Journalists, Under Threat, Need Safe Refuge Through Special Emergency Visas

Active Citizens, Civil Society, Democracy, Featured, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


A video journalist covers a news event. Credit Unsplash/Jovaughn Stephens
Journalists and media workers are facing “increasing politicization” of their work and threats to their freedom to simply do their jobs, that are “growing by the day”, said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, marking World Press Freedom Day, May 2022

NEW YORK, Oct 4 2022 (IPS) – “This woman sitting next to me, Maria Ressa, is a Nobel laureate and a convicted criminal,” said barrister Amal Clooney, who co-leads the international legal team representing Ressa. The founder of news website Rappler, Ressa has been targeted with a barrage of legal charges intended to stop her journalism in the Philippines.

During a conversation hosted by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly high-level week, which concluded September 26, Clooney revealed that Ressa faces the possibility of imminent imprisonment in the Philippines.

“The only thing standing between her and a prison cell is one decision from the Philippines Supreme Court that could come as soon as in 21 days’ time,” said Clooney to an audience of news leaders, diplomats, and advocates.

She then appealed for prosecutors to drop the baseless charges and for newly elected President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to issue a pardon. In May, CPJ wrote to Marcos requesting that he urgently take concrete steps to undo former President Rodrigo Duterte’s long campaign of intimidation and harassment of the press.

The conversation, led by CPJ President Jodie Ginsberg, also explored the broader misuse of laws increasingly deployed to silence the press across the world. Clooney and Ressa are both past recipients of CPJ’s Gwen Ifill Press Freedom award for their extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom.

UNGA week also served to gather legal experts, diplomats, and activists to discuss the plight of journalists forced to flee their homes and the responsibility of governments to provide safe refuge through special emergency visas.

During a high-level side-event hosted by the Czech Republic, CPJ’s Ginsberg joined Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky and deputy chairs of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom to make the case for these visas.

CPJ has advocated for such visas in the past in line with recommendations by members of the Media Freedom Coalition, a group of 52 governments that support press freedom.

Ginsberg’s message: Governments must create special emergency visas for journalists to allow them to quickly evacuate and relocate to safety. The visas should be granted to individuals who are at risk due to their work keeping the public informed.

As Ginsberg noted, across the world, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua and Belarus to Myanmar, CPJ has worked on hundreds of cases of such journalists seeking safe refuge. There is no time to waste.

Journalists forced to flee often try to continue reporting in exile. Panelist Roman Anin, an exiled investigative journalist who runs news website iStories, shared his story of moving his newsroom out of Russia.

“When the war started, we had a choice between three options, either stay in Russia and stop our work, stay in Russia, continue our work and end up in jail, or relocate the newsroom,” he said. Anin said that in spite of the hardship of the relocation, his newsroom has been able to reach Russian audiences with stories on alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine.

Anin’s experience, and CPJ’s own work helping many other displaced journalists, demonstrate how critical it is for governments to prioritize emergency visas for swift relocation and safety. Refusing to do so not only impacts the lives of individual journalists, it is a blow to free expression and access to information globally.

In solidarity,

Gypsy Guillén Kaiser is CPJ Advocacy and Communications Director.

IPS UN Bureau


Conversation with a Media Icon: Dr. Roberto Savio

Civil Society, Democracy, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


The Inter Press Service co-founder is part of a vanishing breed

Dr. Roberto Savio is somewhat unique as an eyewitness to history and builder of institutions, a man who turns his visions into reality

ROME, Feb 7 2022 (IPS) – We are sitting in the heart of Rome, Via Panisperna, where Dr. Roberto Savio has had his office for the last 58 years. His energy and activity, both mental and physical, belies his age. At 87, he walks the 7 kilometres from his house to his office building and climbs two flights of stairs to reach his office. When I caution him about the traffic on the roads of Rome as he walks home every evening, he is very relaxed about it. “Look here, Rome is over 2,000 years old, and these roads were meant for pedestrians, not cars.”

