Film crew arrested along Niger Delta

New York, April 14, 2008—Four American documentary filmmakers and a Nigerian citizen were arrested by the Nigerian military in Delta State on April 12. The Seattle-based film crew is currently in the custody of state security in Abuja, local journalists told CPJ.

The film crew for a documentary called “Sweet Crude” was traveling by boat on the Niger Delta when the Nigerian military Joint Task Force apprehended and arrested them near the town of Warri. The attorney general in Abuja is reviewing the case and is expected to reach a decision soon, local journalists reported.

“This is not the first time authorities have suppressed foreign media coverage in the Niger Delta region,” said Tom Rhodes, CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator. “Nigerian authorities must release the film crew immediately and end this pattern of censorship of the conflict over oil in the region.”

No charges have been filed against the crew and their defense lawyer, Bello Lubebe, was denied access to them, local journalists and the independent film company’s press secretary, Leslye Wood, told CPJ from Seattle. Under the command of Brigadier-General Rimtiip Wuyep, the military originally accused the crew of traveling without military clearance, said a local journalist. There are, however, no laws that require military clearance for travel in the area, local journalists said.

The Nigerian army is fighting several armed groups in the Niger Delta region and block travelers from outside the region.

The film crew was interrogated for six hours in Warri on April 12 before Brigadier-General Wuyep ordered them to be placed under custody with state security in Abuja later that evening, local journalists and Wood told CPJ.   

According to a press statement by the film company, the group was filming “Sweet Crude,” a documentary about oil production in the Niger Delta. Director Sandy Cioffi and crew members Tammi Sims, Cliff Worsham, and Sean Porter entered the country legally on April 5 and notified authorities about their intentions to film, the statement said. The four Americans were being assisted by Joel Bisina, founder of a Warri-based organization called Niger Delta Professional for Development.

The governor of Delta State had no comment concerning the arrest but will issue a public statement soon, spokesman Sunny Ogerefere told CPJ.

Two German independent filmakers and American peace activist Judith Asuni and Nigerian Danjuma Saidu were detained last October in Warri. The two filmmakers were accused 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. 

Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer, pumps crude from the poverty-stricken Niger Delta region. Armed groups have emerged in the region to fight for more oil revenues to support Delta State while other armed groups steal the crude and sell it on the black market. The conflict has curbed one quarter of Nigeria’s daily crude output, according to international news reports.