CPJ demands release of journalist and translator

New York, September 4, 2008–U.S. documentary filmmaker Andrew Berends was filming women going to the market in a public waterside area of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, when he was detained by the Nigerian military, according to e-mails sent by the journalist to his editor. In the e-mails, which have been reviewed by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Berends said a sergeant had given him permission to film in the area.

The e-mails contradict the Nigerian military’s claim that Berends and translator Samuel George were filming a military deployment without clearance when they were detained on Sunday.

State Security Services in Port Harcourt detained Berends for 36 hours after his arrest and then ordered him to report for day-long interrogations each day since. George has remained in custody throughout the week.

“CPJ calls for the immediate release of Samuel George and Andrew Berends whose only crime is carrying out their work,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “The Nigerian military must stop arresting local and international journalists on spurious allegations, and it should halt its effort to censor reporting of the Niger Delta region.”

CPJ’s board also expressed deep concern. “Nigeria’s democratic government must release Berends and George and allow journalists to freely cover this vital story,” said Christiane Amanpour, a CPJ board member and CNN chief international correspondent.

U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday, urging her to work for Berends’ immediate release. “Mr. Berends was embarked on an effort to raise awareness of and concern for this region and its complicated problems,” Schumer wrote. “Unfortunately, in this case, it seems that the Nigerian government’s response is to harass and intimidate foreign and native journalists. This is unacceptable.”

Berends, an award-winning filmmaker, legally entered Nigeria in April to complete a documentary called “Delta Boys,” sponsored by the New York-based Tribeca Film Institute, about the region’s oil conflict. During his first 36 hours in detention, Berends was not fed and was denied sleep, CPJ reported on Tuesday. His personal belongings, including equipment and passport, have been confiscated, according to his e-mails. Berends said he had heard that he may be moved to Abuja.

George is a graduate of Port Harcourt University of Science and Technology and has helped with translations for Berends’ film. Berends had previously directed a film on Iraq called “Blood of My Brother,” which was screened widely on the international festival circuit and earned a 2006 International Documentary Award.

Another documentary film crew was arrested this year by the Nigerian military in the Niger Delta region. The Nigerian military arrested the film crew of “Sweet Crude” on April 12 and held them for a week on charges that were never substantiated. According to CPJ research, this is the fourth time journalists and media workers have been arrested in the Niger Delta on unsubstantiated charges since 2005.