I have known Dr. Savio, arguably one of Europe and the Third World’s pre-eminent public intellectuals (he has Italian and Argentine nationality) for the last 35 years. He is probably the only living journalist who was witness to three major summits of the 20th Century: Bandung Afro-Asian Summit 1955; the meeting of Tito, Nasser and Nehru at Brioni, Yugoslavia in 1960, which laid the basis of the Non-Aligned Movement; and the 1978 first-ever North-South Summit at Cancun.

Injustice is supreme, during the Coronavirus pandemic, some people still got a $1 billion dollar bonus, with the 50 richest persons increasing their wealth by 27%, while over 500 million of the poorest, got pushed below the poverty line.

Dr. Roberto Savio

Dr. Savio also cofounded, with Pero Ivačić, the Non-Aligned Press Pool, apart from the first-ever Third World news agency, Inter Press Service (IPS), plus now the aptly named ‘Other News’.

Dr. Savio is somewhat unique as an eyewitness to history and builder of institutions, since he’s not just a man of ideas but also a man of action, a doer who has the will to translate his vision into reality. In 1964, four Western news agencies — Associated Press (AP), and United Press International (UPI), both American; Agence France Presse (AFP) and the British Reuters — jointly controlled 96% of the world’s free information.

It was a near total monopoly of how and what information was disseminated. It was in this context that Dr. Savio, along with an Argentinean journalist, founded the Inter Press Service, the first Third World News agency with its headquarters in Rome.

And IPS, guided by its guru, had the audacity to challenge this monopoly of news and information, which is a subject of a number of studies. Noam Chomsky calls it Manufacturing Consent and Media Control: Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. Edward Said published a landmark study, Covering Islam: How the media and experts determine how we see the rest of the world.

It was thus no accident that major wars were started on the ‘big lie’ peddled by a pliant media by first ‘manufacturing consent’ so that wars would have political backing. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, which laid the groundwork for the Vietnam War, or the 2003 lie about Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ as a precursor to war, are both cases in point.

Dr. Savio was a hands-on boss at IPS (I know it because I worked for him at IPS for close to a decade!), personally presiding over editorial meetings at such locations as Manila, Bangkok and Rome, giving ideas and directions but always willing to listen and learn. He led IPS with a crusader’s passion to present a perspective that was different, and, at times, opposed to what the ‘mainstream’ Western media outlets were promoting. That idealism of the 1970s and 1980s has given way to pessimism and disappointment in Dr. Savio as the divisions, class and cultural, deepen amidst an increasingly polarised world.

He is deeply disappointed with two erstwhile democracies, the United States and India. “The America we knew no longer exists,” laments Dr. Savio wistfully. “That America has gone now.” In fact, he feels that political polarisation is so deep in the US, with 60 million evangelicals (the Religious Right) in the US pushing the country rightwards, that he’s convinced Donald Trump will be back with a bang in 2024!

Ever the empirical fact-checker that he is, Dr. Savio cites a PEW public opinion poll to corroborate his assertion. In the 1960s, he says, 8% of Democrats and 12% of Republicans didn’t want their children to get married to someone from the ‘other party’. Today, 88% of Democrats and 93% of Republicans have such beliefs, signifying an almost bridgeable political divide. No wonder, in the 2020 US Presidential elections, Biden won with 80 million popular votes while Trump came a close second with a record 75 million votes, most of whom are still convinced that the 2020 elections were ‘stolen’!

The other country that has disappointed Dr. Savio is India because “Nehru’s India has ceased to exist.” He adds that “Nehru was a very careful statesman, he didn’t want confrontation within India as he understood the diversity of people and the diversity of opinion that exists in India.” Dr. Savio then adds with a note of sorrow similar to his lament about the USA, “that Nehruvian India doesn’t exist any longer. Modi has divided India, Modi has marginalised Muslims.”

Looking at the global media, economic and political landscape, Dr. Savio feels three factors are going to be decisive in transforming the world in the 21st Century.

Considering the global media landscape, Dr. Savio sees the “print media as having a less and less of a role, as most of the print media is neither making money nor posting correspondents abroad, except perhaps El Pais, Le Monde, The Washington Post and the Guardian.

