On Dec. 23, 1995, six agents of Nigeria’s State Security Service (SSS) arrested Nosa Igiebor, the editor in chief of the best-selling weekly magazine Tell, as he prepared to leave his Lagos home for work. Igiebor, a 1993 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, had just resurfaced after months in hiding. While he was being arrested, SSS agents confiscated over 20,000 issues of Tell’s Christmas Day edition with the cover story “Abacha is Adamant: Terrorizes the Opposition.”
To Igiebor’s colleagues, this two-pronged attack was not only a calculated move to silence the regime’s most vocal critic and cripple the publication financially, but a sign that the new year would usher in yet another wave of terror aimed directly at the independent press.
In January, the federal government announced that Igiebor was being held under Decree 2 of 1984 for acts prejudicial to state security. In February, police arrested Igiebor’s lead attorney without charge shortly after he filed a US$1,400,000 lawsuit against the government challenging the confiscation of an additional 100,000 copies of Tell.
At this writing, Igiebor remains in solitary confinement and has been denied visits with family and legal counsel as well as access to medical care.
On March 18, CPJ announced the launch of its media and letter-writing campaign to aid Igiebor and his colleagues. In addition to sending out a sign-on letter of protest on Igiebor’s behalf to hundreds of human rights and free press advocates around the world, CPJ representatives continue to send out up-to-date media information kits and meet with U.S. State Department officials and policy-makers to draw attention to the dire situation for the Nigerian independent press. The Committee is also working to put Lagos-based journalists in direct contact with colleagues from international media outlets and other press freedom organizations.
Like Igiebor, Zambia’s Fred M’membe, editor in chief of the independent daily The Post, has been a regular target of legal harassment for his outspoken criticism of President Frederick Chiluba’s government, which has rapidly become one of the worst violators of press freedom in southern Africa.
M’membe, a 1995 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, is fighting a barrage of sedition and criminal libel suits in Zambia’s Supreme Court, where colonial-era laws are being used to enforce the government’s case. Using criminal law as a form of censorship to protect Chiluba from unfavorable coverage, the government has hauled employees of the Post into court so often that M’membe and his colleagues have lost count of the numerous charges filed against them.
The confrontation between the Post and the government climaxed when Chiluba banned the Feb. 5 issue of the newspaper as well as that day’s on-line edition, making it the first ban of an Internet publication in Africa.
Later in the month, M’membe and two colleagues were forced into hiding after being charged with contempt of parliament for publishing articles critical of proclamations issued by members of parliament. The journalists had been sentenced by The National Assembly Standing Orders Committee, not a court of law, to indefinite detention until they publicly apologized. After subsequently surrendering to the authorities, M’membe was put in a maximum security prison where he was held until a judge ordered his conditional release in March.
With elections scheduled for October, journalists anticipate that the Chiluba government’s efforts to silence them will continue, with manipulation of the judiciary being just one of the methods employed.
As with Nigeria, CPJ launched a Zambia campaign in March to bring world attention to the abuse directed against the country’s independent press.
Write to the Nigerian and Zambian governments and to their U.S representatives to register your protest of the abusive treatment these journalists have received from authorities in retaliation for their work. For letters of appeal, please contact: CPJ’s Africa desk