Area: 923,770 sq.km.
Head of state: President Olusegun Obasanjo
Press freedom is shaky in Nigeria. Critical newspapers are published every day, but the prevalence of violence and impunity and raids by the feared federal police pose a permanent threat to journalists.
Despite President Olusegun Obasanjo’s assurances, Nigeria’s journalists have still not completely emerged from the dark years of political persecution. When military rule ended in 1999, they thought the years of "guerrilla journalism" and reprisals by the feared federal police were over. But the climate in one of the world’s most corrupt countries at the end of 2004 suggests this is not necessarily so.
A total of 81 press freedom violations were brought to Reporters Without Borders’ attention in 2004. Twelve journalists were arrested, 27 were physically attacked by police or other armed state agents, and at least five were publicly threatened, in one case by a governor. Six news media were ransacked or attacked, and more than 20 journalists were placed under surveillance, expelled, subjected to extortion, summoned to a police station, heavily fined, unfairly dismissed or suspended, or subjected to other forms of harassment.
Take for example the day President Obasanjo addressed heads of state from around the world at the UN General Assembly in New York, on 23 September. Journalists with the Lagos-based Insider Weekly could only listen from where they had been hiding ever since agents with the State Security Service (SSS) raided their newspaper’s 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."
The Insider Weekly was not the only "opposition" newspaper to be raided in September. Heavily-armed SSS agents forced their way into the Lagos headquarters of the independent weekly Global Star on 8 September, clearly looking for editorial consultant Isaac Umunna. Finding he was not there, they told the staff members present they would be taken to the headquarters of the SSS in the Lagos suburb of Shangisha until he appeared. When Umunna went to SSS headquarters the next day, he was summarily detained and not released until five days later.
Culture of brutality, reign of impunity
Nigeria’s journalists tend to be the victims of a prevailing culture of brutality and impunity for those responsible for violence. It is not uncommon for journalists, regardless of the news media they work for, to be manhandled or beaten by policemen, bodyguards, political activists or security guards.
Diran Oshe, a photographer with the daily Vanguard, for example, was assaulted by military intelligence agents acting as bodyguards for Maj. Hamza Al-Mustapha, the security chief of the late dictator Sani Abacha, at a federal court on 11 November. Oshe had gone to cover Al-Mustapha’s trial for alleged involvement in the attempted murder of The Guardian editor Alex Ibru. When he tried to take a photo of Al-Mustapha at the end of the hearing, one of the bodyguards hit him several times with a rifle butt and smashed his camera. A court security officer intervened and helped him break away from his assailants, his face swollen and his clothes torn.
While a total of 27 physical attacks of this kind were registered by Reporters Without Borders in the course of the year, there were undoubtedly many other cases that were not reported to national or international organisations, especially as the social and political culture in Nigeria is inured to this sort of violence.
When they are not being beaten up in public in the course of their work, many journalists are mistreated when arrested by the police. Kola Oyelere, the Nigerian Tribune’s correspondent in Kano state, was for example beaten and placed in police custody on 4 July for "publishing false news." He was held for five days in conditions of deplorable hygiene and deprived of his typhoid fever medicine before all charges were just dropped.
The press has also been the victim of the awful political climate in some provinces. Two public radio stations in the southwestern state of Anambra were ransacked and torched on 10 November by the supporters of a rival to the local governor in a prelude to a week of insurrectionary violence throughout the region. The office of the president had to intervene to restore calm between the two rivals, both members of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
Is it necessary to recall that freedom of expression, "including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference," is guaranteed by article 39 of Nigeria’s constitution? This constitution was promulgated in July 1999 following the election of President Obasanjo, who then represented the hope of Nigerians after 15 years of military dictatorship.
2 journalists were convicted by a court
12 were arrested
27 were physically attacked
5 were threatened
9 were suspended
2 were unfairly dismissed
2 were summoned
3 were expelled
6 media were ransacked or physically attacked
6 newspaper issues were seized
1 broadcast was censored
"We didn’t give up"
Obed Awowede is the managing editor of The Insider Weekly. His newspaper was the target of a heavy-handed raid by the federal police in early September 2004 that forced him and his staff to spend several weeks in hiding.
About 20 agents from the State Security Service (SSS) pulled up outside our building in a bus and a Peugeot 504 Break on 4 September. They burst into our offices armed with sledgehammers and smashed the doors. They unplugged our computers and printers and took away our journalists’ equipment. They seized our archives, our accounting files, and our administrative documents. Two employees, Raphael Olatoye and Cyril Mbamalu, were also taken away and held without charge for four days.
Our equipment was returned a bit later, but we were not reimbursed for the 15,000 copies of that week’s issue that were confiscated. That represents 2.25 million nairas (12,850 euros) in outright losses, plus advertising losses and the cost of repairs. The SSS never compensated us for these financial damages. Despite everything, we went back to work. We did not give up. But the two employees who were arrested suffered major psychological aftereffects. We brought a suit against the federal police. We still don’t know what reasons the SSS had for destroying our editorial office and seizing our issue. The police authorities just tell us it was to safeguard national security.
We brought out the first issue of The Insider Weekly on 13 May 2001. Journalism offers us the chance to be observers of society. Justice is weak or non-existent in Nigeria, as in most underdeveloped countries. We have a government which, unfortunately, supports attacks on the most impoverished. As a result, we have a duty to reveal society’s imperfections, to defend the oppressed and to trumpet the ideas of citizenship and good governance. These are the ideas we defend at The Insider Weekly. We believe in militant journalism.
Because of the importance of corruption, the predominance of the powerful, and the impact of money right into the heart of the judicial system in Nigeria, we believe our role, no matter how modest, is to highlight the shortcomings of our public and private institutions. We must inform people correctly, in sharp detail, about the reasons why things are as they are in Nigeria. There are dangers and challenges that go with this job, but we think that, in a society like ours in which the laws are made to deliberately restrict free access to information, journalism should not be limited to the comfort of a bourgeois pseudo-neutrality.