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VI. Harassment of journalists and restrictions on press freedom

On a superficial level, the media enjoys considerable freedom in Nigeria. There is a large number of daily newspapers, weekly magazines, and other publications, most of them published in Lagos or elsewhere in the southern part of the country, and several private radio and television stations. With the exception of the federal and state government media outlets, much of the media regularly carries a range of opinions, including strong criticism of government policies and debates on different issues. However, in reality, genuinely independent journalism is not as common in Nigeria as it may seem, and there is an unspoken threshold beyond which criticism is not easily tolerated. The media, like so many other sectors, is tainted by corruption, with many, though not all, journalists expecting to receive payment before agreeing to report, or not to report, an event. As in many other countries, deals are struck with individual politicians on whether, when or how to report particular events. These personalized relations between politicians and individual journalists or editors allow the government a level of control over how the media represents events. However, not all journalists accept these compromises, and many continue to defy attempts at censorship.

There have been numerous incidents in which officials have intervened directly in an attempt to prevent coverage of events judged detrimental to the image of the government. Media Rights Agenda (MRA), a Lagos-based nongovernmental organization which promotes press freedom and freedom of expression, recorded more than fifty cases of reported abuses against journalists and other violations of freedom of expression between June 2002 and September 2003, including at least nine cases of physical assault by the police, as well as other forms of harassment, intimidation and obstruction, such as destruction or confiscation of journalists’ cameras.53 One of the most serious recent examples is the incident described above in which several journalists were beaten by the police during the fuel strike and protests. A few other examples from 2002 and 2003 are given below. These are incidents where the abuses appeared to be motivated specifically by an intention to suppress information or to silence dissent; this section does not include the numerous other incidents where journalists have been physically assaulted, harassed or obstructed for no clear reason, or simply with a view to extorting money.

In late July 2002, journalists were explicitly asked by government and police officials not to report on an incident in Kano on July 29 in which police had clashed with an angry crowd protesting against President Obasanjo’s visit to the city. Independent sources, including journalists and other witnesses, initially claimed that several people had died when policemen in the president’s entourage shot at protestors. As soon as these reports began circulating, the authorities made frantic efforts to cover up the story. Human Rights Watch spoke to several journalists at the time who said that government officials had been seeking out individual journalists and asking them what they had seen, telling them that nothing had happened and that they should not report the story as the information was incorrect. In particular, the press secretary of the Kano State governor54 approached all the Kano-based local and international reporters as they gathered in the press gallery in government house (the state government office) and appealed to them not to report the story.55 However, the pressure came too late, as reports of the shootings had already been filed and published by several news agencies, as well as most of the main Nigerian newspapers. Federal government officials, including the minister for information at the time, and a spokesperson for the president’s office, expressed dissatisfaction with the content of these reports.56

Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm whether anyone was killed at the scene of the protest in Kano on July 29, 2002. Several witnesses reported that shots had been fired into the crowd and people had been injured, but they could not confirm whether the injuries had been caused by live shots or by tear-gas, or whether any of the victims actually died. The police and the government vehemently denied that anybody was killed.57 However, Human Rights Watch confirmed the disappearance of a young man, nineteen-year-old Mutari Abba Kabara, in confusing circumstances; he was last seen in police custody after he was arrested on the day of the protests. His family was informed that he was taken first to Jakara police station in Kano, then transferred to the Kano state police headquarters, but was not able to trace his whereabouts thereafter, despite repeated inquiries at different police stations. The police eventually informed the family that a young man with a similar name had died, but the body they were shown in the mortuary was not their son’s.58

In June 2003, all printed copies of the June 30 edition of the weekly Tell magazine were bought up by agents of the Organising Committee of the All Africa Games (COJA). The magazine contained an article on corruption in the award of contracts for coverage of the All Africa Games, due to take place in Nigeria in October 2003, entitled “Scandal in Aso Rock [the presidency]; Anti-corruption campaign, a fraud.” On June 20, 2003, officials of COJA visited the Tell office in Lagos and offered to buy up all copies of the issue before it went on sale; the management of Tell refused. The following day, as the magazine was going on sale, the officials targeted all the main distribution points and bought up all the copies.59 According to a journalist reporting from Abeokuta, in Ogun state, the copies there were bought up by SSS officials who identified themselves as acting on orders of the presidency.60