There was a time when Beirut had no less than 75 foreign correspondents.” He dismisses social media as “useless, dividing the world into bubbles, with 7 seconds as the average attention span of a teenager using the social media.” However, Dr. Savio understands how social media can be a ‘weapon of choice’ for some politicians, e.g. Donald Trump who has 86 million Twitter followers.

Dr. Savio adds in such a situation, “why should Trump bother about the American print media whose total daily circulation stands at 60 million, with quality print publications at less than 10 million.” Moreover, “media is now more local, no longer global.”

The second important change, in Dr. Savio’s view, is the crisis of capitalism, citing a quote of Nikita Khrushchev in 1960 that “capitalism cannot solve social problems.”

Dr. Savio adds that most of the capitalist West is also facing other crises, with conspiracy theories galore ranging from the anti-vaccine campaign to strange notions with 60 million Evangelicals in the USA convinced of the second coming of Christ, from QA Non to the ‘Birds Aren’t Real’ madcap conspiracy concoctions, which however have garnered support amongst a large section of Americans.

Despite the rightwing racist campaign against immigrants, Western economies increasingly won’t be able to function without foreign workers. Dr. Savio cites figures: “Germany needs 600,000 new migrant labour, while Canada needs 300,000” for skills and work that locals aren’t willing to do anymore. The core issue is that “society has lost its moral compass, with the culture of greed paramount” in the capitalist West.

Given this context of a ‘greed is good’ culture, Dr. Savio likens talk of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) on the part of big companies as “locking the stables after the horses have bolted.” Actually, Dr. Savio rightly concludes: “the capitalist system has collapsed.”

However, the third factor is Dr.Savio’s biggest worry: the future of Europe and the looming New Cold War. He is highly critical of NATO since “it’s a structure of war, always searching for new enemies, and pushing Russia closer to China.” Criticising NATO for adding China to its list of “major challenges and threats,”

Dr. Savio questions: “by which stretch of imagination is China part of the North Atlantic? This is an exercise in futility.” Moreover, he is convinced that “Trump will come back in 2024, and one thing is for sure, Trump is not interested in spending American money on war.” Perhaps the only silver lining in an otherwise gloomy scenario. With the exit of Merkel, Europe is leaderless.

Dr. Savio then quotes his late friend, the former UN Secretary General Dr. Boutrus Boutrus Ghali, as telling him “the Americans are lousy allies and terrible enemies,” and the biggest problem is that “the Americans don’t want to be told yes, they want to be told, yes sir!” Thankfully, in a world of multi-polarity requiring multilateralism, there are very few countries in today’s world who will simply acquiesce to US bidding with a nod of “Yes Sir!”

Dr Roberto Savio is actually part of a vanishing breed, the ‘last of the Mohicans,’ idealists who were builders in the quest for a better tomorrow, for whom the good fight is to present the truth, the unvarnished truth, while giving a voice to the voiceless, a task he has admirably performed. More power to his pen!

Senator Mushahid Hussain is an elected Senator from Pakistan’s Federal Capital, Islamabad. He is currently Chairman, Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. He has been Minister for Information, Tourism & Culture, Journalist, university teacher and political analyst. He has a Master’s degree from the Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC.

This story was originally published by the Wall Street International Magazine


Nigeria’s Twitter Ban Is Part of a Larger Attack on Civil Society

Africa, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


While the Twitter ban surprised many, the government’s action against social media platforms has long been threatened and is part of a long-term strategy to bend civil society and force Nigeria’s citizens into compliance with the government

Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria, addresses the general debate of the UN General Assembly, 2019. Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

LAGOS, Nigeria, Jun 9 2021 (IPS) – Four years ago, Omoregie* and his friends were arrested without cause and taken into custody. When they got to the station, Omoregie watched as the police began to beat his friends. Afraid, he began to discreetly tweet about the attacks as they took place.

I and many other Twitter users could read his fears while he called for help through his tweets. Taking action as a lawyer, I was able to secure his release within a few hours with the help of other activists through the police unit responsible for citizen complaints.

