Reporters Without Borders today condemned official pressure on four journalists of the independent daily Leadership, charged with libel for saying that President Umaru Yar’Adua was “sick”.
The Nigerian president brought an action against the Leadership after it carried an article on 8 November on the state of health of Yar’Adua saying he had had to cancel official engagements for two days because of ill health. The article also said that doctors had been flown in from Saudi Arabia to treat him.
The publisher of Leadership, Sam Nda Isaiah, two editors, Abdulrazaq Barkindo and Lara Olugbemi, as well as reporter Simon Tswam appeared before a court in Abuja yesterday and all denied the charges.
They are accused of “conspiracy, joint illegal act, defamation of character, injurious falsehood and printing, engraving and distributing of matter known to be defamatory” under Articles 79, 392, 393, 394 and 395 of the Penal Code. The four journalists are currently on bail but had to pay a surety of 500,000 naira (4,240 dollars) each. They are due to reappear before the judge on 16 and 18 December.
Abdulrazaq Barkindo and the author of the offending article were arrested by State Security Service (SSS) agents on 10 November. They were both interrogated for several hours at the SSS Asokoro Headquarters in Abuja before being released at the end of the day.
Four days later, publisher Sam Nda Isaiah and the other editor, Lara Olugbemi, were arrested in their turn and held at a secret location for five days. SSS agents on 18 November raided the paper’s offices and seized several computers.
“We note with great regret that the health of the president is a taboo subject in Nigeria, as in the darkest days of the continent”, the worldwide press freedom organisation said. “The fine imposed on the Leadership journalists is very harsh and the pressure put on them by SSS agents is unacceptable. We call for and end to these machinations and for the Leadership team to be acquitted”, it concluded.