The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply disturbed by an alarming government attack against the Lagos-based news magazine Insider Weekly, one that is fundamentally at odds with the most basic democratic principles. Members of the State Security Service (SSS) recently raided the newspaper, arrested employees, seized equipment, censored the news, and shut its offices.
On Saturday, September 4, armed SSS agents broke into the magazine's offices with sledgehammers, seizing documents, equipment, and money belonging to the magazine, according to local sources. They arrested the production manager, Raphael Olatoye, and brought him to the magazine's printing press, where they confiscated the entire print run of the magazine's September 5 edition, as well as the plates for printing it, local sources told CPJ.
Members of the SSS returned to Insider Weekly's offices the following day, and arrested the magazine's circulation officer, Cyril Mbamalu. They confiscated all 14 of the publication's computers, as well as other equipment. SSS agents then sealed off the offices, replacing the locks with their own. Local sources told CPJ an as-yet-unidentified dispatcher was arrested later when he arrived at the offices to pick up copies of the magazine for distribution.
The employees' current whereabouts are unknown, and no charges have been announced against them. Other employees have gone into hiding and fear for their safety, according to local sources.
On September 4, the SSS released a detailed statement seeking to justify its actions, which was published in the national Lagos-based daily ThisDay on September 5. The statement accused Insider Weekly of "attacking, disparaging and humiliating the person and office of the President and Commander-in-chief as well as some notable people in government," and defended the raid on national security grounds. It then listed articles published in Insider Weekly since 2001, which the SSS alleged had insulted or undermined the presidency. The statement cites an Oct. 27, 2003, article comparing Your Excellency to former military dictator General Sani Abacha, and a "current" article that implied Your Excellency wants to amend the Constitution to allow a third presidential term.
The SSS statement described "the attempt by the publisher of Insider Weekly magazine to continually distort facts and misrepresent noble ideals of the present administration to the innocent public" as "not only libelous, seditious and subversive but also treasonable."
This is not the first time Nigerian authorities have targeted Insider Weekly for its critical stance towards Your Excellency's administration. In November 2003, the magazine's editor-in-chief, Osa Director, and two of its directors, Janet Mba-Afolabi and Chuks Onwudinjo, were detained for two days by police and charged with defamation and sedition. The charges stemmed from an article alleging that top officials in your administration were involved with criminal syndicates that steal oil in the southern Niger Delta region. The charges have not been withdrawn, despite protests by many local journalists.
The recent crackdown on Insider Weekly and this pattern of official harassment against the staff of this private news publication are outrageous. CPJ finds the SSS's accusation of libel, sedition and treason deeply troubling for a democratic administration that has sought to distance itself from Nigeria's history of rule by military dictatorship.
We urge Your Excellency to ensure the immediate release of all of the Insider Weekly employees. We remind you that censorship of the news is anathema to democracy, and call on your administration to allow Insider Weekly's offices to be reopened, and ensure that its staff may return to work without government interference. We also call for the return of all seized equipment.
We also call on Your Excellency to ensure that all criminal charges against Osa Director, Janet Mba-Afolabi, and Chuks Onwudinjo are dropped.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.