Journalists targeted by both sides in Nigeria’s war on terror

The struggle between Nigerian authorities and militant extremist group Boko Haram was recently thrust into the global spotlight with the abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls, but journalists in the country have been squeezed between the two sides for years.

Boko Haram has threatened and carried out attacks on journalists and media outlets over reporting deemed unfavorable to their cause. Several journalists have relocated from Boko Haram strongholds in Nigeria’s northern regions. Others routinely exercise self-censorship, according to CPJ interviews with journalists who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Many journalists have resigned their appointments because of fear of being killed,” one journalist told CPJ.

According to CPJ research, eight Nigerian journalists have been murdered for their work since 1998. Among the most recent victims:  Zakariya Isa of the state-run broadcaster NTA, in a killing for which Boko Haram claimed responsibility in October 2011. In January 2012, Enenche Akogwu of independent Channels TV, was slain by unidentified gunmen as he interviewed witnesses after bombings blamed on Boko Haram.

But, sadly, government security forces are also guilty of attacks on the press. Security agents have used the pretext of Boko Haram and the war on terror to threaten, harass, arrest, detain, and seize the equipment of journalists. In one case in December 2013, security forces assaulted broadcast journalist Yunusa Gabriel Enemali on the pretext he was a Boko Haram suspect, after he took photographs of a policeman demanding a bribe. “I was fortunate to come out alive,” Enemali told me. “But what of others?”

Nigeria is fighting a protracted war against Boko Haram, the extremist radical sect, whose objective is the establishment of Islamic rule by Jihad. Boko Haram’s uprising, after the arrest and summary execution of the group’s leader in 2009, has seen thousands displaced, attacked, and killed. Media attention has soared in the last month with Boko Haram’s abduction of the schoolgirls, and on May 22 the United Nations Security Council added the group to its list of designated Al-Qaeda entities.

With sustained global outcry over the abductions–the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls is proliferating on social media–it’s critical that Nigerian authorities uphold the rights of journalists to report on issues of public interest. But security forces’ record on journalists’ safety is anything but strong.

In December 2012, the State Secret Service unlawfully detained and seized the equipment of Aliyu Saleh, a reporter with the weekly Hausa-language Al-Mizan newspaper, and Musa Muhammad Awwal, the paper’s editor, allegedly over a story questioning the government’s extra-judicial imprisonment of people in Northern Nigeria.

“It is over a year but the SSS refuses to return my two laptops and two phones,” Awwal told me.

Journalists covering protests have also been targeted. Police on May 9 arrested Hir Joseph of the independent Daily Trust Newspaper, detaining him for nine hours, according to news reports. Joseph refused to disclose his source for a story showing that female officers from the police and other security units joined protesters to demand the rescue of the abducted schoolgirls. Joseph said he witnessed the police sanctioning six female officers.

“Two police officers kicked me. They locked me in a cell with hardened criminals and insisted they torture me. I was made to face the wall and continually make like I am having sex with the wall,” Joseph told me.

The police charged Joseph in court on May 12, accusing him of publishing “injurious falsehood” aimed at tarnishing the image of the police. Joseph pleaded not guilty and the case has been adjourned to June 19. He faces up to two years imprisonment if convicted.

Lagos in southern Nigeria is largely free of Boko Haram activities. Yet Foreign Policy columnist Lauren Bohn and freelance journalist Chika Oduah reported that plainclothes police confiscated their credentials and equipment May 1 and detained them for four hours while demanding a bribe from their driver. “They told us they were protecting us from Boko Haram and other security threats,” they wrote in a New York Times opinion piece.

That no sanction appears to have been carried out against these press predators can only embolden security agents to continue to act recklessly. As world leaders pledge personnel and resources to Nigeria’s fight against terror, Nigerian authorities must constantly be reminded that journalists are not the enemy in this war.

To the contrary, they should know journalists are very much victims, many risking their lives on the front lines to report the stories that Nigerians and the world need to know.