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World Press Freedom Review
Elections in 2007 marred by violence and irregularities were also a challenge for media in Nigeria, which were raided and harassed by the government’s State Security Service (SSS) leading up to elections. Although Nigerian media remains very free in relation to other African countries, journalists still have to endure a climate of violence and harassment.
The April elections, which saw a landslide win for Umaru Yar’Adua of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), were protested in the streets by thousands of opposition leaders, leading to at least 200-deaths in poll-related violence, according to the BBC. Chief European Union observer, Max van den Berg, said elections for state president, state governors and legislators did not live up to the hopes and expectations of the Nigerian people "and the process cannot be considered to have been credible (…) EU observers witnessed examples of ballet box stuffing, alteration of official result forms, stealing of sensitive polling materials, vote buying and underage voting."
The BBC reported that many of the 120,000 polling stations did not open for hours and some not at all, that ballot boxes were stolen and that an attempt was made to blow up the election headquarters. The Transition Monitoring Group, the main umbrella organisation of Nigerian observers, called for new elections and urged the international community not to recognize the government that emerged from disputed polls, according to the BBC.
Outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo had the chance to elevate the country to one of only four in Africa enshrining the highest properties of freedom of the press, but refused to sign a bill sitting before him, casting away years of hard work.
The law would have "put Nigeria in the league of some 70 countries around the world that have freedom of information laws and would (have made) Nigeria the fourth country in Africa to adopt such a law," stated Media Rights Agenda (MRA). Civil society organisations pushed for the much-anticipated Freedom of Information Bill, which has been in Parliament since 1999 and was finally passed by both houses in the National Assembly in February, for eight years. All it needed was the President’s consent within 30 days.
It would have strengthened Nigeria’s fight against corruption, made government representatives more accountable, removed secrecy in public sector transactions, and promoted public participation. The bill will now be returned to the National Assembly, where it can still become a law without the President’s assent if passed by a two-thirds majority in each house. There are concerns that the National Assembly will not be able to reconsider the bill because of the disruption and violence around recent elections, and that the whole process may have to be started from scratch, according to MRA.
The Nigerian government also tried to push a bill related to homosexuality through Parliament before the end of the president’s term, which would effectively damage the right of free expression for all Nigerians. Human Rights Watch (HRW) was outraged when the bill was fast-tracked through the National Assembly at the end of February which would sentence to jail anyone who speaks out about or forms a group supporting gay and lesbian rights, or who participates in a same-sex marriage. HRW stated that the bill, over which there was virtually no debate, would silence public discussion around the issue. HRW urged parliamentarians not to pass the bill.
Raids by the SSS were many and violent in 2007. The organisation continues to earn its position on the RSF list of the world’s worst press freedom violators, where it first took a spot in 2005. RSF states that, "This fearsome organisation at the disposal of the president does the government’s dirty work, typically ransacking media offices, making illegal arrests and arbitrarily throwing people in prison. It routinely denies arresting journalists despite many witnesses to the fact (…). The media is bold and vigorous but the SSS is sometimes sent to intimidate journalists with raids, beatings and tough interrogations."
The Nigerian media is indeed thriving on many levels, and is called "one of the most vibrant" in Africa by the BBC. The private press is vocal in its criticism of the government. Residents in nearly all parts of the large country have access to state run radio and television, and there are both federal and regional offices. Each of the 36 states has their own radio stations, and most have local television services. Radio remains the main tool for information, and BBC and other international broadcasters have a large audience. About 17 private radio stations have received licences, and pay television is growing in popularity. Over 100 national and local newspapers and publications exist, including well-respected dailies, tabloids and others, many of which support the rights of ethnic groups.
A similar raid took place the same day at the Abuja Inquirer, in which publisher Dan Akpovwa and editor Sonde Abbah were arrested and the office searched for three hours. When they finally left, they took 81 CDs, a list of newspaper staff, a computer, and copies of the latest and previous issues of the paper. The raid took place following the publication of an article called "Obasanjo-Atiku Face-Off: Coup Fear Grips Nigeria", which ran in the 8-14 January edition.
