by Kakuna Kerina

Democratization, while heralded by Africa's citizens and supported by Western governments, brought unexpected and often painfully familiar conditions for the press in 1995. Few leaders appeared willing to tolerate the free speech they promised fellow citizens on the campaign trail. As governments rushed to take pre-emptive steps before upcoming elections, draconian press laws were introduced, laws CPJ is carefully monitoring and protesting. The one bright spot in 1995 was South Africa, which has shown remarkable progress and encouraged democratic reform and free speech throughout the region.

Crackdowns on the press were particularly harsh in Zambia, the Gambia and other countries with upcoming presidential and legislative elections. Many of the incumbents, former one-party rulers or military dictators, effectively outlawed free speech through the use of colonial-era sedition laws and criminal libel laws that make "insulting or offending" the president or other government officials offenses punishable by prolonged imprisonment. Foreign correspondents and journalists working for state-owned media were also targeted for perceived unfavorable coverage. For the benefit of donor nations in the West that are prone to criticize undemocratic methods, governments use the courtroom, rather than brute force, to curtail freedom of expression and to intimidate the press. In Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe, the judiciary is so compromised that it rarely decides in favor of the press despite the fact that press freedom is guaranteed by the constitution. And in the Gambia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, military regimes simply enact decrees to override judicial verdicts they deem unfavorable to the state.

Nigeria's position as Africa's most populous and oil-rich nation lends particular significance to the actions of Gen. Sani Abacha's brutal regime. Abacha's systematic and unrelenting attack on members of the press and proponents of democracy escalated in 1995, with a chilling effect on the Nigerian people. The secret military trials for treason of journalists Christine Anyanwu, Ben Charles Obi, Kunle Ajibade and George Mbah; the executions of nine Ogoni human rights activists, including the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa; and the continued imprisonment of President-elect Moshood Abiola and thousands of pro-democracy campaigners and human rights workers ushered in a new era of political repression that threatens to erupt into full-scale civil war. CPJ is working closely with Lagos-based journalists and has started a campaign to keep the endangered Nigerian press in the international spotlight.

Rwanda and Burundi continued to be the most dangerous places on the African continent for journalists to work. Targeted by the government, the military and citizens for perceived ethnic alliances past and present, some journalists fled into exile. "Hate radio" was still used to incite ethnic violence, and government's attempts to shut it down proved futile. To counterbalance its effects, alternate broadcasting facilities have been created to provide information that is more ethnically neutral to refugees throughout the region.

Broadcast media remain state owned throughout most of Africa, and governments show no signs of relinquishing their control of the airwaves. Because of high illiteracy rates, low incomes in high-inflation economies and large numbers of citizens living in the countryside, radio is still the most effective medium for reaching the majority of the continent's population.

Economic factors--such as skyrocketing printing costs, the scarcity of advertising and the high cost of libel suits, fines and other forms of state harassment--continue to deter the growth of pluralism in the press.

The events of 1995 have left the press at an unwelcome crossroads. The coming year will determine whether Africa's independent press backtracks to its earlier position of compromise, or whether it continues to fight for true freedom of expression.

Kakuna Kerina is the program coordinator for Africa. An editor, author and award-winning documentary filmmaker, she has lived and studied in Ghana and Botswana and traveled throughout Africa.

From October 1994 to September 1995, Jennifer Pogrund was the program coordinator for Africa. Avner Gidron, CPJ's director of research and program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, wrote the Sudan section of the report. Special thanks to Thomas R. Lansner.

Azeen Salimi, Nana Yaa Ofori-Atta and Elizabeth Mermin, CPJ research assistants, contributed extensively to this report.

Country-by-country reports of attacks on the press in this region are available at CPJ’s Web site and in the print edition of this book.


The Retreat of Nigeria's Press:

Tactical Withdrawal or Temporary Defeat?

by a Special Correspondent to CPJ

The Nigerian independent press is in deep crisis. Famous as the most vibrant on the African continent, Nigeria's independent media--especially its scrappy private press--is in retreat. A sanguine view is that this is a tactical withdrawal in the face of a particularly brutish military regime, and that the independent press will outlast Gen. Sani Abacha. Perhaps, but there are serious questions concerning the viability of the press and its relevance to the body politic.

In a 136-year history, the Nigerian news media have evolved from endorsing the colonial missionary catechism through the spirited advocacy of the struggle for independence and moved on to its post-independence mission, defining its role within the state.

Since 1960, the press has been asserting its relevance to the evolution of the Nigerian state, although for 25 of those 35 years it has operated under the malevolence of increasingly repressive military regimes. Its vital tradition of lively reportage, remarkable on the African continent, was nurtured within a political culture that tolerated dissent, especially as a mechanism for balancing the various ethnic and political forces battling for the center of the Nigerian state. This center, then and now, remains the federal government of Nigeria. Structured as a 30-state federation, Nigeria's de facto mechanism of governance remains integrated into a unitary structure. This arrangement endows the federal government, and therefore whoever heads it, with virtually complete control of the Nigerian state--and unfettered access to its treasury.

The Nigerian news media--especially privately owned presses--have also been subject to the government's pull. Atop the pile, for now, sits Gen. Abacha, buoyed by the two million barrels of oil produced daily.

