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Nigerian Army officials lay siege at the gate of Daily Trust office in Abuja on January 6, 2019.  © Daily Trust

(Abuja) – Government security forces’ January 6, 2019 raid on the Daily Trust newspaper’s offices and the arrest of staff members, including two journalists, is a disturbing attempt to stifle media freedom in Nigeria.

On January 6, 2019, armed soldiers shut down the Daily Trust’s Maiduguri office and arrested its northeast regional bureau chief, Uthman Abubakar, along with a reporter, Ibrahim Sawab. A few hours later, more troops arrived at the newspaper’s Abuja head office, arrested an operations staff member, and carted away several computers. That staff member was released later that evening, and Sawab was released early the next day, but Abubakar’s whereabouts are unknown. 

“The military’s raid on the Daily Trust’s offices is a chilling development that the government should take immediate steps to address,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Nigeria’s government should ensure that the military takes no further actions to intimidate or harass journalists anywhere in the country.” 

In a statement released on January 7, the Army spokesman, Sani Usman, said that soldiers accompanied by members of the Nigerian Police Force and other security agencies conducted the raids and wanted the Daily Trust staff to answer questions about a story published on January 6. The statement alleged that the article divulged classified military information related to planned attacks against Boko Haram and thus undermined national security.

The publication reported that the Nigerian military planned to retake the town of Baga and several other communities overrun and seized by Boko Haram fighters on December 28, 2018. 

Mannir Dan-Ali, the paper’s editor-in-chief, told Human Rights Watch that the day after the raid, Abubakar was brought briefly to the newspaper’s Maiduguri office by soldiers to enable him to collect his medication and some documents related to the published story. 

He also said that Abubakar remains in military custody at an unknown location, and that security personnel remain in possession of over a dozen computers, including laptops and desktops confiscated at the newspaper’s Abuja office. 

Security forces vacated the Daily Trust’s premises in Maiduguri on January 6 on the federal government’s orders, said Garba Shehu, President Muhammadu Buhari’s spokesman. Shehu said that “issues between the military and the newspaper as they affect the coverage of the war in the Northeast will be resolved through dialogue.”

Control of Baga and its environs, which host a regional major multinational military base on the shores of the Lake Chad, has been hotly contested by Nigerian security forces and Boko Haram insurgents in the almost 10-year-long conflict. Human Rights Watch has reported about previous Boko Haram attacks on the town and about subsequent military attempts to recover the territory that led to numerous deaths and massive destruction of property in 2013 and 2015.

In line with its regular claims of Boko Haram’s “technical defeat,” the military had denied media reports that Boko Haram took control of Baga after the December attack. It has also repeatedly accused the media of undermining national security through its reporting. 

In December, the military banned the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) from working in the northeast accusing it of training and deploying spies who support Boko Haram. The ban was lifted a day later. In April, the military declared three UNICEF workers persona non grata following its report about allegations of sexual abuse by Nigerian soldiers. That decision was also swiftly reversed. 

“Nigerian authorities should take immediate steps to curb tendencies within the military to harass and intimidate civilian actors in the northeast,” Ewang said. “Releasing Abubakar, returning the seized computers and unsealing the Daily Trust’s office is a good place to start.”

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