Eight members of the SSS invaded the office housing two private broadcast media, Link FM and GTV on 11 April in Lagos. The forces, acting on "an order from above", forced employees to leave and sealed the offices so they could not be re-entered.
Shortly after, on 17 April, the SSS raided private, outspoken African Independent Television (AIT)’s Abuja studios. Just two days after AIT offices in Lagos were damaged by fire, and days before the presidential election, agents stormed the studios in the middle of the afternoon and ordered all employees to lie face down at gunpoint. They confiscated video cassettes of many programmes that were going to be broadcast as well as one which was being broadcast at the time, the subject of which was outgoing President Obasanjo’s eight years in office.
The AIT offices come under frequent attack. They had been raided in May 2006 and a tape taken over the Obasanjo’s failure to prolong terms in office. Gbenga Aruleba, the host of "Focus Nigeria", a current affairs debate show including political figures, was arrested at the time and held for 48 hours.
Article 19 wrote shortly before the election: "This should be a time for journalists, news producers and candidates for office in Nigeria to raise the level of public debate about issues at stake in the elections," Africa Programme Director John Barker said. "Instead, what we are getting are raids on news organisations and their staff as well as reports of gross violence against journalists and activists. These types of human rights violations do not lend credibility to the election process."
Also in the lead-up to the election, an award-winning human rights and anti-corruption campaigner, Anyakwee Nsirimovu, was violently assaulted and received death threats on 4 March. HRW says the director of the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Port Harcourt was probably threatened over his outspoken criticism of state and local officials in Rivers State.
Nsirimovu was attacked by a gang of at least six young men when returning home from an evening meeting. The men were armed with knives, clubs and other weapons, and tried to stop his car, smashing the rear window and causing other damage. Nsirimovu was not harmed. He had been receiving threatening phone calls the two weeks prior to the attack. On 12 February, Nsirimovu’s organisation had issued a cutting criticism of Rivers State legislators, and the group was also active in promoting public awareness of problems highlighted in a HRW report about local government corruption. Nsiromovu said the objective of attackers was to "shut people up" before elections, adding that the attacks could lead others to fear speaking out about human rights and governance issues facing the state.
Journalists were harassed during 1 May Workers’ Day celebrations, and a cameraman with Ondo State Radiovision Corporation in Akure was assaulted by a police officer. During the same celebration, pro-democracy, human rights, trade union and socialist activists were arrested and detained and their newsletters and books seized.
Two gunmen stormed the offices of private daily newspaper the Punch on 5 June in Port Harcourt, searching for a particular employee. The gunmen threatened staff and demanded to see a certain worker, who was not there at the time. They focused on Christian Madueke, another employee, who tried to get away. They pointed their guns at him, and Madueke jumped out a window and was seriously injured in the fall. An employee set off an alarm and the gunmen fled. The Punch is one of Nigeria’s most popular newspapers, and is located in the Niger Delta, an economic and political key area due to large oil reserves.
The country’s leading independent broadcast network, AIT, came again under attack when the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), a local government body, bulldozed three new station facilities without notice in mid-June in the capital of Abuja. The buildings, erected over the past year by AIT housed a digital studio, a technical operations office and a common room for anchors. FCT director for urban development Issa Shuaid claimed the station broke city-planning rules by encroaching on neighbouring property when it built the structures, adding that the station was using a residential zone for commercial purposes. AIT, which intends to sue the government, states the land encroachment accusation was first brought forward on the day of the demolition, which it calls politically motivated due to the station’s coverage of elections in May.
Oyo state journalists had a particularly harrowing year in the face of several attacks by militants, activists and uniformed corps. Journalists at the Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State (BCOS) came under attack on 23 May when about 100 supporters of a local politician stormed the studios in southwestern Ibaban. Many staff ran in the face of the brutal attack, which saw at least a dozen injured by machetes, while others were trapped in the offices. Most employees were also robbed of money and mobile phones, had vehicles vandalised, and the premises were ransacked, forcing the station to stop broadcasting. BCOS had announced that the state electoral commission chose to stick to 24 May as the provincial election date, although former deputy governor Christopher Alao Akala of the PDP had contested the date.
