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Letter to Nigerian President Obasanjo Regarding Intelligence Services' Raid of Independent Magazine

Your Excellency,

We are deeply concerned to learn about the arrest of two staff members of Insider Weekly magazine by the State Security Service (SSS) on September 4, 2004, and two raids by the SSS on the magazine’s offices in Lagos.

As the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, mentioned to you when you met in Abuja on June 28, 2004, violations of the right to freedom of expression are one of several of our concerns about the current human rights situation in Nigeria. In December 2003, Human Rights Watch published a report entitled “Nigeria: Renewed Crackdown on Freedom of Expression”, detailing many such cases. The recent events at Insider Weekly magazine are the latest in a number of incidents which, regrettably, have continued since then.

We have been informed that on Saturday, September 4, around fifteen members of the SSS, carrying firearms, broke into the offices of Insider Weekly magazine in Lagos with sledgehammers and seized copies of documents, equipment and cash belonging to the magazine. They arrested the magazine’s production manager, Raphael Olatoye, and took him to their Lagos headquarters at Shangisha. They also went to the printing press where they seized all copies of the magazine and ordered for no further copies of the magazine to be printed. Members of the SSS returned to the offices of Insider Weekly magazine the following day, on September 5, arrested a staff member of the magazine’s marketing department, Cyril Mbamanu, and seized computers and copies of the magazine. Staff reported that the SSS members locked the magazine’s offices as they left, using their own key or padlock.

By the morning of September 6, the whereabouts of Raphael Olatoye and Cyril Mbamanu were not known; it was assumed that they were still in the custody of the SSS. The SSS reportedly also picked up a despatch rider who had gone to the magazine’s offices as usual on the morning of September 6, unaware of the events of the previous two days.

When members of the SSS raided the offices of Insider Weekly magazine on September 4, they reportedly told the staff there that they were acting on instructions from the President. They said that since the magazine had come onto the market in 2001, it had consistently attacked the President and claimed its articles were endangering national security.

We are aware that the SSS has since issued a detailed statement justifying its actions, which was reproduced in an article entitled “SSS storms media house” in the Sunday edition of the newspaper ThisDay, on September 5. This statement refers to “the Grand Strategy for National Security, which embodies the President’s vision and conception of security.” It asserts that the SSS “respects the rule of law and upholds the fundamental rights of citizens to freedom of expression” and acknowledges the important role of the press.

The statement then goes on to accuse Insider Weekly magazine of consistently “attacking, disparaging and humiliating the person and office of the President and Commander-in-Chief as well as some notable people in government”; it gives examples of several articles published in the magazine since 2001 which were critical of the President and other senior government officials. It describes the “attempt by the publisher of Insider Weekly magazine to continually distort facts and misrepresent noble ideals of the present administration to the innocent public [as] not only libelous, seditious and subversive but also treasonable. It is therefore unacceptable.” It concludes: “this service [the SSS] has exhausted all avenues humanly possible to dissuade the publishers from deliberating dealing in falsehood, or at least exercise some level of restraint in the process, to no avail. We are therefore left with no other choice than to act decisively.”

This is not the first time that journalists at Insider Weekly magazine have been targeted by the authorities in response to articles critical of the government. In November 26, 2003, three of its editors, including its editor-in-chief Osa Director, were detained by the police for two days and charged with sedition and defamation of character following the publication of an article alleging corruption by senior government officials. The latest crackdown appears to have been prompted by an article in the current edition of the magazine which was critical of the government in the context of a draft law to amend the Trade Union Act; this article is one of those mentioned in the SSS statement.

Human Rights Watch is concerned about these attacks against the staff and premises of Insider Weekly magazine in the context of a broader pattern of abuses, intimidation and harassment of journalists, activists, and other critics of the government. Last week’s incidents at Insider Weekly magazine were characterized by an even more brutal approach than some of the earlier incidents. There are serious concerns for the safety of other staff of Insider Weekly, after the SSS members who raided the offices asked the staff present to give them the home addresses of their colleagues; many have gone into hiding since these events.

We are appealing to you to take immediate action to investigate the conduct of the SSS members at Insider Weekly magazine on September 4 and 5, and to ensure that the SSS immediately discloses the whereabouts of the two men arrested. They should release them unconditionally, unless they are charged with a recognizable criminal offence and tried promptly according to due process. We also ask to you to ensure the safety of other staff members of the magazine.

We remind you that freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, is a fundamental human right and an essential component of any democratic society. Journalists should be allowed to carry out their legitimate work, including exposing government abuses, without threats or harassment. The use of force, arbitrary arrests, and criminal prosecution can never be considered justifiable methods of responding to public criticism.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director, Africa Division

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