Journalists in this “West African giant”, the continent’s biggest oil producer, are trapped between public violence, endemic corruption and the belligerence of politicians ready for anything to protect their privileges. Beatings, arrests, abusive trials and death threats are the daily lot of journalists in Lagos and the state capitals, where powerful governors lay down the law.
Nigerian journalists yet again lived through an appalling year in 2006. They have had to face police brutality, arrests in certain cases for the least article that annoyed local authorities and corruption in the military, among politicians and businessmen. Undoubtedly, the Nigerian press is pluralist, vigorous and irreverent, buoyed up by the support of the people and a long tradition of resistance to different military juntas and dictatorships which have bled the country since independence. But as Reporters Without Borders stressed in March, “journalists suffer from the daily violence which reigns in Nigeria”. It made this comment after recording over a three-month period: three physical assaults, one censorship order, one abusive sacking, one unfair arrest and one case of intimidation. They are also routinely the punch bags for the powerful, military figures, governors, ministers and businessmen, who enjoy complete impunity and have no respect for the right to news and information. For this reason, Nigerian journalists deserve high praise for enduring the oppression of military juntas and for now working in the face of the contempt and brutality of the authorities and their protégés.
In a country in which power struggles are generally carried out against a backdrop of violence and corruption, journalists are the targets of choice.The editor of the newspaper Ebonyi Voice, Imo Eze, and one of his journalists, Oluwole Elenyinmile, spent more than two months in prison, from 14 June to 25 August, after carrying an article, on 16 April, headlined, “Is Ebonyi A Failed State ?” The two journalists were charged by a court in Abakaliki, capital of Ebonyi state, with “conspiracy”, “sedition” and “defamation” of the governor, Sam Ominyi Egwu.
A television station in the firing line
The government also used abusive judicial procedures when journalists challenged President Olusegun Obasanjo. Accordingly, Mike Gbenga Aruleba, presenter of a popular political TV programme, and Rotimi Durojaiye, reporter on the Daily Independent, spent two days in prison and were charged with “sedition” under a law which had been annulled by a 1983 appeal court ruling, in connection with their comments on the purchase of a new presidential jet. Durojaiye wrote an article in the Daily Independent on 12 June, headlined, “Controversy Over Age, Cost of Presidential Jet”, in which he speculated about the details and timing of the acquisition of a new presidential plane. In his programme, “Focus Nigeria”, broadcast the next day on African Independent Television (AIT), presenter Mike Gbenga Aruleba also raised the subject, which provoked a huge controversy in the Nigerian press. Internal intelligence State Security Service (SSS) agents arrested Aruleba on 14 June and released him the following day on condition of reporting his movements, for using the pejorative word “tokunbo” about the plane, suggesting it was second-hand. The following day, when he left Abuja for Lagos in connection with his work, Aruleba was arrested again but he was acquitted on 10 October. As for Rotimi Durojaiye, he was arrested on 25 June, but his trial was adjourned.
The AIT channel also had a brush with the authorities the previous month. On 14 May, SSS agents burst into its offices and seized the tape of a documentary about failed attempts by previous Nigerian leaders to hold on to power. AIT, the country’s oldest private channel, had been in the authorities’ sights since it broadcast national assembly debates live on the controversial issue of an amendment to the 1999 constitution, presented by supporters of President Obasanjo, which would have allowed, among other things, the president and the federal state governors to remain in power for four further years. Parliament rejected it a few days after the raid on the newspaper. The SSS, which often launches commando operations against the privately-owned press, has been placed on Reporters Without Borders’ list of “Predator of Press Freedom”.
Two journalists killed
As if the climate of permanent hostility weighing on the Nigerian press was not enough, the end of the year was marked by two murders. Both victims were well-known journalists in Lagos and the circumstances of their death, even if there is no proof the killings were linked to their work, reveal the kind of violent universe in which journalists have to operate. Omololu Falobi, a former journalist on the privately-owned daily The Punch, founder and executive director of Journalists Against AIDS (JAAIDS), was killed on 5 October at around 10pm, when he had just left the headquarters of the association, in the Ogba district of Lagos. His killers fired several bullets into his forehead when he was at the wheel of his car. The first conclusions of the investigation, passed on by JAAIDS and several Nigerian journalists, suggested that Falobi was killed for criminal reasons, but no suspect has been arrested.
Godwin Agbroko, chairman of the editorial board of the privately-owned daily This Day, was found dead at the wheel of his car, on 22 December, by a roadside in the Isolo district, just after he had left his office. None of his personal effects had been stolen. On the same night, three police officers and two passers-by were also shot dead in the same district. Police said they were working on the theory that Agbroko was killed for criminal reasons. His son, Tobor Agbroko, nevertheless told the Nigerian press that the family believed it was an assassination. “He had a telephone which was worth several thousand Nairas, which was left untouched. His cash, wrist watch and other things were also not touched.” He dismissed the police theory, saying that one should not “fool people by saying the killers were robbers”. Godwin Agbroko was a well-known journalist, who regularly had by-lined articles in This Day. A former editor of several newspapers under the military dictatorship (1993-1999), he continued to provide an ironic and uncompromising take on political life.