Of­fi­cial se­cret, ter­ror­ism and press free­dom

Sunday Trust - - MEDIA - By Theophilus Ab­bah

The fiery wave of the army’s anger swept through Daily Trust last week, leav­ing be­hind a kind of dev­as­ta­tion that keeps the me­dia and the en­tire na­tion won­der­ing if the ter­ri­fy­ing days of mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship had re­turned with its fury. The im­pact of the hor­ror was ap­par­ent in the ar­rest of Uth­man Abubakar, the Re­gional Ed­i­tor in Maiduguri, Ibrahim Sawab, a re­porter, and the seal­ing off of the news­pa­per’s head­quar­ters in Abuja and re­gional of­fices in Kaduna, La­gos and Maiduguri for some hours. The siege was an ugly smoke from the decade-long but frus­trat­ing war against Boko Haram. Over the last 10 years, the ter­ror group has con­tin­ued to mu­tate, not just in name, but also in strate­gies, such that it con­tin­ues to res­ur­rect from degra­da­tion ev­ery time the mil­i­tary at­tempts to heave a sigh of re­lief. It was clear from the at­tack on Daily Trust last week that the sect has put the me­dia and army on a head-on col­li­sion.

In the army’s fussy at­tempts to find le­git­i­macy to the in­va­sion of the news­pa­per, it al­leged that Daily Trust vi­o­lated the let­ters of the Of­fi­cial Se­cret Act of 1962. The Act, en­acted in or­der to pro­tect clas­si­fied gov­ern­ment in­for­ma­tion (in­clud­ing mil­i­tary) from be­ing trans­mit­ted to the pub­lic, clearly states that it could be vi­o­lated by any­one who “ob­tains, re­pro­duces or re­tains any clas­si­fied mat­ter which he is not au­tho­rized on be­half of the gov­ern­ment to ob­tain, re­pro­duce or re­tain, as the case may be.” So, was Daily Trust re­port on the mil­i­tary’s plans to re­take Baga and other towns from Boko Haram con­trol a vi­o­la­tion of the Of­fi­cial Se­cret Act?

From the lin­guis­tic per­spec­tive, the two op­er­a­tional words are the ad­jec­tive ‘Of­fi­cial’ and the noun ‘Se­cret.’ The sense of ‘Of­fi­cial’ in this law pre­sup­poses that there is a doc­u­ment writ­ten by those in au­thor­ity [in this case gov­ern­ment] or its func­tionar­ies. Also, the sense of ‘Se­cret’ means that such doc­u­ment has been clearly des­ig­nated as one that should not be cir­cu­lated. Cam­bridge Dic­tio­nary, there­fore de­fines an of­fi­cial se­cret as “a piece of in­for­ma­tion that is known only by the gov­ern­ment and its em­ploy­ees.” There­fore, for an of­fi­cial se­cret to be ex­posed, such se­cret must be sourced from a clas­si­fied doc­u­ment.

Gen­er­ally, doc­u­ments that come un­der the cat­e­gory of ‘Of­fi­cial Se­cret’ are prop­erly marked as fol­lows: ‘con­fi­den­tial,’ for ma­te­ri­als that could rea­son­ably be ex­pected to dam­age na­tional se­cu­rity; ‘se­cret’ used to shield ma­te­ri­als which, if re­leased, could cause se­ri­ous dam­age to na­tional se­cu­rity, and ‘top se­cret’, the high­est level of clas­si­fi­ca­tion, that, if dis­closed, could cause ex­cep­tion­ally grave dam­age to na­tional se­cu­rity.

