Nigerian senator calls for release of journalist and translator

New York, September 9, 2008—Nigerian Sen. Chris Anyanwu urged the ministers of information and defense today to assist in the immediate release of American filmmaker Andrew Berends and Nigerian translator, Samuel George. Anyanwu, a prominent former journalist, also urged that the government undertake formal discussions with the media to avoid future arrests of journalists.

Berends, a U.S. filmmaker, continues to report daily to security forces in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, while authorities have told George to report to security offices in Port Harcourt on Wednesday, local journalists told CPJ. Today marks the 10th day that security forces have detained Berends and George on accusations of espionage and have held Berends’ belongings, including his passport.

In her letter, Anyanwu expressed dismay that security agents have demonstrated a pattern of harassment toward local and foreign journalists over the past six weeks. Anyanwu, who represents Imo State in southern Nigeria, reminded ministers that Nigeria has broken from its autocratic past during which journalists were targeted by the government. “Times have changed. We are now a democratic nation governed by rule of law,” Anyanwu wrote. “There ought to be better ways of engagement [with journalists] than the resort to beatings and arrests.”

A former journalist and founder of The Sunday Magazine, Anyanwu received a 1997 CPJ International Press Freedom Award for her courageous reporting. In May 1995, during the oppressive regime of Gen. Sani Abacha, a military tribunal sentenced her to life in prison for reporting that a purported coup was actually a ploy to trample the opposition. Anyanwu was released three years later under the regime of Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar.

“Senator Anyanwu’s career, which has taken her from dissident journalism to the senate, highlights the transformation of Nigerian politics,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We deeply appreciate her principled stand and her great concern, and we urge Nigerian authorities to work together to see that Berends and George are released.”

Military personnel arrested Berends and George on August 31 and handed them over to state security agents in Port Harcourt, local journalists told CPJ. Nigerian security forces detained Berends for 36 hours after his arrest and ordered him to report for day-long interrogations. Berends was provisionally released into the custody of the U.S. Embassy in Abuja over the weekend. George remained in custody throughout the week but was also temporarily released over the weekend.

The award-winning American filmmaker entered Nigeria in April to work on a documentary called “Delta Boys,” sponsored by the New York-based Tribeca Film Institute, about the Niger Delta region’s oil conflict. Filmmakers working on the documentary “Sweet Crude” were detained in April this year and held on unsubstantiated charges.