I had been thinking of Omoregie this week when the government of Nigeria banned the use of Twitter in the country, making use of it a criminal offense. The ban followed the social media platform’s deletion of a tweet from President Muhammad Buhari in which he threatened violence against people in a region in the country’s South East where attacks had been made on public infrastructure.

While the banning of Twitter surprised many, the government’s action against social media platforms has long been threatened and is part of a long-term strategy to bend civil society and force Nigeria’s citizens into compliance with the government. Twitter has been a major source of activism and news in Nigeria

While the banning of Twitter surprised many, the government’s action against social media platforms has long been threatened and is part of a long-term strategy to bend civil society and force Nigeria’s citizens into compliance with the government. Twitter has been a major source of activism and news in Nigeria.

Nigerians spend almost four hours on social media daily and Twitter is the second largest social media platform after Facebook. Most public debates begin on Twitter and the platform often sets the tone for national news carried on traditional media. It has become the platform to hold government, institutions and powerful individuals accountable.

It has also long been a place for activism and to organize protests, including last year’s EndSARS protests, which led to the eradication of the Special Anti Robbery Squad. Ninety-nine people were killed during the EndSARS protest in Nigeria and Twitter helped to expose these abuses. This was most evident during an attack by police and the military on protesters at Lekki Bridge in Lagos.

Documentation of the attack, including a livestream by media personality DJ Switch forced senior military officers to intervene and later acknowledge the attack took place. Since livestreaming the attack, D.J Switch has been forced to seek asylum in Canada as a result of threats to her life.

This efficacy for activism has drawn government’s attention.

About two years ago, Nigerian government introduced a social media bill that sought to regulate the social media space and criminalize simple comments that authorities deemed ‘falsehoods’ or hate speech with fines and jail terms.

As a lawyer and an activist, I appeared before a Senate committee at the public hearing and gave statements about how we use social media to help fight human rights violations, consumer rights, and even to help find missing persons. After the public hearing, the bill was abandoned but, as we saw with last week’s Twitter ban, the Buhari administration did not give up on its ambitions to restrict social media.

They took their opportunity with last week’s shutdown. Nigeria’s judicial system has been effectively on strike for the past two months, so the Twitter ban was implemented without the oversight of the courts. In addition to banning Twitter, the government has demanded licensing of all social media platforms as well as services which stream news and entertainment via the Internet.

All of these restrictions aim to control freedom of expression; a right guaranteed under Nigeria’s Constitution as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights–both of which Nigeria has signed.

The Twitter ban also comes as the Nigerian government increases offline crackdowns on citizen action. They have repeatedly trampled on the right of citizens to assemble and protest in physical space. Activists have been shot at by police and military and many arrested while protesting peacefully. Twitter has also been used to shine a light on these crackdowns.

Since the ban against Twitter was announced, the government has wasted no time in implementing punishment for users. Immediately after the announcement, Nigeria’s Attorney General directed the arrest and prosecution of anyone using the Twitter app.

Practically, this will mean police will be empowered to search telephones for the app. Police searches of phones—and unhappiness with those searches—are not new to Nigerians and were one of the reasons for the EndSARS protests.

The draconian ban also begs the question, if Twitter, a global platform which helps to spotlight the government excesses can be shut down, what safety is there for Nigeria’s local media, journalists and citizens? With the Twitter ban Nigeria risks further sliding into dictatorship and there will be fewer ways to organize challenges to it.

Some will argue that Twitter is to blame for its banning because it overstepped in deleting a tweet from President Buhari that Twitter argues violates its policy. But even if we accept that Twitter was wrong to delete a tweet, the federal government’s reaction to ban a platform so important to public debate and activists is petty and an extreme overreach.

It is time for the world’s democracies to take concrete steps and forestall Nigeria human rights violations. Censorship of independent voices is often a means to shut down accountability and enable autocratic rule.

