Attacks on the Press 2001: Nigeria

Mirroring the larger society, the Nigerian media were severely fractured along ethnic and regional lines in 2001, although mainstream news outlets remained economically robust, dynamic, and politically outspoken.

Throughout the year, a host of new publications hit newsstands, many of them in local languages. In the Christian-dominated south, private radio and television stations expanded their national coverage. In contrast, deadly religious uprisings hampered the growth of media outlets in the Islam-influenced north. Religious fundamentalism in the northern states not only strengthened the local Islamic legal system, which imposes severe penalties for alleged press offenses, but also raised the specter of secession in this historically unstable federal republic.

The mystery surrounding the death of Dele Giwa, the founding editor of the Lagos-based weekly Newswatch, continued to make headlines 15 years after a parcel bomb killed him. Giwa’s death dominated the final hearings of the Human Rights Violations Commission, popularly known as the Oputa Panel. The panel was created by President Olusegun Obasanjo to investigate human rights abuses committed under the military regimes that ruled Nigeria from 1966 to 1998. Its mandate was to determine whether those abuses resulted from “deliberate state policy or the policy of any of its organs or institutions.”

The Oputa Panel began conducting hearings in 2000, all of them carried live by several Nigerian broadcasters. The result was a highly charged national debate over democracy and government accountability.

Three formerly jailed journalists appeared before the Oputa Panel and recounted their experiences in detention: Kunle Ajibade of The News and Ben Charles Obi and George Mba of Tell, both of whom had been convicted and sentenced to 25 years in jail for their alleged involvement in a phantom 1995 coup plot to overthrow Nigeria’s former dictator the late Gen. Sani Abacha.

Summonses to appear before the Oputa Panel were also sent to members of the public, current, and former government and army officials, including President Obasanjo, and three former military heads of state. Although Obasanjo testified twice in person and appealed to all three of the country’s former military strongmen to do the same, they consistently refused.

Public pressure was particularly intense in the case of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who ruled Nigeria at the time of Giwa’s assassination and allegedly masterminded the murder. But General Babangida was still refusing to testify when the Oputa Panel wrapped up its work in October.

President Obasanjo’s appearance before the Oputa Panel seemed to usher in a new culture of openness and respect for human rights in official circles. But Obasanjo upset Nigerian journalists when he declared that news professionals had “continued to demonstrate lack of control and responsibility in some of their reports. They call it press freedom, but I think sometimes it is press anarchy.” In July, Obasanjo filed criminal defamation charges against Nnamdi Onyenua, editor of the weekly, Lagos-based magazine Glamour Trends. Onyenua was detained for 11 days and was only released after the president’s lawyers dropped the charges.

On the other hand, Obasanjo often courted Nigeria’s fiercely outspoken media. In June, the Obasanjo government sponsored a National Media Tour, in which 75 journalists from print and electronic media traveled to all 36 states to meet local authorities and inspect federal development projects. In several states, local governors and other officials used the platform offered by the Media Tour to lambaste journalists for their perceived sensationalism, ethnic favoritism, and regional biases.

The Media Tour elicited mixed reactions among both journalists and officials. Some journalists labeled it a money-wasting ploy, while others dismissed the tour as an Obasanjo public relations scheme ahead of general elections planned for 2003.

But the government did not try to interfere directly with the media, and several newspapers and broadcasters made their debuts in an already competitive market. Numerous new English-language and vernacular papers, both state- and privately owned, were launched. In July, African Independent Television (AIT) went on the air, breaking the decades-long monopoly of the official Nigeria Television Authority.

The former capital, Lagos, remained an important base for foreign media covering West Africa. In May, CNN opened a full-time bureau there.

Meanwhile, the Voice of Nigeria (VON), the country’s external broadcasting service and one of only a few such services in Africa, announced plans to establish six new bureaus in Nigeria, as well as external bureaus in the United States, Europe, and other African countries. In October, VON purchased three new shortwave transmitters. The station, which has links to eight other broadcasters in South Africa, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Kenya, currently airs programs in two local and four foreign languages, including English, French, Arabic, and Kiswahili.

Several special interest radio and television stations were also launched or about to begin operations. Zamfara, one of the northern states that adopted the Islamic legal system, known as sharia, announced plans to create a television station called Voice of Islam. In September, supporters of independence for the former breakaway Biafra region launched Voice of Biafra International in an effort to revive their cause.

Despite the dynamism and increasing freedom of the Nigerian press, journalists must still contend with harsh laws and regulations. In addition to criminal defamation, journalists must contend with Decree 60, a 1999 law that created the government-appointed Press Council. Decree 60 also mandates state accreditation of journalists. In order to be accredited, all journalists must have received professional training from an “approved institution.”

Late in the year, in an attempt at self-regulation, the Nigerian Union of Journalists introduced a nationwide registration system. Also, a much debated Freedom of Information Bill, for which Nigerian journalists have vigorously campaigned, received overwhelming popular support at a series of public hearings in October. The bill would enshrine the right of access to information or records kept by government agencies and private bodies carrying out public functions.

Journalists used their influence to focus attention on serious societal problems such as domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, and gender discrimination in the work force. In May, Journalists Against Aids, an advocacy organization founded in 1997, opened a media and resource center devoted to providing information on HIV/AIDS and reproductive health issues. The organization also launched a Web site intended to improve the quality and accuracy of reporting on HIV/AIDS in the Nigerian media.

March 6

Sam Chindah, The Tide
Rosemary Nwisi, The Post Express

Two journalists, Chindah of The Tide and Nwisi of The Post Express, were briefly detained on orders of Port Harcourt chief magistrate C.I. Nwankwo, who insisted that they required special authorization to cover proceedings in her courtroom. The judge also ordered the temporary confiscation of their professional equipment.