From the fore­go­ing, for any­one to vi­o­late the Of­fi­cial Se­cret Act, he should be caught in pos­ses­sion of a doc­u­ment prop­erly clas­si­fied as any of the three above, which could con­tain in­for­ma­tion that could cause an im­plo­sion of the coun­try. A con­tem­po­rary ex­am­ple of jour­nal­ists caught in pos­ses­sion of ‘of­fi­cial se­cret’ is the case of two Reuter jour­nal­ists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, de­tained since De­cem­ber 12, 2017. The jour­nal­ists who were in­ves­ti­gat­ing ex­tra­ju­di­cial killing of Ro­hingya by Myan­mar army were ar­rested when they hon­oured po­lice in­vi­ta­tion. At the meet­ing the po­lice handed some of­fi­cial doc­u­ments to them, and in­stantly ar­rested the jour­nal­ists for al­legedly vi­o­lat­ing that coun­try’s Of­fi­cial Se­cret Act for be­ing in pos­ses­sion of the of­fi­cial doc­u­ment. The case is on­go­ing in the court of law.

In the story that earned Daily Trust the wrath of the army, there was no ref­er­ence to any of­fi­cial doc­u­ment, not to talk of a ‘con­fi­den­tial,’ ‘se­cret,’ or ‘top se­cret’ ones. Ev­ery of­fi­cial doc­u­ment bears a ref­er­ence num­ber, but Daily Trust only quoted “cred­i­ble sources” talk­ing about a “ma­jor op­er­a­tion be­ing un­der­way,” but “can’t di­vulge the de­tails to you.” The ‘cred­i­ble source,’ did not re­fer to any ‘of­fi­cial se­cret doc­u­ment,’ there­fore, the in­for­ma­tion he vol­un­teered to jour­nal­ists was in the realm of con­jec­ture. Facts are sup­ported with ev­i­dence – hu­man or doc­u­men­tary.

The spirit of the story is found in its con­text – the de­bil­i­tat­ing and con­found­ing at­tacks by ter­ror­ists on com­mu­ni­ties and the mil­i­tary in Borno State. The Is­lamic States of West African Prov­ince (ISWAP) had seized some cities and over­whelmed some lo­cal gov­ern­ments with its mur­der­ous cam­paigns in the run-up to 2019 elec­tions, thereby punc­tur­ing gov­ern­ment’s three-year achieve­ment of de­grad­ing Boko Haram. Most desta­bi­liz­ing was the re­take of Baga, a ma­jor town, and other is­lands on the shore of the Lake Chad re­gion. Or­di­nar­ily, the story by Daily Trust should have a morale boost­ing ef­fect for both the mil­i­tary and Borno peo­ple who are un­der siege. War-weary sol­diers in Borno should sense some re­lief on learn­ing that more troops would be de­ployed to the bat­tle front, while the hopes of the peo­ple of re­claim­ing their homes and liv­ing their nor­mal lives should be en­hanced on hear­ing the news that more sol­diers were be­ing de­ployed to fight ISWAP.

The army an­chored its ac­cu­sa­tion on the sup­po­si­tion that the re­ported move­ment of troops to con­front Boko Haram was the pro­vi­sion of in­tel­li­gence in­for­ma­tion to the army’s en­e­mies, and that the sect could counter the mil­i­tary’s planned op­er­a­tions. But it is not un­usual for the me­dia to an­nounce the de­ploy­ment of troops, or with­drawal of sol­diers, to and from bat­tle fronts. In 2001, af­ter the ter­ror at­tacks in the US, troops move­ments to Afghanistan and Iraq were widely re­ported in the me­dia. At present, the with­drawal of US troops from Is­lamic States in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in­fested lo­ca­tions, es­pe­cially in Syria, has been an­nounced and widely pub­li­cized by the me­dia across the world. There are nu­mer­ous con­tem­po­rary ex­am­ples that prove that the an­nounce­ment of troops’ de­ploy­ment can­not be con­sid­ered as a rev­e­la­tion of clas­si­fied of­fi­cial in­for­ma­tion. In Jan­uary 2017, the de­ploy­ment of Nige­rian troops to The Gam­bia to tackle for­mer Pres­i­dent Yahya Jam­meh, who did not want to re­lin­quish power af­ter los­ing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, was an­nounced in the me­dia be­fore sol­diers were sent to The Gam­bia. In March 2018, the air­lift­ing of Nige­rian sol­diers and naval of­fi­cers on Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity of West African States (ECOWAS) mis­sion was an­nounced in the me­dia.