Allowing the Twitter ban by a few politicians without criticism would signal that the world endorses autocracy. The world’s silence and inaction are an endorsement of the Twitter ban, a shrinking of the ability of civil society to organize and a violation of the rights of 200 million Nigerians.

*Not his real name

Nelson Olanipekun is a human rights lawyer and advocate who uses technology and law to accelerate the pace of justice delivery. He is a 2021 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.


The Future of Journalism

Civil Society, Headlines, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


Andrés Cañizález is a Venezuelan journalist and Doctor of political science

Journalism is going through an era of uncertainty. It is not yet clear what its business model will be, at a time when information is a central issue

CARACAS, Apr 7 2020 (IPS) All over the world, journalism is going through an era of uncertainty. It is not yet clear what the business model for the news field will be, and this is happening precisely at a time when information is a central issue in every person’s life.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted both dimensions. Citizens in preventive confinement consume much more news regarding the wide implications of COVID-19; but this, in turn, happens under a modality not necessarily lucrative for the news business. The scenario of a post-pandemic global recession is stirring fears in the news business field among many countries.

Citizens in preventive confinement consume much more news regarding the wide implications of COVID-19; but this, in turn, happens under a modality not necessarily lucrative for the news business

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published its report on the future and main trends expected in this field for 2020. This was released before the global spread of the coronavirus. However, the document is very relevant as it draws important lines on the future of journalism.

In this article, for reasons of space, the most significant aspects of the executive summary – just the tip of the iceberg – are included. For those interested in further detail, I recommend reading it in full here.

The study is based on surveys administered to executives in the journalistic world and leaders of digital projects in the media. A total 233 people in 32 countries were surveyed. The countries include the United States, Australia, Kenya, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, and Japan.

Nevertheless, most respondents live in Europe: United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, France, Austria, Poland, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. It is very important not to lose sight of this fact, as it implies the viewpoints of people living in environments with no issues regarding connectivity, Internet speed, or access to smart phones. 

Below, a closer look at some interesting aspects:

Most media executives claim they are confident about the prospects of their companies; but they are much less certain about the future of journalism. This is usually the case in surveys: When people are asked if conditions in their country will get worse, to which they usually reply affirmatively, next thing they say – conversely – they expect an improved personal situation.

Andrés Cañizález

One of the significant issues about journalism resides in local news output. There are fears of loss of credibility impacting journalists and media in general; and this may be intensified by attacks on journalism from public officials. Furthermore, it may be the case that Donald Trump is turning into a role model of this form of attack for populist leaders of any ideological persuasion in their run for power.

Closely related to the above, 85% of the respondents agreed that the media should do more to fight fake news and half-truths, that is, addressing disinformation while keeping an eye on the fact that it can be encouraged or steered straight from the hubs of political power.

The global crisis generated by the coronavirus, leaving thousands of casualties behind, with no certainty about the effectiveness of the vaccines currently under evaluation, has been a hotbed for the spread of fake news. These not only increase in contexts of political tension, but also thanks to the uncertainty prevailing at this time.

How should journalism be funded? Media owners still rely heavily on subscription fees: Half of them assure it will be the main avenue of income. About a third of respondents (35%) think that advertising and income from readers will be equally important. This is a big change in the mindset of those running the media: Only 14% venture that they will manage to operate exclusively on advertising.

Without knowing exactly the global economic impact of coronavirus, news companies must brace themselves for the direct impact of a massive recession on the pockets of their readership base, as they, faced with the dilemma of paying for news or meeting basic needs, may end up choosing the latter.

On the other hand, there is much concern among publishers and media project leaders about the growing power of digital platforms providing social media to the public (Facebook, Twitter, Google). Although this concern is widespread, there is no consensus on what kinds of response should be given to this new power that has been consolidating.

It is feared that regulations approved by the legislative or executive branches of government will end up hurting instead of helping journalism (25% to 18% of respondents), although most consider that they will not make a noticeable difference (56%).

2020 will be the year of podcasts. Over half of respondents (53%) state that initiatives in this field will be important this year. Others point to text-to-voice conversion as a way of capitalizing on the growing popularity of these formats.