Prison guards at Agadi prison in Ibadan, in the southwestern state of Oyo, beat a journalist unconscious on 11 September as he tried to cover the aftermath of a riot. Tope Abiola, deputy editor of private daily Nigeria Tribune, went to the prison the day after the riot, which killed an estimated 40 inmates. He was photographing and counting bodies as they were removed from the prison when police and guards set on him and beat him until he lost consciousness. Other journalists who tried to intervene were also beaten.
Journalists were once again attacked in Oyo during the 11 September inauguration of a new road near Ibadan by the state governor. After the ceremony, political activists blocked the road, demanding money from the governor. They then turned on others there, including journalists. Although none were seriously injured, Gbenga Abegunde of private Daily Independent was pelted in the chest by several stones and an AIT vehicle was destroyed.
"Nigerian journalists are often subjected to violence on the least pretext, without anyone ever being punished," stated RSF. "We call on the government to put an end to this impunity by ordering investigations that result in those being identified and punished, regardless of whether they are political party activists or police officers."
The Nigerian federal high court released two German independent filmmakers on bail in Abuja on 5 October after they pleaded not guilty to five counts of endangering state security, reported CPJ. Florian Alexander Opitz and cinematographer Andy Lehmann were arrested on 21 September in the southern city of Warri for taking photographs and footage, including oil facilities in the oil-rich and Nigerian delta, where armed militant groups are fighting for control over oil profits. The two were charged with violating Nigeria’s Official Secrets Act by taking photos and footage of "protected places" and for making false statements on their visa entry applications, although no evidence was presented. The two were the first international journalists to be formally charged because of coverage of the delta, where the militants have kidnapped more than 200 foreign and local workers and killed dozens of security forces since last year, according to Agence France-Presse.
The foreign press had also come under attack the previous June when veteran freelance photographer Ed Kashi was detained for four days last June and a CNN contract was ended after authorities accused the station of "stage-managing" a report on the Niger delta.
The publisher of private weekly Events in Akwa Ibom state was arrested by men suspected by local journalists to belong to the SSS and charged with sedition on 16 October. Jerome Imeime was taken to prison shortly after his arraignment in the state capital of Uyo in connection to a front-page story published the previous week accusing Governor Godswill Akapabio of using state treasury funds to pay off personal debt acquired during his electoral campaign. The story also alleged corruption in the granting of road construction contracts. Legal expert Femi Falana claims the country’s sedition law was abolished in 1983, but authorities continue to use it to silence the press. Events had also come under attack in June, when 15 armed men, believed to be government agents, stormed the paper’s printing plant and seized 5,000 copies of an edition, according to CPJ. The paper was about to run a story alleging criminal indictment of Akapabio.
RSF complained in October about Borno state governor Ali Modu Sheriff’s abusive use of the SSS to harass journalists starting mid-October. The attacks include arrests of James Garuba of the Tribune, Michael Olabode of This Day, and other reporters who had criticised Sheriff’s exorbitant spending on gifts for his supporters on the occasion of Ramadan. Several newspapers were raided on 15 October, and once again a few days later, with journalists being forced to accompany SSS agents. They were held for several hours and "made to write statements about how they got wind of the affair," according to one journalist. They were released, but forced to report to SSS headquarters every day.
"It is intolerable that provincial authorities can do as they wish with journalists and that the SSS carried out their dirty work," said RSF, adding it "is a disturbing sign for democracy in Nigeria."
No suspects had been brought forward by year’s end into the murders of award-winning journalist Godwin Agbroko, editorial board chairman of private daily This Day, who was shot dead on 22 December 2006 in Lagos when driving home from work, or Omololu Falobi, founder and director of media advocacy group Journalists Against AIDS, who was gunned down on 5 October 2006 wile leaving his office in Lagos.
All in all, it seems that new President Umaru Yar’Adua’s claim to journalists in October that the government is committed "in both words and deeds" to "reject arbitrariness in any form" and "end impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of Nigeria’s abuses" have not been realised.
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