Like other media organizations in Nigeria, THE WHISTLER, an independent online news agency set out with adequate preparations to cover the February 23 Presidential and National Assembly Elections.
After securing accreditation of its reporters to cover the elections in the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, and a few battle ground states in the country, all staff were deployed to different areas of the FCT. But not before a final briefing by the editor of the paper on how to cover elections.
The editor, also a veteran political reporter, conducted a tutorial for the editorial team on reporting elections- what to look out for, reporting deadlines and how to be safe.
Reporters were asked to study the Electoral Acts 2011 to understand what constituted electoral offences and watch out for those during the voting process. In addition, reporters were to watch out, among others, for turnout of voters, accreditation process, underage voting and collation of results.
Another area of interest for the editor is the voting technology. We were asked to look out for the efficiency of the card readers. And if they’re not performing well, what are the complaints of voters.
The names of election officers, names of polling units, interview with party agents on the process and time of commencement and end of voting were among issues to be covered.
Armed adequately with the election coverage brief, I set out on election day with excitement and hope every election brings.
Because there was restriction of vehicular movement for the day, I had arranged with a commercial motorcyclist to convey me to and from the polling units I was to cover. One of the units is the Nyanya Gbagyi polling unit in Karu Local Government Area of Nasarawa state
When I set out for the election duty, I never had a premonition of what was to befall me. My passion to do my job seized me and I anticipated the discharge of my duty with great joy as I hurried to the first polling unit I was to cover-the Nyanya Gbagyi polling unit..
As soon as I got there at exactly 7:25am I was greeted by a large crowd of voters waiting for electoral officials and materials that were yet to arrive.
Within minutes of my arrival at the polling unit, I was inundated with questions from some voters who rushed to me. They mistook me for an official of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC; perhaps because of the INEC accredited fez cap and tag I was putting on for the duty ahead of me. I had some tough time trying to explain to them that I was not a staff of the commission but encouraged them to exercise patience as the officials would soon arrive.
While I was going about my duty peacefully and responsibly, keeping constant updates with my medium, the unfortunate happened at some minutes past two pm, halting my assignment abruptly.
“Hey, come here, bring that phone,” was the order I received from the soldiers. They swooped on the Nyanya Gbagyi 005 polling unit where voters were awaiting accreditation. I walked to the one who shouted at me. “What are you snapping? Give me the phone!,” he roared again, collected my phone and held me by the wrist like a common criminal, a law breaker. He wielded a rifle, same as his other colleagues. Despite my full INEC accreditation and my explicit explanation that am a Journalist covering the election, he still requested for my phone.
Not even the swift intervention of my colleagues from the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC who confirmed that we are journalists accredited for the national assignment could sway them.
“Good, you have entered”, was his comment as he handed me over to his other colleague who in turn handed me to the other, who collected the phone and ordered me to unlock the phone, which I did. “Shift”, he ordered everyone close by to give way, and for a moment I thought the order from above: “deal ruthlessly with ballot box snatchers” was to be implemented on me even though I did not committed any electoral.
The next thing I saw was that he smashed my phone on the pavement on which he was standing. With that they were done. My major working tool was gone for no just cause other than I was doing my constitutional duty. All the reports I was working on were gone in a twinkle of an eye. I looked at the wreckage of my phone, smashed beyond repair, and resting in pieces!
My sim and memory cards destroyed too. Voters on queue were shocked at what happened, as they all looked in my direction with pity and disbelief. I was distraught and bewildered. I am still traumatized. A whole lot of thoughts flashed through my mind.
While I was leaving that particular polling unit for another, I wondered to myself: why would soldiers storm a polling unit with guns and sticks, threaten and even hit defenceless citizens and most importantly men of the fourth estate of the realm? Why would soldiers harass journalists for doing their jobs?
It further reminded me of the numerous occasions journalists had been assaulted by security agents. It also reminded me of the various attempts of the military to gag the press. It is also a sore reminder of the fate of journalists in this part of the world.
The unwarranted attack on me by an overzealous soldier brought a stop to my assignment. I couldn’t report the slight pandemonium caused by some youths, as eligible voters besieged and surrounded the vehicle carrying electoral materials, delay in commencement of voting in some centres and complaints from some voters that they couldn’t locate their polling unit as officials of the commission kept directing them from one unit to the other to no avail.
Despite the destruction done to my mobile phone and the psychological trauma caused me by the attack of the soldiers, I was not deterred as I was able to accomplish my assignment. I was able to do some of my reports by way of reporting by calls, through a phone I was obliged by a good Samaritan.
With the numerous attacks on the press by the military which have become a recurring decimal in our nation for a very long time, I appeal to the public relations/affairs unit of the Nigerian military to as a matter of public importance organize regular or quarterly trainings for the media and the military to have a cordial working relationship in their lines of duty.
This is very important to reduce the incidences of unwarranted attacks and confrontation between civilians and the military, and especially media-military relations.
This is also important because the media is the eye of the society and the military is the shield of any nation, and as such the two are partners in progress. In view of the importance of their constitutional responsibilities, the two institutions should work as partners, not as adversaries.