We are likely to see more moves from the media this year to customize digital covers and explore other forms of automatic recommendation. Over half of respondents (52%) state that such AI-supported initiatives will be very important; but small companies fear to lag behind. This is still practically a science fiction topic for readers in Southern Hemisphere countries.

Attracting and retaining talent is a major concern for media companies, especially for IT positions. Another concern relates to the way in which companies are taking action on gender diversity. In this area, 76% believe they are taking steps in the right direction.

However, although progress is being made on gender diversity within the news media, this is not the case for other forms of diversity – geographic (55%), political (48%), and racial (33%). There is remarkably less progress regarding decisions inside of news companies and, in some cases, these issues that are just not part of their agendas.

The outlook for the future of journalism, in general, is marked by questions rather than certainty. The world as it turns in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic may further trigger some of these questions, without any likely answers in the short term.


UN Chief Should Lead by Example on Human Rights

Civil Society, Democracy, Featured, Global, Global Governance, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


Louis Charbonneau is United Nations Director, Human Rights Watch

Credit: United Nations

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 25 2020 (IPS) – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has long needed to overhaul his approach to human rights. Hopefully his call to action announced in Geneva yesterday is the start of something new.

Guterres’ low-key approach to human rights may have been calculated to avoid conflicts with big powers like the United States, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia. But human rights groups and former senior UN officials have criticized it for being ineffectual.

The secretary-general’s new initiative contains some excellent ideas. The link he makes between human rights and the impacts of climate change is crucial, and those who fight to protect the environment are increasingly at risk.

Forest defenders in Brazil and elsewhere are threatened, attacked, and killed by those who seek to benefit from the forests’ destruction. And Guterres is right to highlight the risks posed by new technologies, whether it involves government surveillance, artificial intelligence, or fully autonomous weapons, so-called “killer robots.”

The test for any initiative is the implementation. No one is suggesting the secretary-general do everything alone. But he needs to lead by example.

Louis Charbonneau

That means publicly calling out rights abusers and advocating for victims. Human rights violations aren’t like natural disasters.

They are frequently planned and executed by government officials or their agents – whether it’s the mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs in China, Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims, indiscriminate Russian-Syrian bombing of civilians in Idlib, or the forced separation of children from their parents at the US border.

It also means using the authority of the secretary-general’s office to launch investigations and fact-finding missions when appropriate. That includes launching an inquiry into China’s massive rights violations in Xinjiang, and pressing for an international accountability mechanism on Sri Lanka.

The secretary-general should order a follow-up inquiry into the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to help determine whether Saudi Arabia’s top leadership ordered his slaying. He should also publicly release the findings of his inquiry into attacks on hospitals and other protected facilities in Syria, likely carried out by the Russian-Syrian alliance.

None of this is to say Guterres should abandon “private diplomacy” with governments. But he should re-emphasize public diplomacy on human rights at the UN. Human rights advocacy shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and her office.

The secretary-general should be the UN’s leading voice on human rights, not only working in the background.

Secretary-General Guterres has issued a call to action on human rights. Now it’s up to him to act.


How Nigeria’s Police used Telecom Surveillance to Lure & Arrest Journalists

Africa, Civil Society, Democracy, Global Governance, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


Jonathan Rozen* is Senior Africa Researcher at Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

NEW YORK, Feb 19 2020 (IPS) – As reporters for Nigeria’s Premium Times newspaper, Samuel Ogundipe and Azeezat Adedigba told CPJ they spoke often over the phone. They had no idea that their regular conversations about work and their personal lives were creating a record of their friendship.

On August 9, 2018, Ogundipe published an article about a communication between Nigeria’s police chief and vice president. Days later, police investigating his source issued a written summons, CPJ reported at the time.

It was not addressed to Ogundipe and made no mention of his article or the charges he would later face of theft and possession of police documents. Instead, as Ogundipe recounted, police called Adedigba for questioning in connection with a slew of serious crimes, allegations that evaporated after police used her phone to summon her friend to the station.

