When Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo addresses the UN General Assembly in New York tomorrow, The Insider Weekly’s journalists will probably be paying close attention from their hideouts in Lagos, Reporters Without Borders said today.
The staff of this Lagos-based newspaper have been in hiding ever since agents with the State Security Service (SSS) raided their headquarters on 4 September, closed it down and confiscated its equipment for publishing "discourteous articles about the president and commander-in-chief, and other government personalities."
Reporters Without Borders calls on Obasanjo - who according to his spokesman will be addressing the General Assembly not only as Nigeria’s president but also as current chairman of the African Union and Commonwealth - to respect his country’s journalists and help them do their work instead of abusing them.
"Olusegun Obasanjo loses no opportunity to declare his support for democracy, so he should put an end to the harassment to which so many journalists are subjected and restore order to the federal security services responsible for mistreating them," the organisation said. "He would thereby prove that Nigeria has emerged from the dark years of political persecution."
Reporters Without Borders said Nigeria’s journalists paid heavily during the Sani Abacha dictatorship. "When civilian rule was restored in 1999, we thought they would at last be able to abandon ’guerrilla journalism’ and that fear of the SSS would be a thing of the past, but after recent developments we are inclined to change our minds."
Repeated arrests, beatings and raids - a disturbing record
Reporters Without Borders has registered 53 press freedom violations since the start of the year. Seven journalists have been detained, 15 have been physically attacked by members of the police forces or other state forces and at least three have been publicly threatened, in one case by a governor.
More than 20 other journalists have been placed under surveillance, expelled, subjected to extortion, summoned to a police station, heavily fined, suspended from work, or subjected to other forms of harassment.
Since the start of September alone, the SSS has raided two so-called "opposition" weekly newspapers, The Insider Weekly and the Global Star. In each case, the agents of this federal security service have acted in a heavy-handed manner, seizing equipment and arresting Nigerian citizens without good reason.
Reporters Without Borders points out that article 39 of the Nigerian constitution upholds free expression including the right to freely hold, disseminate and receive views and news. This constitution was promulgated in July 1999, in the wake of the election of President Obasanjo, who then embodied the hope of a new Nigeria after 15 years of dictatorship.