July 2, 2001
President Olusegun Obasanjo
State House, Abuja
Federal Capital Territory, Nigeria
VIA FAX: 011-234-9-523-2136
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is greatly disturbed by the recent arrest and continuing prosecution of Nnamdi Onyenua, editor of the weekly, Lagos-based magazine Glamour Trends, on charges of criminal defamation.
During the afternoon of June 8, armed policemen entered the offices of Millennium Communications, which publishes Glamour Trends. In a style reminiscent of the country’s former military regime, the officers fired their guns in the air to disperse employees. Then they forcibly arrested Onyenua and drove him to Abuja under heavy police escort.
Onyenua’s arrest resulted from an article titled “Secrets Behind Obasanjo’s Trips” that appeared in the magazine’s June 6 edition. The article alleged that Your Excellency receives US$1 million in allowances for each overseas trip, and that as of May 30, 2001 you had amassed US$58 million in allowances over two years.
Shortly after the article appeared, the office of the Inspector General of Police received a letter from Your Excellency stating that because these allegations were not substantiated, Glamour Trends had “committed an offence punishable under section 392 of the Penal Code Law.”
According to CPJ’s sources in Nigeria, Onyenua was detained for more than 11 days pending investigation of the case. Although Nigerian law mandates that no prisoner can be held more than 24 hours without formal charges, Onyenua was not arraigned until June 19. On or about June 21, he was charged with publishing false information and defaming the president, and then released on bail.
CPJ is dismayed that Your Excellency would bring such charges against a journalist. While Your Excellency may take exception to the allegations printed in Onyenua’s magazine, this is plainly not a criminal matter. In fact, there is a growing international consensus that journalists should never face criminal charges for their professional work, and that public officials have a particular responsibility to refrain from using defamation laws to shield themselves from criticism.
While Nigeria’s vibrant press is once again covering important political and economic issues under Your Excellency’s administration, journalists still face legal restrictions and periodic hostility. Although press freedom is guaranteed in Section 22 of the Nigerian Constitution, harsh criminal defamation laws remain on the books. Moreover, publishers can be jailed for up to three years and fined substantial sums for failing to register with the newly formed government Press Council.
We urge Your Excellency to demonstrate your commitment to freedom of the press by dropping the criminal defamation charges against Nnamdi Onyenua and working toward the repeal of all laws that criminalize defamation and other press offenses.
We thank you for your attention to these urgent matters.
Ann K. Cooper