Two journalists charged with sedition over presidential jet story

New York, June 27, 2006—Two journalists charged with sedition over a story about President Olusegun Obasanjo’s new jet pled not guilty in court today.

Mike Gbenga Aruleba, a presenter at leading private television station African Independent Television (AIT), and Rotimi Durojaiye, a senior correspondent for the Daily Independent newspaper, appeared in court in the capital, Abuja, on a six-count indictment. They were arrested yesterday by the State Security Services (SSS), which report directly to the president’s office. Under Nigeria’s 1990 criminal code, the journalists face up to two years in prison if convicted.

Durojaiye published an article on June 12 titled “Controversy over age, cost of presidential jet.” He said research by the Daily Independent showed that the government had bought a five-year-old aircraft from the German carrier Lufthansa and not a new jet directly from Boeing, as it claimed.

The newspaper included comments from a government spokesman and a presidential aviation advisor in the article. It said today that it stood by its story.

The two journalists are charged with conspiring “to bring into hatred or contempt or excite disaffection against the person of the president or the government of the federation.” AIT’s parent company, Daar Communications, and Independent Newspapers Ltd are named as co-defendants in the indictment.

“How can a country which portrays itself as a vibrant democracy bring a catch-all sedition charge against journalists trying to unearth facts on a matter of public interest?” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The prosecution of our colleagues Mike Gbenga Aruleba and Rotimi Durojaiye must cease immediately and they should be released.”

Aruleba discussed the Daily Independent article on June 13 on his national talk show with three guests, who included a member of the ruling party. A transcript of the show obtained by CPJ shows that Aruleba was cautious in his remarks, referring to a “controversy” over the jet following the report’s publication.

“CPJ has documented an increase in harassment of the media in the run-up to the 2007 presidential elections,” Cooper added. “It is particularly worrying that the SSS, which reports directly to the presidency, is behind many of these attacks.”

SSS agents first arrested Aruleba the day after the on-air discussion. In a June 15 press conference, the director-general of the SSS declined to discuss the reason for the detention, which he said was necessary because Nigeria was undergoing “delicate” times, according to local media reports. In recent years, SSS agents have detained journalists, raided news outlets extra-judicially, and harassed newsvendors, often in connection with critical reporting on the presidency or ethnic separatist movements.