A schoolgirl walks past campaign posters for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in Lagos. Journalists covering the election campaign say they are being attacked. (Reuters/ Akintunde Akinleye)
A schoolgirl walks past campaign posters for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in Lagos. Journalists covering the election campaign say they are being attacked. (Reuters/ Akintunde Akinleye)

In election year, Nigeria’s press feeling the pressure

“Nobody is safe. Not the voter, not the journalist, not anybody!” The fears of Femi Adesina, president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, is echoed by stakeholders and observers of Nigeria’s general election. Amid the tension in the run up to presidential and federal parliamentary elections on March 28, and governor and state parliamentary elections on April 11, journalists can be easy targets.

Journalists I spoke to said they feared attacks from militant groups and were concerned about the ability of security forces to keep them safe. Several journalists have been beaten while covering rallies. These attacks, as well as bombings, has led the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) to threaten to boycott coverage in Rivers state, according to reports. Members of the union in Port Harcourt, the state capital, held a peaceful protest on March 9 calling on authorities to ensure the safety of journalists, news reports said.

In the north-eastern state of Gombe on February 2, five journalists suffered cuts and bruises and had their bus damaged by a mob when they fled after a bomb exploded minutes after President Goodluck Jonathan and his convoy left a rally, according to reports. The injured journalists were Adamu Saleh of The Daily Trust Newspapers, Abdullahi Tukur, of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, Williams Attah, of National Mirror Newspapers, and Iliya Habila and Hajara Leman, of the News Agency of Nigeria, This Day reported.

Timothy Choji, chairman of the NUJ’s Gombe state correspondents’ chapel, told me a mob hurled stones at the journalists as they fled in their bus, which was clearly marked as press. Choji said no police were on hand to intervene and no arrests have yet been made. Choji, who is also the north-eastern bureau chief of the state-owned Voice of Nigeria, said journalists in Gombe and the other five states in the north-east, work in fear. He said the NUJ in Gombe is contemplating boycotting the elections if adequate security for journalists cannot be guaranteed. “Our lives are not safe at all. We are left at our own mercy!” said Choji. “We’ve approached the police to give us security cover, otherwise we might not be able to go about monitoring the elections.”

On February 10, Eric Etuk, a cameraman with the state-owned Nigeria Television Authority, was beaten and stabbed in the arm while covering a clash between supporters of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the main opposition, All Progressives Congress (APC), in the south-eastern state of Imo, according to news reports. The police retrieved Etuk’s camera without the recorded tape, but no one has yet been brought to justice, news reports said.

In Okrika, the hometown of President Goodluck Jonathan’s wife Patience, several journalists were attacked on February 17, including Charles Eruka, a reporter for the independent Channels TV. Eruka said he was stabbed in the neck and head while doing a live broadcast as explosions and gunshots disrupted the rally of APC governorship candidate Dakuku Peterside. “Some of the attackers who have been looting the property of people… surrounded me and tried to take my phone away from me on the suspicion that I was actually calling reinforcement to come pick them up. So in the scuffle, I got stabbed in the neck,” Eruka said in an interview with Channels TV.

Police visited the reporter in hospital and promised to investigate, but none of his attackers have yet been identified, according to reports. In a press briefing, the NUJ said he was targeted directly for being a journalist.

Of little comfort are police assurances to arrest perpetrators of violence. Nigeria has failed to resolve the murder of dozens of journalists and is yet to successfully prosecute most, if not all, attacks on its press, CPJ research shows.

Violence has marred nearly every election since the first held under British colonial rule in 1922, according to a report published by the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria in February. The human rights body predicted “a high likelihood of significant violence during the 2015 elections.” The elections, in which President Jonathan is seeking another term, had been due to take place in February. But the Independent National Electoral Commission postponed them over concerns that the military would be unable to provide security while fighting the extremist group Boko Haram, according to news reports.

Local journalists told me they feared attacks from Niger Delta militant groups. In November, an Ijaw ethnic militant group abducted and attacked 14 journalists returning from a press conference organised by the rival Itsekiri ethnic group in the south-southern state of Delta, news reports said. The journalists, from several papers and TV stations, were detained for six hours, beaten, and had equipment and personal items seized by the militants, according to Emma Amaize, an editor who said he was among those kidnapped and who gave an account to his paper, Vanguard. Reports said some equipment was returned, but recordings had been deleted.