Also, this line of think­ing that the me­dia re­port was a source of in­tel­li­gence for Boko Haram is too sim­plis­tic. One of the strate­gies of ter­ror groups, in­clud­ing Al-Qaeda, ISIS, A-Shabaab, The Tal­iban, etc, is the in­fil­tra­tion of se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence net­works of coun­tries [or com­mu­ni­ties] in which they op­er­ate. Like ev­ery crim­i­nal group, ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions are not un­aware that they would fail if they do not have col­lab­o­ra­tors in the se­cu­rity sec­tor. Nu­mer­ous sto­ries that point to the fact that Boko Haram may have in­tel­li­gence sources in the se­cu­rity sec­tor have been re­ported. For in­stance, in Fe­bru­ary 2018, it was re­ported that Abubakar Shekau es­caped from his hide­out be­fore what was termed as a well­co­or­di­nated as­sault on his lo­ca­tion in Sam­bisa For­est was ex­e­cuted. His es­cape left tongues wag­ging in the se­cu­rity cir­cle. Also,those res­cued from Sam­bisa for­est have told sto­ries of how Boko Haram com­man­ders re­ceived in­for­ma­tion of im­pend­ing mil­i­tary at­tacks and re­lo­cated them be­fore such as­saults. Who would have fore­warned the sect be­fore such at­tacks? If the Army had said Boko Haram lusts af­ter pub­lic­ity and so a front page story on their ac­tiv­i­ties would cause ter­ror­ists to dance and ju­bi­late, it would have been plau­si­ble. But to raid a news­pa­per house on the ex­cuse that a re­port let out se­cu­rity de­tails could cause Boko Haram com­man­ders to laugh at us all.

Per­haps, the ob­jec­tive of the Army was to in­tim­i­date and crush the in­ves­tiga­tive, in­ter­pre­ta­tive and an­a­lyt­i­cal re­port­ing spirit of Daily Trust jour­nal­ists. In the last few weeks, Daily Trust has en­gaged in so­lu­tions-based re­port­ing on the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try, speak­ing to eye­wit­nesses, those at Ground Zero in the North-East, and ex­perts. The se­ries of pub­li­ca­tions that have arisen from the en­ter­prise may have cre­ated dis­com­fort in the se­cu­rity cir­cle. But crit­i­cal re­port­ing is meant to set those in au­thor­ity think­ing, not to dis­credit them.

The in­va­sion of Daily Trust of­fices and ar­rest of its jour­nal­ists is a naked vi­o­la­tion of the free­dom of the press, which should not be 20 years af­ter the exit of the mil­i­tary from po­lit­i­cal power in Nige­ria. The essence of crit­i­cal jour­nal­ism is to pro­vide gov­ern­ment with al­ter­na­tive view­points; it is meant to ed­u­cate those shielded in the high walls of Gov­ern­ment Houses on the re­al­ity on ground, how the ac­tion and in­ac­tion of gov­ern­ment af­fect the masses. It would amount to dis­ser­vice to the na­tion if the me­dia pub­lish only press state­ments on the mil­i­tary’s ex­ploits against Boko Haram with­out cap­tur­ing the pre­vail­ing con­di­tion of those who live in the North East. Sec­tion 22 of the Nige­rian Con­sti­tu­tion says ex­pressly: “The press, ra­dio, tele­vi­sion and other agen­cies of the mass me­dia shall at all times be free to… up­hold the re­spon­si­bil­ity and ac­count­abil­ity of the gov­ern­ment to the peo­ple.” There­fore, the me­dia should carry out their as­sign­ment in the in­ter­est of the pub­lic, not just few gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials who lust af­ter pro­pa­ganda.

Sol­diers in­vaded Daily Trust head­quar­ters in Abuja last Sun­day. The me­dia out­fit was shut down for some hours and com­puter sets con­fis­cated

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