Attacks on the Press 2003: Nigeria

In Nigeria’s first successful transfer between civilian administrations since independence in 1960, President Olusegun Obasanjo was re-elected in a landslide victory that also saw his ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) make significant gains in polls across the country. Despite the relatively peaceful conduct of the election, opposition parties and election observers alleged widespread fraud, irregularities, and voter intimidation.

In its coverage of the April elections, the Nigerian media generally prized concern for stability and the success of the elections over rigorous investigation. According to local journalists, the press’s acquiescent tone and wariness stemmed at least partly from the blame the media had incurred in the past for the failure of Nigerian democracy. During the previous attempt at civilian succession in the 1983 elections, media critics argue, the press’s prominent coverage of alleged electoral fraud was used as part of the pretext for the military coup that interrupted democracy in the country for 15 years.

As a result, coverage of Muhamadu Buhari, the retired general who led the 1983 coup and Obasanjo’s main rival in the 2003 election, was not favorable. A Muslim from northern Nigeria, Buhari was portrayed as a promoter of Shariah, or Islamic law. The press, which is concentrated in the predominantly Christian southwest, maintained that he was incapable of unifying the country. Buhari claimed that the elections were marred by fraud, but the Nigerian media barely covered his legal challenge to the results.

State-owned media outlets throughout the country tended to favor incumbents, and politicians from the smaller opposition parties complained that the press overlooked them in favor of candidates from larger and richer parties. But victorious government officials celebrated the role of the local media in the elections. At a press conference after the presidential poll, Obasanjo, who was the clear favorite in the Nigerian media, praised local journalists for their “patriotic reporting.” Journalists groups, primarily concerned with postelectoral stability, commended the elections as free and fair and cautioned losing candidates against inciting the population to unrest.

Meanwhile, PDP officials lashed out at foreign media and election observers who criticized the polls and exposed alleged fraud, or who expressed concerns about the legitimacy of the results. CNN, VOA, and the BBC in particular were condemned for their “negative reportage.” Information Minister Jerry Gana threatened to force CNN to replace its correspondent in the country because of the channel’s coverage. Obasanjo accused European Union (EU) election observers of not understanding Nigerian democracy after the EU’s monitoring team criticized the elections. The EU also criticized the Nigerian media’s performance during the vote, saying the press “failed to provide unbiased coverage of the political parties and candidates contesting the elections.”

Nonetheless, Nigerian journalists said the media were better equipped to cover the polls than in any previous election. With the help of the United Nations and foreign governments, the Independent National Electoral Commission opened a 24-hour media center in the capital, Abuja, that gave journalists timely access to poll results and to officials who could respond to press complaints and concerns. The National Broadcasting Commission, Nigeria’s official regulatory body for broadcast media, also instituted a progressive set of guidelines ahead of the elections to try to ensure equitable access to the airwaves for all parties. Local journalists said that the most egregious breach of the guidelines occurred in southern Delta State, where, according to journalists, a gang of opposition supporters raided the private Jeremi FM radio station and forced the station’s presenter at gunpoint to falsely announce that their candidate had won.

The variety and magnitude of problems facing Obasanjo have not diminished since he took office in 1999. Though he pledged to make defeating corruption his top priority, local journalists say little progress has been made on that front. The international nongovernmental organization Transparency International has consistently ranked Nigeria as one of the world’s most corrupt nations. Journalists who report on corruption scandals have faced harassment and censorship from authorities. In June, State Security Service (SSS) agents attempted to purchase the entire print run of the popular Tell magazine after it ran an article alleging fraud in the awarding of broadcasting equipment contracts for the All Africa Games, a pan-African multisports event that Nigeria hosted in October.

State governments took the more drastic step of trying to banish reporters in reprisal for their stories. In late October, the Cross River State government attempted to expel Daily Independent journalist Bassey Inyang from the state after he reported on an alleged bribery scandal in the state assembly. And in August, the Akwa Ibom State Assembly attempted to expel Haruna Acheneje, a correspondent for the newspaper The Punch, after he reported that legislators had not been paid allowances. Both governments reversed the decisions after popular protest and pressure from journalists groups.

Nigeria is the world’s seventh-largest oil exporter, but citizens complain that they have not benefited from the country’s oil wealth, and authorities are sensitive to coverage of scandals relating to the industry. In early July, police attacked Associated Press photographer George Osodi and Vanguard newspaper journalists Funmi Komolafe and Rotimi Ajayi while they covered protests in Abuja over the federal government’s decision to increase gasoline prices by more than 50 percent. In November, three journalists with Insider Weekly were charged with sedition and defamation after the magazine published an article alleging that presidential aides were involved in oil theft in the Niger Delta Region.

Journalists say that police harassment remains the biggest obstacle to reporting. Local police forces are often politicized, and journalists who question police allegiances or integrity often face brutality. In August, a police superintendent in Anambra State ordered a group of young men to attack Emma Nwatu of Minaj Systems Television after he helped produce a report alleging that the superintendent was extorting money from bus drivers. Worsening police antagonism toward journalists led the SSS to hold several meetings aimed at improving relations between government authorities and the media. In the run-up to the December meeting of Commonwealth heads of state in Abuja, a presidential task force explicitly warned security personnel against attacking journalists during the summit, saying the government would not tolerate any tarnishing of the country’s image.

Because Nigerian journalists are poorly paid, they are susceptible to bribery by politicians and other powerful figures, local sources said. High printing costs and low sales have placed a significant financial strain on print publications. Making the situation even worse, local courts have begun awarding excessive libel damages that threaten to bankrupt media companies. In November, the president’s wife sued the Independent Communication Network Limited, publishers of The News, for 1 billion naira (US$7.5 million) after the magazine alleged that a company she owned was awarded a large contract for the All Africa Games. The case was pending at year’s end.

But the robust and vibrant Nigerian media also have considerable influence in political affairs, and journalists’ organizations have effectively pushed for reforms of government policies and redress of particular offenses. In July, the federal legislature withdrew a new code of conduct for journalists covering the National Assembly following protests by the Nigerian Union of Journalists and other media rights groups. The code would have forced all reporters to confirm sensitive information with the assembly administration before publication, as well as mandating punishment for “speculative journalism” and the leaking of official secret documents.

However, journalists’ groups could not persuade lawmakers to pass media-friendly legislation during Obasanjo’s first term. The Freedom of Information Bill, which would allow journalists and citizens greater access to government information and provide protection for whistleblowers in the government, is still pending. Though PDP legislators promised to pass the bill during Obasanjo’s first term, the bill has stagnated in the National Assembly. On a positive note, assembly members said they were considering amending broadcasting laws to allow private broadcasters to transmit nationwide. Private stations are currently prohibited from broadcasting beyond their state or allocated zones. Nigerian journalists say the restriction resulted from government fear that allowing broadcasters nationwide reach could compromise national security.

Religious tensions in the predominantly Muslim north have adversely affected the media. Nigerian journalists, who have generally tried to strike a balanced tone on issues of religious and ethnic conflict, have nonetheless been caught in the fray. According to press reports, Jama’atul Nasril Islam, an influential Islamic body based in Kaduna, reaffirmed a fatwa sanctioning the killing of two ThisDay journalists in its annual 2003 report. The edict was issued in 2002 by the Zamfara State government after ThisDay published an article that sparked religious riots in the north that killed more than 200 people. Local journalists said they believe that the action was symbolic, and that Islamic authorities do not intend to enforce the ruling. One of the two ThisDay journalists, Isioma Daniel, remained in exile at year’s end.