The lack of any prosecution for the kidnapping, as well as other cases of militants attacking journalists, has added to their apprehension over what these groups may do in the elections, several journalists told me. Some militant groups have also threatened violence should their favoured candidate not win, according to reports.

Journalists in Lagos and Ogun told me they were also concerned about Joseph Mbu, a high-ranking police officer responsible for security in both states who is reported to have said he would kill 15 to 20 civilians for any of his officers killed during elections. After rights groups called for Mbu to resign, a spokesman issued a statement denying he had ever made the comments. In October, Mbu ordered the arrest of Amaechi Anakwe, who works for the privately owned station AIT, for describing him as “controversial” in a television programme, according to news reports. A court dismissed the defamation of character charges, news reports said.

The Lagos-based International Press Centre, which monitors attacks on journalists in Nigeria, documented at least 32 incidents of attacks on the press between November and February. It found security forces and militants were responsible for 24 cases. No one has been brought to justice, the report said. It added: “Police and other security agencies have continued to be the principal perpetrators of attacks on journalists and media practitioners especially in view of the forthcoming elections. The fact that police and other security agencies are culpable is particularly alarming.”

Emmanuel Ojukwu, spokesman for Nigeria’s police, told me via text message the police would continue to act within their mandate to protect everyone. “Journalists are [at] liberty to do their job, so long as it is in line with the law and national security,” Ojukwu said.

Seven international journalists, who asked to remain anonymous, told CPJ they were having problems getting visas. Geoffrey York, Johannesburg-based correspondent for the Canadian daily Globe and Mail, wrote on Twitter on January 27 that Nigeria had blocked at least 40 journalists from entering the country. The Foreign Correspondents Association of Southern Africa issued a statement on January 30 saying many of its members had been denied visas or accreditation.

Mike Omeri, director general of the National Orientation Agency and an official government spokesman, said this month that international journalists were not leaving enough time to apply. He told the daily, Punch: “There are procedures for everything and we must follow them, not just because of the political exigency.”

Despite the six-week postponement of the elections, journalists from around the world, including Johannesburg, Paris, London, Dakar, Nairobi, Rome, and Kenya, who told CPJ they applied for visas in January, have reported delays in receiving them, according to reports.

Tife Owolabi, correspondent for international news agency Reuters, has also been targeted. The Department of State Security, Nigeria’s secret police, searched his home for more than four hours on February 14, over alleged acts of espionage. Armed agents removed his computers, working tools, and cells phones, according to news reports. Owolabi said he was accused of being unpatriotic for working with foreign media, news website Premium Times reported. CPJ was unable to verify if he has been charged.

Media reports and local journalists I spoke to also expressed doubts that security agencies will be able to impartially secure elections following allegations of vote rigging. In February, a Nigerian army captain leaked an audio recording allegedly exposing details of a meeting where two federal ministers of defence and police, and high ranking military officers allegedly planned the rigging of the Ekiti state governorship elections in June 2014, which the PDP won. President Jonathan told the Wall Street Journal that the recordings were fabricated, and said he would not have them investigated, according to news reports. Minister of Police Affairs Jelili Adesiyan admitted the meeting took place, but denied the rigging allegations, according to news reports.

Against this backdrop, many journalists I spoke to fear they may not be safe covering the election. “A journalist particularly will be seen as an adversary, somebody that wants to poke his nose into what they are doing, so they become hostile and can do any kind of mischief to that journalist,” Adesina, the Nigerian Guild of Editors president, told me,

The National Human Rights Commission has urged “every effort” be made to prevent further escalation in the violence. A Peace Accord–signed in Abuja on January 14 by political parties and presidential candidates–which pledged to avoid statements and actions that could lead to election violence, was greeted with optimism by members of the press, rights groups, and the international community.

The Media Code of Election Coverage, adopted by several organisations including the NUJ in October, also calls on the press to reject any material, and not publish or air political advertorials and sponsored political news that seeks to create hatred or incite violence. According to reports however, some media outlets aired advertisements that had been ruled offensive during a meeting in March of the National Broadcasting Commission and the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria.

Nigeria is still a young democracy. An integral part of the democratic process is for authorities, security forces, politicians, party supporters, and the media to take a lead in creating an environment for peaceful debate and campaigning. These groups have the opportunity to consolidate on the country’s gains as the “Giant of Africa” by ensuring the elections are fair, credible, transparent and violence-free, and that journalists, both local and international, are able to document them.