CPJ condemns ongoing TV suspension and detention of journalists

New York, September 18, 2008–The Nigerian government should immediately lift its suspension of Channels TV and release four staff members being held by State Security Services, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Security agents closed the Lagos and Abuja offices of Channels TV on Tuesday after the station mistakenly aired a fabricated report that President Umaru Yar’Adua might step down for health reasons, according to Channels TV Chairman John Momoh and the Lagos International Press Centre.

Security agents were holding General Manager Steve Judo and News Controller Ambrose Okoh in Lagos, while they were detaining Regional Editor Bashiru Adiugun and Station Manager Shola Olaiya in Abuja, according to Momoh.

The hoax story, which appeared to come from the official News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), was sent via e-mail to a number of media houses on Tuesday, according to local news reports. Channels TV broadcast the false report before NAN disavowed the piece and presidential spokesman Olusegun Adeniyi issued an emphatic denial. Momoh apologized to Yar’Adua on Wednesday, expressing “deep regret” for airing the phony report, according to local reports. At least one other news outlet also relayed the bogus report.

“We call on the authorities to release Channels TV staff immediately,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “The station has acknowledged that it was the victim of a hoax. It should be allowed to resume broadcasting at once.”

The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) suspended the station’s license on Wednesday evening, citing a “national security” violation of the National Broadcasting Commission Act. The act, while allowing suspensions, specifies that stations must be give prior notice and a hearing prior to the penalty taking effect.

This is the third significant rumor about Yar’Adua since last year–the first being that he had died in Germany during this year’s presidential campaign. Last month, he was rumored to have died after having gone into coma, according to local reports.

Yar’Adua recently spent more than two weeks in Saudi Arabia for what the government described as a pilgrimage. Nigerian media, however, reported that he had undergone medical treatment. One of the main opposition parties has called on the government to give more information on Yar’Adua’s health.