The truth is bold.” He could not agree less owing to our responses to the questions we were asked at the police headquarters.
From there, we moved!
…Alfred Olufemi, a multi-winning Investigative Reporter and Campus Journalist writes from the University of Ife