On August 4, 2021, I found myself at Ikoyi Prison alongside my colleague, Emmanuel Uti. Officials of the prison had accused Uti and me of recording videos of them. They seized our phones and vowed not to release them until we unlocked and showed them the contents. Whatever they found offensive would be deleted.
My colleague and I had received a brief from our Editor to cover the court case of Peter Nielsen, a Danish man accused of killing 37-year-old Zainab, his Nigerian wife, and Petra, their three-year-old daughter, in their home in Ikoyi, Lagos.
One of the deceased’s friends told my colleague that she believed Nielson was responsible for the death because she saw Petra’s body foaming in the mouth. She said both daughter and mother obviously bled to death. However, Nielson claimed they died from gas inhalation.
Dressed in a tucked-in white shirt, blue jeans and black palm slippers, Nielson arrived at the Lagos State High Court, Tafawa Balewa Square, alongside other inmates. Our cameras began to roll. A short while after we began recording, a prison official ordered that we turned off our camera.
“Journalist, journalist,” we chorused, displaying our ID cards.
Our protests fell on deaf ears as we were told to stop recording. I obeyed but was shocked. It was not my first time in court. In May 2019, I was drafted by editors at SaharaReporters to cover the hearing of Naira Marley, a Nigerian singer facing an 11-count charge bordering on internet fraud. From the moment the singer got down from the vehicle of the Ikoyi Correctional Centre till he entered the courtroom, journalists recorded. Experienced journalists know that no picture or video recording is allowed in a Nigerian courtroom, although the coverage of court proceedings is guaranteed by Section 36 of the 1999 constitution.
Femi Falana, a human rights lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, once said every hearing is public and that journalists should never be made to believe that certain proceedings are confidential.
PRISON OFFICER GRABS MY PHONE
Since hoodlums attacked the Lagos State High Court, Igbosere, during the #EndSARS protests, proceedings have moved to a much smaller venue at Tafawa Balewa Square. As a result, judges manage time and court rooms. Nielsen was scheduled to appear before Justice Bolanle Okikiolu-Ighile by 12noon but that did not happen till some minutes before 1pm.
I had stopped recording outside the courtroom when two officials of Ikoyi Prison walked up to me and demanded to see contents on my phone. I resisted, but they forcefully grabbed my phone. However, it was locked. My colleague Uti, who had just stepped out of the court, had his phone seized also.
The officers refused to return our phones even after court proceedings, saying we should visit their office in Ikoyi to retrieve them. At about 5:20pm, Uti and I arrived at Ikoyi Prison. An official told us to either unlock our phones and delete whatever videos we might have taken or forget about them. We told him we would not unlock them.
“I don’t have any business with you as you don’t intend to open your phones. If you really don’t want to open them, you can go,” the prison official said, and, as we made to leave, added: “Wait, my oga is coming.”
A few minutes later, his boss did come in. From his looks, we knew the interrogation would take a new dimension.
“They said you were videoing them,” he said. “Why?”
“Videoing who?” I asked. Angered, he ordered that we be taken to the police station, and then we were transported to Onikan Police Station in one of the prison buses.
When we identified ourselves as journalists working with ‘Fisayo Soyombo, the DPO said he could not forget the “damages” ‘Fisayo’s investigation had cost them. Initially, he asked us to either unlock our phones and delete whatever content they were not comfortable with or be detained and arraigned in court the following day. We declined and he handed us over to Rotimi, the Investigating Police Officer (IPO) to take our statements and detain us.
After taking our statements, Rotimi told us to call someone who could take our bail as he had “children” like us and wouldn’t be happy seeing them spend the night in the cell. I placed a call to my Editor.
Not too long after our Editor spoke with the IPO, he took our bail bond where we indicated that we would be return by 9am the following day. All the while, the IPO said our offence was “conduct likely”. He also collected our ID cards before letting us go. That was exactly 9:32pm.
The following morning, we returned with our lawyer. The IPO told him we had two options: delete the videos we took or have prison staff charge us to court. Eventually, we unlocked our phones and the officials went through the videos. They decided to send all of them to a laptop of theirs, and then they let us go. It was about 12:29 pm.
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