Ogundipe’s experience is one of at least three cases since 2017 where police from across Nigeria used phone records to lure and then arrest journalists currently facing criminal charges for their work.

In each case, police used the records to identify people with a relationship to a targeted journalist, detained those people, and then forced them to facilitate the arrest.

The police methods reinforce the value of internet-based, encrypted communications at a time when authorities have also targeted journalists’ phones and computers to reveal their sources. Those prosecuted in all three cases are free on bail.

Nigerian journalist Samuel Ogundipe (Photo: Samuel Ogundipe)

“If the police called me and said we have something to ask you, I would go there…this is just their tactics,” Ogundipe said.

Ogundipe and Adedigba told CPJ that police made no secret of the way they had established their relationship, showing them each call records they claimed to have obtained from the pair’s cellphone network providers—Nigeria-based 9mobile, a subsidiary of the UAE-based Etisalat telecom company, and South Africa-based MTN, respectively.

“[Police have] been checking who I’ve been talking to…[in order to] see who was close enough to me to be used as bait,” Ogundipe added.

CPJ’s repeated calls in late 2019 and early 2020 to Nigerian police spokesperson Frank Mba rang unanswered.

The 2003 Nigerian Communications Act mandates that network service providers assist authorities in preventing crime and protecting national security. Regulations for enforcing it grant senior police officials the power to authorize requests to obtain “call data” from telecom companies without a judicial warrant, according to CPJ’s review.

That data includes where and when regular phone calls and SMS messages took place and between which numbers, according to documents reviewed by CPJ and interviews with three individuals with knowledge of police requests for call data in Nigeria. All three requested not to be named for fear of reprisal.

Nigeria has over 184 million active mobile phone lines, with roughly two million lines added every month to service its estimated 190 million people, according to 2019 data released by the national telecom regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). SIM card ownership for these lines is tracked under a 2011 regulation, which CPJ reviewed, mandating the collection of personal information, including fingerprints and photos, that police can access without a warrant as long as a senior-ranking officer gives written approval.

Other NCC regulations, released in October 2019 and reviewed by CPJ, detail police permissions to intercept communications under certain circumstances.

At the time of publishing, Ogundipe told CPJ his next court date had yet to be scheduled, but two journalists who were taken into custody at the end of 2019–Gidado Yushau and Alfred Olufemi–were preparing for their fifth hearing scheduled in Kwara State for March 4.

Similar to Ogundipe and Adedigba, police used call records to identify individuals that could be used to lead them to their targets, those affected told CPJ.

Nigerian journalist Gidado Yushau (Photo: Gidado Yushau)

Yushau, publisher of The News Digest website, and Olufemi, a freelance reporter, were charged in November 2019 with criminal conspiracy and criminal defamation in connection with a complaint over a May 2018 News Digest report Olufemi wrote about a factory owned by Sarah Alade, now special adviser to Nigeria’s president. Alade and other representatives of the factory did not answer calls or declined comment when CPJ reported on the case.

The first journalist police used to track down Yushau and Olufemi worked in another city for an unrelated news outlet. Wunmi Ashafa, a Lagos-based journalist with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), told CPJ that police tricked her into meeting, then made her summon her colleague, Yusuf Yunus, who in turn was used to facilitate the arrest of the Digest’s web developer, Adebowale Adekoya. The officers claimed to know they were connected from their call records.

Police were “tracking all the people that are calling me, that I’m talking to,” Yunus told CPJ in an interview. “The network provider has said that this line and this line have spoken at this particular hour,” he said police told him. Ashafa and Yunus said they were released after police detained Adekoya.

“I don’t know why they decided to do that,” Ashafa told CPJ, adding that she missed a meeting at her daughter’s school because police involved her. “They apologized to us, to myself and Yunus, that that was the only way they could get [Adekoya].”

Mistaken for the Digest’s publisher, Adekoya described being held for five nights, driven over 1,200 kilometers—including to Abuja and Kwara State—and threatened with detention if he did not lead the officers to Yushau and promise to help bring Olufemi into custody, before his release.

