After a year marked by the most extreme deterioration of conditions for the press in Africa, Nigeria holds at least 17 journalists in prison-more than any other country in the region. The first multi-party elections since the Babangida regime in the early 1980s were held on March 15, and these local government council contests were a crucial indicator of the direction of Gen. Sani Abacha's military regime's promised transition to democracy in 1998. Not surprisingly--the election was riddled with irregularities--Abacha supporters swept the polls. Reflecting voter dissatisfaction with the nature of the process, turnout was extremely low in state assembly elections at the end of the year. Elections of state governors, also slated for late 1997, were postponed to coincide with presidential elections in late 1998.

Freedom of expression violations continue to be rampant in Nigeria, which was suspended from the Commonwealth in November 1995 for the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other environmental activists. Gen. Abacha has since jailed more than 300 activists, journalists, politicians, and labor leaders, and in March charged Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka with treason. Continuing a pattern of incessant government attacks on the press, thousands of copies of newspapers were seized in 1997, and news vendors, as well as journalists, were thrown in jail for publishing or selling news that offended the government. Leading editors continue to serve long prison terms on trumped-up charges or are detained without trial under executive decree. Among the prisoners is Sunday Magazine editor Christine Anyanwu, a 1997 recipient of CPJs International Press Freedom Award.  Many journalists have fled the country in fear of their lives, and others simply have "disappeared." This relentless government crackdown on the media has forced editors to operate in increasingly clandestine conditions as "guerrilla journalists," often going underground to work by laptop computer, and frequently changing the location of newsrooms and printers to evade capture.

In addition to cruder attacks on the media, the government has implemented new press laws severely restricting the media. A provision in the 1995 draft constitution--upon which the promised transition to civilian rule in 1998 will be based--proposed a National Mass Media Commission, which will regulate the existence of radio, television, newspapers, magazines, and publications generally, as well as restrict newspaper circulation to their provinces and interfere in the daily affairs of already existing media organizations.

The already economically embattled independent press was forced to assume another financial burden when the Newspaper Registration Decree #43, issued in 1993, finally went into effect. The decree requires a non-refundable annual application fee of N100,000 (US$1,250), a pre-registration deposit of N250,000 (US$3,100), and allows the government to arbitrarily assert control over which newspapers receive licenses.

Although Nigeria boasts hundreds of newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and cable satellite organizations, in the last eight years more than 44 newspapers and magazines were shut down by government decree, and in 1997 the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) approved astronomical new television and radio license rates, increasing the previous cost of US$5,000 to as much as US$37,500. In August, Minister of Information and Culture Walter Ofonagoro announced that the government would not grant any additional television licenses, and would instead spend its energies monitoring already existing stations. In the same month, the minister announced that the government had acquired the technology to jam the transmission of opposition radio station Radio Kudirat International.

The Nigerian press is enduring the darkest period of its 140-year existence. But in spite of the unavailability of full Internet service and the government's continuing efforts to erect financial impediments to that service, the rapid growth of E-mail networks both within Nigeria and abroad has provided the country's embattled journalists with a revolutionary means of freely receiving and disseminating news.