President Olusegun Obasanjo’s attempt to amend the constitution so he could seek a third term in the April 2007 election galvanized opponents and stoked political tensions and violence. Media critical of the president’s move found themselves the targets of harassment by security services. But the climate for all media worsened, and attacks on the press increased, according to local journalists. The media took a leading role in opposing Obasanjo’s amendment bid, which was eventually blocked.
The arrest of two journalists on sedition charges in June raised local and international alarm. Some journalists saw this as part of a pattern of reprisal against the independent media for having thwarted Obasanjo’s third-term ambitions. The president denied he was cracking down on the press, yet CPJ research shows that at least three journalists were imprisoned by the State Security Service (SSS), which reports directly to the president. “I believe that I am one of the most tolerant presidents in the world,” Obasanjo told The Associated Press in June. “I believe responsible journalism has an important role to play in democracy and in any civilized society.” But he went on to criticize journalists who “fabricate,” the AP reported, and said he would sue any who defamed him.
The upcoming general election is to choose a president and national assembly, as well as state governors and regional assemblies. It should usher in the first handover of presidential power since the end of military rule in 1999. But Obasanjo’s attempt to hang on to office sharpened political rivalries, particularly between the president and his deputy, Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who opposed a term extension.
In March, the government’s National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) slapped sanctions on Freedom Radio, an independent station in the northern city of Kano, for allegedly violating provisions of the country’s broadcasting code. The NBC did not provide specific examples. Several local journalists said the government had targeted the station over a song it aired that protested a third term for the president. The sanctions, which included suspension of call-in shows and political programs, were widely criticized by local journalists and press freedom organizations. The restrictions were lifted after two weeks.
In May, plainclothes security agents told managers at the Abuja bureau of Africa Independent Television (AIT), the leading independent TV station, to stop broadcasting a privately produced 30-minute documentary about past failed efforts by Nigerian leaders to prolong their time in office. The agents also confiscated the master copy of the documentary, which had aired several times. Raymond Dokpasi, chairman of Daar Communications, which owns AIT, said the agents claimed to be acting on orders from the president. Dokpasi said he had also received telephone threats over AIT’s decision to broadcast live the parliamentary debate on the amendment, which was defeated on May 16.
In mid-June, SSS agents detained overnight Mike Gbenga Aruleba, an AIT presenter, and demanded that his station turn over a tape of the previous day’s “Focus Nigeria,” hosted by Aruleba. The discussion program had picked up a newspaper report that questioned the age and cost of the presidential jet. This had sparked controversy, especially since Obasanjo came to power promising to fight corruption and unnecessary government expenditures.
Aruleba was rearrested later the same month, along with Rotimi Durojaiye, the senior Daily Independent correspondent who wrote the report. In his June 12 article, Durojaiye said research conducted by the newspaper showed that the government had bought a five-year-old aircraft from the German carrier Lufthansa and not, as it claimed, a new jet directly from Boeing. The two journalists were charged with six counts of sedition, including conspiring “to bring into hatred or contempt or excite disaffection against the person of the president or the government of the federation.”
Aruleba and Durojaiye were jailed for several days before being released on bail. In October, an Abuja court dropped the charges against Aruleba and his news organization, Daar Communications, after the prosecution said the defendants had shown “sufficient remorse.” But prosecutors said the trial against Durojaiye and his news organization, Independent Newspapers Limited, would continue because they were not “remorseful.”
The charges against Durojaiye were referred to the federal Court of Appeal, after the defense claimed they were unconstitutional.
Outdated criminal laws were also used to jail two journalists for more than two months in southeastern Ebonyi state in connection with an article criticizing the state governor. Director Imo Eze and Editor Oluwole Elenyinmi of the local bimonthly Ebonyi Voice, were charged with sedition over an article accusing Gov. Sam Ominyi Egwu of corruption and mismanagement, according to several sources. The two were freed on bail in late August after international and local pressure, including mediation by the Nigeria Union of Journalists, which said it hoped the case could be settled out of court.
In April, another journalist was briefly detained and charged with eight counts of “conducting himself in a manner likely to cause a breach of the peace” for an article detailing political tension between the governor of southern Bayelsa state and his deputy over who would run for governor in the 2007 election. The journalist, Alfred Egbegi, publisher of the weekly tabloid newspaper Izon Link in the state capital, Yenagoa, also reported receiving threats from anonymous callers and state government officials after the article appeared.
Journalists in many parts of the country operated in a climate of insecurity and sporadic violence that was often linked to ethnic and religious tensions. For example, Muslim protests in February against Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad republished by European newspapers spiraled into violence that killed dozens of Christians and Muslims.
One of the most dangerous areas was the oil-rich Niger Delta, where militant groups have attacked government and oil company targets and kidnapped foreign oil workers.
In June, a veteran U.S. freelance photographer, Ed Kashi, and his Nigerian fixer, Elias Courson, were imprisoned for four days for allegedly filming an oil facility in Bayelsa state without permission, although local journalists said they were not aware of regulations requiring special permission to film oil installations. The two were initially held by the Nigerian Navy and then transferred to the custody of the SSS, before being released without charge. Kashi was on assignment for the U.S. magazine National Geographic.