The two journalists arrived in Nwankwo’s courtroom in the middle of a hearing. A few minutes later, the judge ordered police to arrest them, saying they would have plenty to write about after being locked up with accused criminals. The reporters were released after the day’s court session, although Chindah’s equipment was not immediately returned. He was asked to collect it the next day.

April 3

Tade Adesungboye, Punch

Adesungboye, a photographer for the independent Lagos daily Punch, was assaulted by security operatives inside the Lagos High Court.

The photographer was at the courthouse to cover the trial of Aminu Mohammed, who had been charged with the attempted murder of Chief Abraham Adesanya, a pro-democracy activist and leader of the ethnic Yoruba organization Afenifere.

After Adesungboye took a picture, he was grabbed by security officers and beaten. The officers also seized his camera and removed the film.

The most senior of the security guards who assaulted Adesungboye claimed that the photographer was beaten for photographing a suspect without permission.

Dayo Omotosho, Comet

Omotosho, the state bureau chief for the Lagos-based Comet newspaper, was barred from covering the government of Oyo State, in the southwestern part of Nigeria. State officials also demanded that the newspaper name another correspondent to the beat.

Lagos newspapers reported that the ban came in reprisal for an April 2 article in which Omotosho reported that state governor Alhaji Lam Adesina and his wife, Saratu, had snubbed the wife of Vice President Alhaja Titi Abubakar during the wedding of the governor’s son.

April 23

Okon Sam, Pioneer

Sam, a reporter for the newspaper Pioneer, was assaulted by security guards from President Olusegun Obasanjo’s entourage.

The reporter was at the International Conference Center in Abuja to cover a meeting of the ruling People’s Democratic Party. He had just approached the main gate of the center and was trying to enter when a security guard stopped him.

Although Sam was wearing his press identity card on his chest, the security guard denied him entry. When the journalist attempted to prove that he was accredited to cover the event, the guard punched him and beat him with his gun.

Sam sustained a dislocated arm and head injuries. His tape recorder was damaged and his clothes were torn. He was hospitalized with internal bleeding.

June 8

Nnamdi Onyenua, Glamour Trends

Armed police officers entered the offices of Millennium Communications, which publishes the magazine Glamour Trends, fired their guns in the air to disperse employees, then took Onyenua into custody and drove him to the Nigerian capital, Abuja, under heavy police escort.

Onyenua’s arrest came after the magazine published a story on June 6 alleging that President Olusegun Obasanjo received $1 million in allowances for each trip he took abroad, and that as of May 30, 2001, he had amassed a personal fortune of US$58 million.

The independent newspaper This Day reported that shortly after the article appeared, the Office of the Inspector General of Police received a letter from the president stating that the allegation could not be substantiated and that the magazine had thus “committed an offence punishable under section 392 of the Penal Code Law.”

According to CPJ sources in Nigeria, Onyenua remained in police custody pending an investigation. Though Nigerian law mandates that no prisoner can be held more than 24 hours without a formal charge, Onyenua was not arraigned until June 19. He was released on bail on or around June 21 and charged with publishing false information and defaming the president.

His case was due to be heard on November 8, 2001, at the Abuja Magistrate Court. The case was still unresolved at year’s end.

July 4

Aminu Abubakar, Agence France-Presse

Abubakar, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent for Kano State in northern Nigeria, was harassed by a group of Christian youths in the town of Tafawa Balewa, Bauchi State.

Abubakar went to Tafawa Balewa on July 3 to cover violent confrontations between Christians and Muslims, which became frequent after the introduction of Islamic law (Sharia) in the state last spring. Tafawa Balewa is a small, predominantly Christian town in the predominantly Muslim state. Most of the recent violence there has been perpetrated by Christians against Muslims.

While Abubakar was interviewing people on the street, members of the Christian youth organization Youth of Zar closed in on him and threatened to kill him. They then forced the journalist to tear up his notebook. Shortly thereafter, police surrounded Abubakar and escorted him out of the town.

The AFP bureau in Lagos said Abubakar most likely was harassed because he is a Muslim. The new AFP correspondent in Tafawa Balewa, who is Christian, has not encountered any harassment. However, AFP also said that local authorities were anxious both to play down the violence and to prevent the media from reporting on it. According to AFP, authorities fear that coverage of the incidents could lead to reprisals in other areas of the state.

By mid-July, most Muslims had been driven out of Tafawa Balewa. Citing local medical sources, the AFP said 461 bodies had been buried in the area, all victims of sectarian violence.

July 25

Tunde Adesola, The Punch
The Punch

More than 1,000 students from Adekunle Ajasin University in Ondo State twice attacked The Punch newspaper office in the state capital, Akure, and threatened to lynch local correspondent Tunde Adesola.

The students, who raided the office on July 25 and 26, were angered by two recent Punch articles, titled “Adefarati Advises Students on use of English” and “Polish your English, Advises Adefarati.” Both articles reported on State Governor Adebayo Adefarati’s admonition to university students to improve their English.

The students vandalized the office and destroyed copies of the newspaper. Governor Adefarati and the Nigerian Union of Journalists both condemned the attack.

October 5

Simon Materi, CNN

Materi, a cameraman for CNN, was attacked in the city of Kaduna, capital of Kaduna State in northern Nigeria. Materi was filming outside a mosque for a story on Christian-Muslim tensions in the region when he was assaulted by an angry mob.

Village elders rescued the journalist, drove him away from the scene, and briefly sheltered him before he left for Lagos.