Nigerian journalist Alfred Olufemi. (Photo: Alfred Olufemi)

CPJ reached Peter Okasanmi, a spokesperson with the Kwara State police, by phone in January. He declined to comment on Yushau and Olufemi’s case because the trial was ongoing, but described how police regularly used telecommunications information to make arrests.

“We are able to track the culprits by use of technology through the SIM [cards] that were registered,” Okasanmi said. “Suspects, they are usually like kidnappers…we use all of those gadgets to track their locations and get them arrested…we have our own equipment we are using,” he added, without elaborating.

On November 4, CPJ contacted NCC spokesperson Henry Nkemadu by phone and upon his request sent questions regarding security agencies’ access to communications data, but received no response. Subsequent calls to Nkemadu and other NCC officials went unanswered.

Police used a similar tactic in 2017 to arrest Tega Oghenedoro, the Uyo city-based publisher of the Secret Reporters news website who writes under the pseudonym Fejiro Oliver, CPJ reported this month.

He faces cybercrime charges related to reports alleging corruption in a Lagos-based Nigerian bank and is due in court on May 28, CPJ reported.

Isaac Omomedia, an aide to the governor of Delta State, told CPJ in October 2019 that he did not know Oliver, but that they had a mutual acquaintance, Prince Kpokpogri, the publisher of Integrity Watchdog magazine.

In March 2017, Omomedia arrived at a hotel in Asaba, the Delta State capital where he lives, after receiving a call to collect a parcel from the DHL delivery company, he told CPJ.

Instead, he was met by six police officers who questioned him about Kpokpogri, someone they claimed to know he was in touch with by reviewing his call records. On their instructions, Omomedia said he invited Kpokpogri to a meeting.

Kpokpogri told CPJ that police arrested him upon arrival, drove him over 200 kilometers to Uyo, and told him, in turn, to summon Oliver. The officers had identified him because they had “bugged” both his and Oliver’s phone lines, he remembered them saying. Kpokpogri said police arrested Oliver when he arrived and drove them both over 350 kilometers to Benin City; Oliver was then flown to Lagos and Kpokpogri was released without charge.

Kenneth Ogbeifun, the Lagos-based investigating officer in Oliver’s case, requested emailed questions when contacted for comment by CPJ in January 2020. Follow-up emails and messages went unanswered.

CPJ also reached an officer who confirmed his name as Moses and that he was part of the team that arrested Oliver on behalf of Lagos police, but when asked about how Omomedia and Kpokpogri were used in the arrest, the line disconnected.

Those involved in Oliver’s arrest, and the chain leading to Yushau and Olufemi, told CPJ they relied on the Nigeria-based Globacom, also known as Glo, India-based Airtel, or MTN for their cell phone service.

“I will give you the number used to commit the crime and you have only 60 minutes to produce the details,” the Premium Times quoted Isa Pantami, Nigeria’s minister of communications and digital economy, as saying in late 2019. Operators that failed to produce data would be sanctioned, according to that report.

CPJ called the ministry of communications and digital economy in mid-January. Philomena Oshodin, a deputy director, said that she was not the relevant person to comment before the line went silent; follow up messages went unanswered.

Between November 2019 and January 2020, CPJ reached out to public relations departments at MTN, 9mobile, Airtel, and Glo, and emailed questions to representatives for each about security agencies’ access to telecom user data in Nigeria. None replied with answers by date of publication.

“You’re reporting as a journalist, which is not a crime…[but] you feel you’re being punished,” Ogundipe told CPJ, reflecting on his arrest and prosecution. “It’s very scary…it’s difficult to predict how far these guys will go.”

For information on digital safety, consult CPJ’s Digital Safety Kit.

*Jonathan Rozen is CPJ’s senior Africa researcher. Previously, he worked in South Africa, Mozambique, and Canada with the Institute for Security Studies, assessing Mozambican peace-building processes. Rozen was a U.N. correspondent for IPS News and has written for Al-Jazeera English and the International Peace Institute. He speaks English and French.