Reporters Without Borders today voiced its solidarity with three Nigerian journalists who will miss the New Year celebration because they will spend the night of the 31 December in prison in the oil town of Port Harcourt, the capital of southeastern Rivers State. This is without precedent since the return to civilian rule in 1999.
“The judicial authorities are imposing a grim ordeal on three journalists under pressure from the governor of an unstable state,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The Nigerian press is still in the grip of harsh legislation, a brutal police force and authoritarian governors. On this New Year’s Eve, we call for their release and we reiterate our commitment to the independent press and, in particular, to the three Port Harcourt prisoners who are exposed to dangerous challenges.”
Clem Ofuokwu, the editor-in-chief of privately-owned radio station Rhythm 93.7 FM, and news presenter Cleopatra Taiwo were arrested on 19 December by agents from the State Security Service (SSS), an intelligence agency, for falsely reporting two days before that a bridge had collapsed on the road out of Port Harcourt at Choba.
The station was closed and they were taken to the police station together with news manager David Obi and programme manager Loknan Dombim. After the broadcast of a formal apology by the station’s owner, Obi and Dombim were released the next day on condition they report daily to the police.
However, Ofuokwu and Taiwo were charged with “conspiracy to publish and disseminate false news” and “intent to cause public panic and fear and disturb the peace.” They have been placed in custody until 3 January, when a court is to rule on their lawyer’s request for their release on bail.
Owei Kobina Sikpi, the publisher of the privately-owned Weekly Star newspaper, is meanwhile on the point of completing his third month in detention. After being arrested at his newspaper’s press on 11 October and being held for six days at an undisclosed location, he was brought before the Port Harcourt high court on 17 October and charged with seven counts of “publishing false news.”
The offending reports were for the most part about allegations of money laundering by Rivers State governor Peter Odili, clashes between the army and separatist militia in the Niger Delta region and former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s presence in Nigeria. All of Sikpi’s requests for release on bail have been rejected.