Nigeria targets independent newspapers

Nigerian authorities have been waging widespread attacks on nearly a dozen independent newspapers under the cover of fighting terrorism. By last weekend, no fewer than 10 newspapers had their operations nationwide disrupted, leading to the loss of hundreds of thousands of newspaper sales.

Federal troops across Nigeria seized and destroyed newspaper deliveries at airports, commandeered newspaper vehicles along highways, seized control of distribution points in several cities, and confiscated newspapers from vendors. They also harassed and assaulted newspaper staff and took money from at least one.

These attacks came after two national dailies published scathing revelations against the military. Leadership on June 3 reported the court-martial of generals found guilty of aiding Boko Haram militants, a report the government denied. Boko Haram, a militant insurgent group, has claimed responsibility for the recent abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls and several bomb blasts around the country. Daily Trust then reported how top military officers and associates shared among themselves land meant for the construction of a barracks.

By June 4, the military had begun stopping distribution vans coming out of printing presses. John Osadolor, deputy editor of Business Day, told me soldiers would order newspaper shipments offloaded and delayed for hours before releasing them.

“They never told anybody anything, and we did not know what they were looking for,” Osadolor said.

In a coordinated sweep, soldiers and agents of the State Security Service, Nigeria’s secret police, on June 6 disrupted the deliveries of several newspapers, including Leadership, Daily Trust, The Nation, and Punch. Distribution vans were raided while newspapers were confiscated at the Lagos International Airport. The Punch reported its newspapers had been damaged.

The attacks came 24 hours after information minister Labaran Maku, representing President Goodluck Jonathan at a book launch, told the media to stop giving terrorists prominence by their reportage. Maku had previously admonished the media for publishing reports that “undermine” military operations against counter-insurgent activities.

Shortly after midnight in some locations, soldiers descended on printing presses and newspaper distribution centers in major cities, preventing delivery operations. Drivers conveying newspapers to agents and vendors across Nigeria’s 36 states were detained for hours and prevented from placing calls, The Nation reported. Some newspaper vehicles were seized and taken into military bases, according to news reports.

Affected publications include Daily Trust, Punch, Vanguard, The Nation, Osun Defender, Leadership, National Mirror, Newswatch, Business Day, and Complete Sports, according to media reports and journalists who spoke to me. More publications were likely affected as commercial distribution vehicles were transporting several different publications at a time, local journalists told me.

“We were completely grounded. They shut down all the distribution points. We could not distribute anywhere in Nigeria,” Mannir Dan-Ali, Daily Trust editor-in-chief, told me. Over 100,000 copies were to be distributed across Nigeria during the weekend.

As soldiers mounted roadblocks in more than 15 states in a bid to stop the circulation of newspapers, a Business Day staff member was assaulted and his money taken, Osadolor said. Soldiers seized thousands of the paper’s Sunday edition being delivered by road from Lagos to the capital city of Abuja. Several thousand copies released hours later never made it to their final destination farther north.

“They offloaded all the newspapers and asked our staff to fall flat on the ground, kicked him in the buttocks and still collected two thousand naira (US$12) from him,” Osadolor told me.

The Punch in an editorial called the military action against press freedom “a rapid descent of a discredited government and its security agencies into undisguised tyranny.” Others likened it to Nigeria “slowly edging back to the dark days of military dictatorship.”

The military, in justifying its actions, said on June 6 it was acting on an intelligence report that “materials with grave security implications” were being moved across the country via newsprint-related shipments, according to news reports. Military spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade called it a “routine security action,” not directly targeting the content, operations, and personnel of media organizations.

Supporting the military action, Doyin Okupe, senior special assistant on Pubic Affairs to President Jonathan, said on June 7 that “as soon as there is significant reduction in the level of the security alert, the ongoing exercise will be relaxed,” an indication the military action would continue.

The harassment continued, mostly in northern Nigeria where soldiers continued to stop the circulation of three national newspapers, Leadership, The Nation, and Daily Trust. “Newspaper distributors and vendors in Minna were warned not to sell any of the three newspapers, as anyone caught doing so would be dealt with,” Leadership reported.

Gbenga Omotosho, editor of The Nation, told me that soldiers on June 10 stopped a vehicle carrying copies of The Nation to the northern state of Kaduna. On the same day, soldiers intercepted a Daily Trust newspaper shipment in northern Zamfara State. “While the driver was detained for four hours, a soldier was on the phone dictating to someone the content of the newspaper,” Daily Trust director Aliu Akoshile said.

Nigeria’s arbitrary attacks on the press were greeted with resounding condemnation from journalists, lawyers, civil society groups, labor unions, politicians, and human rights defenders, both nationally and internationally, with calls to affected news organizations to seek legal redress and compensation.

By June 11, the harassment had stopped. But, as Akoshile said, “We don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” a fair warning for journalists to remain watchful and ready to defend their constitutional right to hold their government accountable without fear of reprisal.

While news organizations are still counting the cost of the weeklong siege to determine whether to press charges, Nigerian authorities have yet to respond to questions about the government’s actions, points I raised in an e-mail to General Olukolade on June 9. (The general has not yet responded.)

The germane questions:

  • Why detain distribution vans for hours and in some cases damage newspapers if no incriminating material was found?
  • Who pays for losses incurred by news organizations, distributors, transporters, vendors, advertisers, and other stakeholders making a living from the newspaper business?

Of even more importance is the impact of such Gestapo-style government censorship on the public. In the weeklong attack on press freedom, millions across Nigeria were effectively denied their right to information, a right that Okupe said President Jonathan “consistently” espouses, as evidenced by the signing of the Freedom of Information bill into law.

Nigerians should not be denied access to news and information through media blackouts or persecution of journalists as this only sows seeds of rumors and distrust. Nigerian authorities must uphold a free press.