In late November 2002, the premises of three independent newspapers based in Port Harcourt, The Argus, The Beacon, and The Independent Monitor, were raided by the police and several journalists were arrested by the police for publishing stories seen as critical of the Rivers state government. They were detained for several hours then released. The Rivers State governor’s lawyer reportedly wrote to the newspapers threatening to sue them for libel if they refused to retract the articles.61

Ofonime Umanah, the Cross Rivers state correspondent of The Punch newspaper, was reported to have been harassed after exposing public discontent with the Nigerian government’s decision to offer a safe haven to former Liberian President Charles Taylor.62 The Cross Rivers state government asked him to tone down his criticism, but he did not give in to this pressure. He was then called to explain himself before the Ethics Committee of the Cross Rivers state chapter of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ); the committee’s members include the state president of the NUJ, who is a member of the PDP and former member of the publicity sub-committee of the state governor’s campaign team, and the press secretary of the state governor’s wife.63

Several journalists have been expelled from their specific area of reporting after writing articles denouncing abuses, particularly corruption. For example, on September 17, 2003, Cyril Mbah, state house correspondent for The Monitor newspaper, was escorted off the premises of the President’s compound in Abuja, from where he usually reported, after he had written an article allegedly critical of the President. Agents of the SSS reportedly kept his accreditation card and told him not to return to the presidential compound.64 Other journalists have been expelled from particular states following critical reporting. For example, in August 2003, the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly reportedly ordered Haruna Acheneje, state correspondent of The Punch newspaper, to leave Akwa Ibom State, from where he usually reported. This instruction was apparently connected to an article he had written about the State House of Assembly, which members of the House claimed contained false information and portrayed their activities in a negative light, and his subsequent failure to appear before the House after they summonsed him to be questioned about the article.65

There have been numerous incidents in which members of the security forces have attempted to prevent journalists from filming or taking photographs, in a variety of different situations. Not all of these have resulted in prolonged detention or physical ill-treatment, but they illustrate a persistently hostile and suspicious attitude on the part of the security forces towards journalists carrying out their legitimate professional duties. For example, on September 28, 2003, two cameramen, George Esiri of Reuters and George Osodi of AP, were stopped by members of the navy and officials of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) as they were trying to photograph a ruptured NNPC pipeline at a location known as Atlas Cove, between Apapa and Tin Can Island, in Lagos State. The navy impounded their cameras, held them for about one hour, then released them; eventually they were allowed to take photographs.66

On October 4, 2003, Jeff Koinange, head of the West Africa bureau of the U.S. television channel Cable News Network (CNN), was stopped on arrival at Lagos airport, just after going through immigration controls. A group of around twelve officials, including members of the SSS and customs officials, told the CNN team they had received orders from above not to allow them in and that they should take the next plane out of Lagos. They did not give any further explanation. When CNN cameraman Simon Munene started filming the exchange, they slapped him to the ground and confiscated his film. Eventually, the CNN team was let into the country. The minister for internal affairs and the president’s personal assistant later apologized personally to Jeff Koinange, claimed the incident was a mistake, and said the government would investigate it and take appropriate action.67

Government and security officials have tried to muzzle writers and publishers, as well as journalists. In mid-June 2003, the publisher of a book entitled “This madness called election 2003,” which denounced government abuses during the elections, was arrested by the SSS and taken to Abuja for questioning. The SSS also reportedly seized all copies of the book from the publishers, SNAAP Press in Enugu, and confiscated the printing materials so that it could not be reprinted. They also seized twenty copies of the book from a news vendor. The author of the book, Father John Okwoeze Odey, was told that there were plans to arrest him.68

