Nigeria frees two Germans charged over filming in oil-rich river delta

New York, October 5, 2007—Two German independent filmmakers, arrested last month while filming in volatile, oil-rich southern Nigeria, today pleaded not guilty to five counts of endangering state security, according to news reports and local journalists.

A Nigerian federal high court in the capital, Abuja, released on bail freelance journalist Florian Alexander Opitz and cinematographer Andy Lehmann on five counts of breaching Nigeria’s Official Secrets Act by taking photographs and video footage of “protected places,” including oil facilities in the Niger River Delta, defense lawyer Mohammed Bello Adoke told CPJ. Authorities also accused the Germans of making false statements on their entry visa applications, but did not present any evidence substantiating the claims, Adoke said. 

“This is not the first time that Nigerian authorities have used unsubstantiated charges to intimidate media coverage of the unrest in the Niger delta,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “We call on the government to abandon this repressive pattern that deprives the world of vital information about the conflict. And we urge the Nigerian high court to drop these charges altogether.”

Opitz and Lehmann were arrested in the southern city of Warri on September 21, Warri-based journalist Chido Okafor told CPJ.

They were detained with Nigeria-based American peace activist Judith Asuni and Nigerian national Danjuma Saidu, who pleaded not guilty to similar charges for allegedly aiding the Germans, according to news reports. Asuni and Saidu were denied bail today after authorities claimed to have “new and very sensitive information” about the defendants, according to Reuters. A bail hearing was scheduled for Monday, according to Adoke.
Opitz and Lehmann were the first members of the international media to be formally charged over coverage of the deadly unrest in southern Nigeria, where armed militants groups are seeking control over oil profits, according to CPJ research. The militants have carried out more than 200 kidnappings of foreign and local workers and killed dozens of government security forces since last year, according to Agence France-Presse.

During the same period, Nigerian authorities have reacted to international media attention by detaining veteran freelance photographer Ed Kashi for four days last June and terminating a promotional contract with CNN after accusing the station of “stage-managing” a report on the Niger delta, according to CPJ research. Kashi was not formally charged, and CNN denied the government’s accusation.

Opitz is the director of several documentaries on globalization issues, including the 2006 film The Big Sellout.