Reporters Without Borders has recorded more than 30 attacks on media freedom so far this year, despite reforms and the promises of outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan to ensure the free flow of news during the campaign for the 9 April parliamentary elections and today’s presidential election.
Nigeria has one of the poorest media freedom ratings in Africa and is 145th out of 178 countries in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders worldwide Press Freedom Index. It is a dangerous place for journalists to work.
The country does have a diverse media and a flourishing Internet scene however and the senate passed a law last month giving public access to official information as long as it does not affect national security. But threats, intimidation, physical attacks and unlawful arrests of journalists have remained at an alarming level since the beginning of this year.
Police and intelligence services versus journalists
The country’s State Security Service (SSS), which was on the Reporters Without Borders worldwide list of predators of press freedom for several years until being taken off it in 2010, is still a repressive body, which targets and arrests journalists. US-Nigerian journalist Okey Ndibe was arrested and interrogated at Lagos airport on 8 January this year and his passports seized for two days .
Nankpah Bwakan, a journalist with Newsstar, Francis Zhitta (of Star Pointer) and Nandom Kura (of the News Herald) were arrested on 10 March and held for three days at SSS premises in Plateau state, accused of possessing and distributing leaflets insulting state governor Jonah Jang, which the journalists denied. State information commissioner Gregory Yenlong said they were undermining state security even though the journalists had probably picked them just to read them.
The Kaduna correspondent of the newspaper Punch, Segun Olatunji, was arrested and held at SSS offices for seven hours on 3 April, probably by order of local SSS director Yomi Zamba, after the paper ran an article headed "Angry Voters Set INEC Office Ablaze in Kaduna", about public reaction to postponement of the 2 April parliamentary elections, and which members of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) has disliked.
The new national police inspector-general (since September 2010), Hafiz Abukabar Ringim, was involved in other arrests. Abdulazeez Abdullahi, general manager of The People’s Daily, and Ahmed Ibrahim Shekarau, its bureau chief in Utako (Abuja district), were interrogated for six hours by the Special Investigation Unit at police headquarters on 10 January after an article said state governors had paid huge sums to the election campaign of President Jonathan and his vice-president, Namadi Sambo. Presidential adviser Dr Akilu Sani Indabawa had protested about the article and threatened to take the matter before the attorney-general.
Tukur Mamu, editor of the Kaduna weekly Desert Herald, is being hunted down on orders of the police inspector-general. After being warned he was a target, he managed to escape 10 security agents who came to the paper’s offices on 12 April and seized important documents. He had been arrested in 2009 for writing articles deemed to “harm the government’s interests” .
Political parties and governors also threaten media freedom
Political parties and state governors also threaten and harass the media. Journalists who criticise the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) are sometimes prevented from reporting on political activities. Ehigimetor Igbaugba, of The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), was unable to cover the senate primary elections in Auchi (in the southern state of Edo) on 8 January after being detained by PDP officials who criticised articles he had written about the party.
Intimidation of accredited journalists sharply increased when polling stations opened on 9 April for the parliamentary elections. African Independent Television cameraman Tamunoemi Kingdom and another crew member were beaten in Ozoro (Delta state) by PDP officials who objected to the filming of them harassing a man entering a polling station. The camera and the windscreen of the journalists’ vehicle was damaged. Aisha Wakaso, of Thisday Newspapers, and Afeyinwa Okonkwo, correspondent of NAN in Enugu state, were hounded by police who prevented them reporting on the voting.
Oyo state governor and PDP member Alao Akala banned the state-owned Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State (BCOS) on 19 January from giving air-time to opposition parties. The opposition Congress for Change paid people to attack the offices of pro-government radio stations Bauchi Radio Corporation and FRCN Globe FM on 20 January, according to the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ).
State governors sometimes directly threatened journalists to stop them putting out news harming their reputation. Benue governor Gabriel Suswam ordered 20,000 copies of the Lagos-based newspaper National Life seized on 30 January because it said he had forged a school exam certificate. Akin Orimolade, Abuja bureau chief of the newspaper group, went into hiding to escape security agents sent after him. Staff at Vintage Press, the printers of National Life, were hounded by security agents who said they were under orders from state police chief Ibrahim Muhammed.
This kind of attack became much more common as the elections neared. Joseph Hir, a correspondent of the Daily Trust newspaper who had criticised politicians in articles, escaped death when thugs attacked him at his home in Lafia (Nasarawa state) on 5 April. The same day, Prince Amour Udemude, correspondent of the Niger Delta Standard, was held for six hours at the criminal investigations department in Asaba (Delta state) by order of state governor Emmanuel Uduaghan. The journalist had commented on his Facebook page about an attack by opposition youths on the local INEC offices demanding the sacking of state resident electoral commissioner Gabriel Ogburu Ada. Two days earlier, journalist Ali Abare Abubakar, of The People’s Daily, had been threatened by aides of Nasarawa state governor Aliyu Akwe Doma who told him the governor did not like articles he had written.
Members of the INEC have even physically attacked journalists. The correspondent of the newspaper Leadership in the southeastern state of Osun, Sefiu Ayanbimpe, was injured after being attacked by state resident electoral commissioner Rufus Akeju. The journalist was investigating a charge by the opposition Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP) that Akeju had received 25 million naira (€111,330) from the state government. He contacted Akeju, who asked him to come to his office in the state capital, Oshogbo, to check the allegations. When he arrived, the governor handed him over to SSS agents who roughed him up and detained him for several hours. The NUJ says this is customary behaviour by Akeju, who is close to INEC chairman Attahiru Jega.
Reporters Without Borders calls on all those involved in today’s elections to see that no journalists are prevented from doing their job of covering the vote, the activities of candidates and the declaration of results.
Media freedom, especially the safety of journalists, must be a priority of the new president.
Picture : President Goodluck Jonathan (AFP)