Attacks on the Press 2007: Nigeria

Nigeria’s diverse and freewheeling press weathered a tense political
period in 2007, a year marked by fierce disputes surrounding April presidential and legislative elections and a surge of violence in the oil-rich Niger Delta region. Ruling party candidate Umaru Yar’Adua was declared winner of the April 21 presidential vote, the first transfer of power between two elected civilian leaders in Nigerian history. The elections were marred, however, by serious logistical flaws, widespread violence, and falsification of results. A report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group concluded that the election was “poorly organized and massively rigged.” The private press was harassed and intimidated by authorities in the run-up to the vote, starting in spring 2006 when the media took a leading role in opposing outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo’s unsuccessful attempt to amend the constitution so he could seek a third term. Yar’Adua, a former governor from northern Nigeria who was largely unknown at the national level before being nominated as the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, sought to smooth tensions by inviting his erstwhile rivals to join a “government of national unity” and making peace in the Delta the cornerstone of domestic policy.

The unsolved December 2006 murder of veteran journalist Godwin Agbroko cast a pall over Nigeria’s press corps. Agbroko, a well-known and respected editor who was jailed in the mid-1990s for challenging the repressive rule of then-military leader Gen. Sani Abacha, was most recently a columnist and editorial board chairman of the national daily ThisDay. He was found shot dead in his car, in what reporters initially termed a botched robbery. However, no further evidence of an attempted robbery was made public, and none of his belongings were stolen, prompting the police to announce on January 15 that he may have been killed by “unknown assassins.” The investigation yielded no concrete results during the year, and CPJ continued to research whether Agbroko was killed in connection with his journalism. An editorial in ThisDay commemorated Agbroko as “a patriot who believed that journalism could be used to make Nigeria work for the good of her citizens.”

In a separate incident shortly after Agbroko’s death, fire gutted a compound housing ThisDay’s management offices, its technology infrastructure, printing plants, and newsroom. There was no apparent investigation, Editor Simon Kolawole told CPJ in September, and it was unclear whether the January 6 fire was an accident or arson.

Local journalists generally reserved judgment on Yar’Adua’s press freedom credentials, but they were dismayed to see the renewed use of the State Security Service (SSS)—an elite corps that answers directly to the presidency—to harass the press. In October, SSS agents arrested Jerome Imeime, publisher of the private weekly Events in southern Akwa Ibom state. Imeime was charged with sedition over a story critical of a local governor, making him the first Nigerian journalist to face such a charge since June 2006. Nigeria’s colonial-era sedition law was abrogated in 1983, according to legal expert Femi Falana, but authorities have continued to invoke the charge to silence the press on sensitive subjects.

Deployment of the SSS against the news media had been a favorite tactic of the Obasanjo administration right up to the election. In January, SSS agents raided two privately owned newspapers in the capital, Abuja, in apparent reprisal for articles on political infighting. The newspaper Leadership was targeted on January 9 for a cover story contending that Obasanjo had forced would-be presidential candidate Peter Odili out of the PDP primaries. The following day, SSS agents raided the Abuja Inquirer, holding the paper’s editor and publisher for more than 24 hours of questioning over an article claiming that a military coup was possible because of a public row between Obasanjo and his former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who was also a candidate for the presidency.

These incidents and Agbroko’s murder prompted the British High Commissioner in Nigeria, Richard Gozney, to express concern over press freedom, while in February the anticensorship organization Article 19 pointed to an “environment of fear and intimidation that may serve to limit freedom of expression ahead of the 2007 election.” Despite these and other protests, SSS agents raided the Abuja studios of African Independent Television (AIT), a leading private broadcaster, just four days before the presidential vote—pulling a paid political program off the air and seizing tapes of other paid programs scheduled to air that day. The SSS also shut down AIT’s sister radio station, Ray Power FM, for an hour. The offending program, which had previously drawn a warning from the government’s National Broadcasting Commission, was critical of Obasanjo’s performance as president.

The raid on AIT came two days after a fire of undetermined origin damaged the building housing the radio and television transmitters of AIT and Ray Power FM in the commercial city of Lagos, according to news reports. AIT’s Abuja manager, Mac Amarere, said authorities had yet to determine the cause of the fire, but the station could not rule out the possibility that it was deliberate. On June 14, the Federal Capital Territory (a local government entity with jurisdiction over Abuja) demolished part of an office complex belonging to AIT’s parent company, Daar Communications, over alleged land-use violations. Company Chairman Raymond Dokpesi said he believed the demolition was politically motivated and was intended to intimidate the station because of its critical coverage of the elections.

In many areas of Nigeria, local journalists operated amid violent conflict between ethnic, religious, and political factions. These challenges were especially stark in the southern Niger Delta, where militias, separatist insurgents, and armed criminal gangs battled the government for control of lucrative oil exports. Kidnappings of oil workers and shoot-outs between rival gangs were frequent; while journalists were not directly targeted, their ability to operate in the Delta was curtailed by general insecurity. For example, on June 5, two gunmen entered the bureau of the national newspaper Punch in the main Delta city of Port Harcourt and attempted to kidnap a staff member, who escaped by jumping out a window, according to the Lagos-based organization Media Rights Agenda. On July 25, gunmen stormed the Port Harcourt offices of the National Point newspaper, having apparently followed Michael Watts, a visiting professor from the University of California, Berkeley, from a nearby bank in the hopes of robbing or kidnapping him. The gunmen shot and wounded the professor and a security guard working for the paper. Watts’ research concerned oil-related violence in the Delta region, Reuters reported.

Foreign journalists traveling to the Delta occasionally faced harassment from security forces. In September, two German independent filmmakers were arrested in the southern city of Warri and detained for two weeks. Freelance journalist Florian Alexander Opitz and cinematographer Andy Lehmann were held along with Nigeria-based American aid worker Judith Asuni and Nigerian national Danjuma Saidu. All four were charged with 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. By early October, the government dropped all charges against them. Opitz and Lehmann were the first members of the international media to be formally charged over coverage of the deadly unrest in southern Nigeria, according to CPJ research.

One Lagos-based journalist who reported on energy issues told CPJ that while many Nigerian media outlets maintained correspondents in the Delta region, reporters were constrained by the difficulty of accessing remote areas and by the often-conflicting accounts given by law enforcement agencies and militant groups. Federal authorities were particularly sensitive to international media coverage of the Delta. The government lashed out at CNN in February after it broadcast a report on kidnappings, accusing the U.S.-based news channel of lacking balance and paying “criminals” to participate in interviews. CNN stood by its reporting.

Elsewhere, religious tensions threatened media freedom. In the northern majority-Muslim city of Kano, the headquarters of privately owned Freedom Radio were attacked after the station aired controversial views on the Eid al-Mawlid, a holiday marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, according to Agence France-Presse.

Local journalists have long called for a freedom of information law to bolster reporting on Nigeria’s endemic corruption. One bill, first introduced in 1999, was finally passed by the legislature in February, but local journalists and media activists were dismayed that Obasanjo declined to sign it into law. The bill was returned to the National Assembly, but its future was unclear.