But it is to his immediate predecessor, Gen. Babangida, under whom Abacha served as head of the army for nearly a decade, that credit must go for the systematic assault on the press. Babangida's regime appropriated and centralized an unprecedented measure of executive powers, weakening the existing counterweights of civil society. The regime systematically stripped the judiciary of its effectiveness, appropriated all legislative functions and neutralized virtually all organized dissent by the political class with the tantalizing promise of elections and the full restoration of democracy.

The Nigerian media, in their classic role as public watchdogs and instrument of checks against the government's excesses, were particularly targeted by Babangida. In a sophisticated carrot-and-stick strategy, the government co-opted senior members of the media, corrupted many, coerced others and terrified some--driving scores into exile.

It was under this regime that a top editor, Dele Giwa, was assassinated by a letter bomb in March 1986 and various publications were proscribed by executive fiat. In 1993, in the aftermath of Babangida's nullification of the June 12 elections, the Nigerian news media's sustained campaign helped lead to the coup that unseated him.

Babangida's successor, Abacha, takes a more ham-fisted approach to muzzling the press. This era may be the last for the generals, and his regime's survival depends on strategically silencing the last organized domestic opposition to military rule.

Until today, conflicts between the media and the state were resolved through backdoor negotiations and/or judicial intervention. Although many journalists have been fined and, in a few instances, jailed for plying their craft in defiance of military regimes, social pressures have historically limited the degree to which the state could be punitive. Potential flash points were defused through the mediation of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (whose members include both government and independent press), as well as a handful of quasi-autonomous guilds and councils that regulated the media.

This relationship between the government and the media, already badly frayed by the Babangida era, was obliterated in March 1995 when four journalists--Christine Anyanwu, publisher and editor in chief of The Sunday Magazine; Ben Charles Obi, editor of Weekend Classique; Kunle Ajibade, editor in chief of TheNEWS; and George Mbah, assistant editor of Tell magazine--were among 42 people (mostly military personnel) arrested and charged with attempting to stage a military coup against the Abacha government. The four were tried before a secret military tribunal and sentenced to 25 years to life imprisonment. Several prominent human rights and civil rights activists were also arrested and charged with participating in plotting the coup. They might well have been executed if national and international groups had not pressured the junta to commute their sentences. The Abacha regime, in its crude attempt at instituting a totalitarian order, has finally drawn the press into its vortex.

This unprecedented infringement on the rights of civilians is the current military dictatorship's desperate attempt to secure its own survival by employing the full resources of the Nigerian government. But even the Abacha regime is not omnipotent. In today's exquisite political balancing act, the sentences of the journalists imprisoned for allegedly plotting the coup were reduced from life imprisonment or 25 years to 15 years. And in his October Independence Day address, Gen. Abacha removed the ban on the Punch Group and the Concord Group, two prominent news media chains that were put out of circulation for more than a year. A third, the Guardian Group, was unbanned in July only after its owners were forced to offer a personal apology to Abacha himself.

Last November, seeming to defy world opinion, the regime executed the author and television producer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni human rights activists. But, with these acts, it was clearly playing to a domestic gallery--attempting to reassert control after backing down by commuting the sentences of those who allegedly plotted the coup.

As the Abacha regime attempts to exercise control of the Nigerian polity, it is occasionally forced to retreat by the press, other remaining pockets of civil opposition and the uneven pressure of international sanctions. But the military blunders on.

During Christmas week, State Security Service agents arrested Nosa Igiebor, editor in chief of Tell magazine, Nigeria's leading newsweekly. (Igiebor was the recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists' International Press Freedom Award in 1993.) The agents also confiscated 55,000 copies of the magazine and forced its managing editor, Onome Osifo-Whiskey, into hiding. In a related incident, the office of the recently unbanned The Guardian was attacked and torched by men armed with machine guns. Tell magazine released a statement shortly after the arrests and attacks saying, "State terrorism and acts of brutal intimidation will not force us to compromise our belief in freedom, justice and the rule of law." This might well be the battle cry of the Nigerian news media.

While the responsibility of the media to the polity remains clear, their ability to function effectively has been seriously compromised. In the best of times, the many structural inadequacies of the system were mitigated by the intellectual brilliance and commitment of a corps of top-notch journalists that kept the national debate lively and engaging. During the last decade, however, an entire generation of journalists fled Nigeria, alongside the country's best and brightest professionals in every field. Those who chose to remain behind, like Dapo Olorunyomi, editor in chief of TheNEWS, and Nosa Igiebor, in addition to facing off the military, must contend with a depleting stock of experienced and well-trained journalists.

The rejuvenation of the press as an element of civil society is tied to the overall need to reinvent a democratic post-Abacha Nigeria, and hence a postmilitary era. The gradual erosion of democratic structures over a quarter-century of military misrule, cascading into an avalanche under this present regime, is the prevailing reason for the Nigerian news media's retreat. But the media's current position may be a tactical withdrawal: The Abacha regime has been forced to announce plans for a transition to democracy, but the full implementation of those plans might be well beyond this government's control and tenure.

The author of this report, a Nigerian journalist based in New York, writes for international newspapers and magazines.

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