Abuja, Nigeria, March 26, 2015–Nigerian military authorities on Tuesday confined two Al-Jazeera journalists to their hotel room and have forbidden them from leaving, according to a statement published on Wednesday by the Nigerian Defense Headquarters and both journalists who spoke to CPJ. The journalists were covering a story on military activities in the area as part of Al-Jazeera’s broader election coverage, the broadcaster said.
“Nigerian authorities and the military should understand that the credibility of the election is dependent in large part on the media, both local and foreign, being allowed to report freely,” said Peter Nkanga, CPJ’s West Africa representative. “We call on the military to release Ahmed Idris and Mustafa Ali from their hotel, return their camera, and allow every journalist the freedom to document the electoral process before, during, and after the vote.”
Ahmed Idris, a correspondent for the Qatari-based broadcaster, told CPJ by phone Wednesday that on Tuesday morning soldiers told him and his colleague, Mustafa Ali, a cameraman, that they were under orders to forbid the two from leaving the hotel in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. Idris told CPJ that when he attempted to leave later on Tuesday, a soldier stopped him. The journalists, both Nigerian nationals, are staying at the Satus Hotel in Maiduguri, Borno state, where they have stayed before, the hotel manager told CPJ. The soldiers also confiscated the journalists’ camera, Idris said.
Idris told CPJ that foreign journalists visiting the area often stay at Satus Hotel, but he and Ali were the only journalists reporting for a foreign outlet who were there at the time. Several journalists, mostly local, have been reporting from Yobe, Borno, and other states in northeastern Nigeria, where military operations against the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram are ongoing, according to several journalists including Abba Karami, Borno state chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, who spoke to CPJ.
The Nigerian Defense Headquarters’s statement said the journalists had been restrained in the hotel for loitering “without any protection, accreditation or due clearance” in an area where military operations were ongoing. The statement said the two journalists had been “moving around various locations,” including unspecified “restricted” areas in Yobe and Borno states.
The statement also said, “It will be recalled that foreign journalists have earlier been cautioned against unauthorised and unprotected movements around the military operations area. This warning is hereby reiterated until formally reversed or lifted.”
Chris Olukolade, spokesman for the national military, did not respond to CPJ’s calls, text message, or email seeking clarification for the situation. The Nigerian military has consistently declined CPJ’s written and face-to-face requests to discuss its relationship with the press.
Al-Jazeera issued a statement on Wednesday that called on Nigerian authorities to release the two journalists. The statement said the men had just finished “covering a story on the Nigerian forces fighting Boko Haram in Borno State,” which it said was “part of Al-Jazeera’s special coverage on the Nigerian elections.” The statement denied that the journalists were “loitering” and said the two had “only passed through the restricted areas of Yobe and Borno State to get to Maiduguri.”
Idris told CPJ that he and Ali had obtained accreditation from the Independent National Electoral Commission before setting out by road from the capital, Abuja, to Maiduguri, where they arrived on March 19. He told CPJ they were in Maiduguri to report on events in the state ahead of the upcoming general elections.
Idris told CPJ that they had never needed any clearance to report from the northeast before. “From all indications, the military don’t want us to cover elections here,” Idris told CPJ.
Kakami, NUJ’s Borno state chairman, told CPJ that because the journalists were both Nigerian citizens, they did not need to obtain clearance or permission to come into the state. He said that both journalists had done nothing wrong and had reported from the state in the past.
Both local and international journalists have been targeted in the run-up to the elections. On February 14, state security agents searched the home of Tife Owolabi, a Nigerian video journalist for Reuters, for more than four hours. The agents accused Owolabi of being unpatriotic for working with foreign media and confiscated his reporting equipment, news reports said. On February 10, a cameraman with the state-owned Nigeria Television Authority was beaten and stabbed in the arm while covering a clash between political parties, according to news reports. 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 left a rally, news reports said.
Authorities have also denied visas and accreditation to dozens of journalists seeking to cover the elections, according to reports. Geoffrey York, a Johannesburg-based correspondent for the Canadian daily Globe and Mail, wrote in February on Twitter that at least 40 journalists were blocked from entering the country. The Foreign Correspondents Association of Southern Africa issued a statement that said many of its members had been denied visas or accreditation. On March 19, Colin Freeman, chief foreign correspondent of the Telegraph, said he had not yet been given a visa to cover the elections, according to media reports.
The media and opposition parties have accused the military and other security agencies of partisanship in politics and complicity in election rigging ahead of presidential and federal parliamentary elections on March 28 and governor and state parliamentary elections on April 11, according to news reports.
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