There were other instances of restrictions on freedom of expression linked to the elections. According to local activists, the Nigerian media was less critical than usual during the election period, and there were attempts to stifle open criticism. For example, on April 29, 2003, two members of civil society organizations were invited as guest speakers to participate in a discussion program on a radio station called Rhythm, in Port Harcourt. The theme of the discussion was voter education and electoral accountability. Midway through the program, one of the guests was asked for his view on whether voters should participate in the state house of assembly elections scheduled for May 3. In his reply, the speaker denounced abuses by the police and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) during the presidential and governorship elections which had taken place on April 19, and stated that open rigging in Rivers State, particularly by the ruling PDP, had eroded the general public’s confidence in the elections. A listener then phoned in, agreed with his comments and gave further examples of rigging. At this point, the manager of the radio station came into the studio and told the participants they should not criticize the police or INEC, because the radio station had received a directive from the National Broadcasting Commission and the Ministry of Information not to air programs criticizing the police or INEC in relation to the elections. The guest speakers refused to continue the program under those conditions, and the presenter had to close the discussion, which was being broadcast live. It was later discovered that during the first week of the discussion programs, officials of the Rivers State government had called the radio station and threatened to get its operating licence revoked if it allowed the station to be used to criticize the government. Other guests who had participated in the program on earlier occasions had also been warned not to criticize the conduct of the police, INEC or the government during the elections.69

In Gabasawa town, Kano State, on April 19, 2003—the day of the presidential and governorship elections—Musa Umar Kazaure, the Kano bureau chief of the Abuja-based Daily Trust newspaper, witnessed a group of men marking ballot papers in favour of the ruling PDP and stuffing them into ballot boxes. The group noticed him taking photographs and took him to the local district chief, who had apparently sponsored them to stuff the ballot boxes. The chief confiscated the journalist’s camera and tape recorder and, in his presence, gave the group 10,000 naira (about U.S.$75) “for a job well done.” As the journalist began to feel threatened, he ran to his car; people threw stones at his car as he drove off.70

53 Analysis of data gathered by Media Rights Monitor, the monthly journal of Media Rights Agenda, between June 2002 and September 2003. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify all these cases.

54 The Kano State governor at the time was Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso. He was appointed Minister of Defence in the federal government after the 2003 elections.

55 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews, July 31, 2002, and subsequent correspondence, September-October 2003.

56 See for example “Nigeria pressures BBC outlet amid row over reporting,” AFP, August 6, 2002, and “Nobody died when Obasanjo visited Kano, says Presidency,” ThisDay, July 31, 2002.

57 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews, July 31, 2002. See also “Nobody died when Obasanjo visited Kano, says Presidency, ThisDay, July 31, 2002.

58 Human Rights Watch interviews, Kano, February 1, 2003, and letter to the Inspector General of Police by lawyers acting on behalf of Mutara Abba Kabara’s father, August 10, 2002.

59 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews, September 2003. See also press release by the Centre for Research Education and Development of Freedom of Expression and Associated Rights (CREDO), June 27, 2003. The statement mentions that “the security agents also largely succeeded in preventing the export of the magazine, which usually sells in tens of thousands in Africa, Europe and the United States.”

60 See “Tell alerts of fresh censorship,” Daily Independent online, June 25, 2003.

61 Human Rights Watch interviews in Port Harcourt, December 20, 2002.

62 Charles Taylor accepted President Obasanjo’s offer of asylum after stepping down from power in Liberia in July 2003. He has been living in Calabar, Cross Rivers State, southeastern Nigeria, since August 2003. Despite the fact that Charles Taylor has been indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Nigerian government has still not handed him over for prosecution.

63 Human Rights Watch correspondence, October 23, 2003.

64 See “SSS men bundle journalist out of Aso Rock,” Daily Champion, September 18, 2003, and “Monitor reporter expelled from presidential villa,” Daily Trust, September 18, 2003.

65 See “The pains of journalists in Nigerian democracy,” Daily Independent, September 2, 2003.

66 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews and correspondence, October 2003.

67 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, October 6, 2003.

68 Human Rights Watch interview, Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, July 12, 2003.

69 Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, July 14, 2003, and correspondence, October 23, 2003.

70 Human Rights Watch correspondence, October 10, 2003.

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December 2003