Private broadcasters forced off-air after reporting on deadly plane crash

New York, October 24, 2005—Nigerian authorities ordered the country’s leading independent broadcast network off the air today, in part because the network’s reports on Saturday’s deadly Bellview Airlines crash included details that had not been officially released. Daar Communications group’s African Independent Television (AIT) and its radio network, RayPower FM, complied with the order but were back on the air by early evening following negotiations with the government, sources told the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The National Broadcasting Commission, an official regulatory body, accused the network of violating journalistic ethics by reporting, among other things, that the crash left no survivors before the government had officially confirmed the toll.

In a statement, the commission accused AIT of showing “gross unprofessional conduct” in broadcasting “close-up shots of decapitated body parts” and said that AIT and RayPower had ignored official requests “to handle the sad development with restraint,” according to The Associated Press and the Lagos-based press freedom advocacy group Media Rights Agenda (MRA).

According to local sources, AIT and RayPower were the first Nigerian media to report the correct location of the crash, in the village of Lissa not far from Lagos. Until then, Nigerian officials and the state-owned broadcaster had incorrectly reported that the plane had crashed in a remote rural area in northern Nigeria, local sources said.

Information Minister Frank Nweke confirmed today that all 117 passengers aboard the plane had died in the crash. The cause of the crash remained unclear.

At a press conference in the capital, Abuja, Nweke told journalists that the commission had acted against RayPower and AIT without clearance from the Information Ministry, and that the ministry opposed any censorship of the broadcasters, according to a source.

“The heavy-handed censorship of RayPower FM and AIT in the wake of this tragedy is disturbing,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The news media must be free to report on such matters of public concern without government restrictions or reprisal.”