Attacks on the Press 2004: Nigeria


A year after President Olusegun Obasanjo was re-elected to a second term, this oil-rich West African country continued to struggle with widespread corruption and civil conflict. Despite being Africa’s largest oil producer, more than three-quarters of Nigeria’s 130 million people live in poverty.

While press freedom has improved since the presidential election of 1999 ended years of military rule, local journalists are concerned by signs that the Obasanjo administration is borrowing repressive tactics from Nigeria’s past to intimidate the press. On September 4, armed State Security Service (SSS) agents broke into the offices of the private Lagos-based Insider Weekly with sledgehammers, seizing documents, equipment, and money, according to local sources. They detained at least two magazine employees for several days before releasing them without charge; confiscated the entire print run of the September 5 edition; and sealed off the offices, replacing the locks. Other employees went into hiding, fearing for their safety.

The SSS later issued a statement accusing 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 defending the raid on national security grounds. It listed articles published in the magazine since 2001 that the SSS alleged had insulted or undermined the presidency. They included an article comparing Obasanjo to notorious former dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, and a story suggesting that Obasanjo wanted to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. Obasanjo has said he will not seek a third term, although speculation about his plans persists.

Reaction to the raid was swift, with many private newspapers running editorials criticizing the administration; using the SSS to harass media was a common tactic under Abacha.

Fears increased when the SSS raided the offices of the Lagos-based Global Star magazine on September 8 and arrested editorial consultant Isaac Umunna the next day. The SSS held Umunna, who is also the general editor of the London-based monthly Africa Today, for eight days before releasing him without charge. Umunna told CPJ that his detention was linked to articles in Global Star on the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, which seeks to found an independent state in eastern Nigeria for members of Nigeria’s Igbo ethnic group. In 1967, three eastern states attempted to secede as the Republic of Biafra, sparking a bloody three-year civil war.

Insider Weekly, known for its critical stance toward Obasanjo’s administration, had been targeted before. However, local journalists were surprised by the SSS action against Global Star, a little-known new publication that was not widely distributed.

Local journalists continued their long but as-yet-fruitless lobbying effort for the Freedom of Information Act, which would allow journalists and citizens greater access to government information and provide protection for government whistleblowers. The bill has stagnated in the National Assembly since it was introduced by a coalition of civil-society groups more than five years ago. The House of Representatives passed the act in August, but the Senate and Obasanjo have yet to ratify it.

Ethnic, religious, and political conflicts remained sensitive topics for the press. Local journalists reported threats and harassment while covering hot spots across the country. Warring groups accused journalists of bias, and the government accused the media of sensationalizing the crises. Following deadly fighting between rival Christian and Muslim ethnic groups, Obasanjo declared a state of emergency in Plateau State in May, suspended its governor, dissolved the state legislature, and appointed retired army Gen. Chris Alli to administer the state. In August, Alli accused the local press of reporting negatively on government activities and threatened to take action against journalists who “want to cause problems,” according to the private daily ThisDay. In December, soon after Gov. Joshua Dariye returned to office, Dariye himself warned against publications or broadcasts that might incite “unnecessary tensions,” the private daily Vanguard reported.

Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region erupted in violence several times in 2004, with hundreds of warlords in the area intensifying their efforts to control local resources and gain self-determination. Local sources told CPJ that insecurity in the region made travel difficult and inhibited independent reporting. Armed police in Port Harcourt, a city in the southern Delta region, stormed the private radio station Rhythm FM in October to prevent the station from airing a recorded interview with a rebel militia leader.

Authorities have generally failed to punish members of security forces who have attacked local journalists, despite some improvements under Obasanjo. The trial of five suspects in the 1996 assassination attempt against Alex Ibru, former publisher of the independent daily Guardian, was still ongoing five years after it began in 1999. While covering the trial in November, a photographer working for the Vanguard was assaulted by bodyguards for Maj. Hamza al-Mustapha, a co-defendant and former Abacha security chief.

A controversial Journalism Enhancement Bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in August. Citing the need to improve professional standards, the Nigerian Union of Journalists helped draft an early version of the bill. But local journalists and press freedom organizations were alarmed at provisions that could quash critical reporting—notably, the establishment of a Media Practitioners Complaints Commission with the power to punish journalists who violate broadly defined standards. The press freedom group Media Rights Agenda said another provision states that journalists should not report “in a sensational way, or in a manner that glorifies” such things as “violence, religious or inter-ethnic or tribal conflicts, armed robberies, terrorist activities, national controversies such as intergovernmental and/or parliamentary conflicts, natural disasters, vulgar displays of wealth, or other negative trends and tendencies.” Deliberations on the bill were suspended in September after widespread protests by news organizations.

In April, the official broadcast regulatory agency, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), banned radio and television stations from relaying live news broadcasts from foreign sources, such as the BBC, CNN, and the Voice of America. The NBC said the ban was in line with existing regulations that had not been enforced. The Independent Broadcasters Association of Nigeria challenged the ban in court, and the suit was pending at year’s end.