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Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Nigeria

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2004
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Nigeria, February 2004, available at: [accessed 14 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In Nigeria's first successful transfer between civilian administrations since independence in 1960, President Olusegun Obasanjo was re-elected in a landslide victory that also saw his ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) make significant gains in polls across the country. Despite the relatively peaceful conduct of the election, opposition parties and election observers alleged widespread fraud, irregularities, and voter intimidation.

In its coverage of the April elections, the Nigerian media generally prized concern for stability and the success of the elections over rigorous investigation. According to local journalists, the press's acquiescent tone and wariness stemmed at least partly from the blame the media had incurred in the past for the failure of Nigerian democracy. During the previous attempt at civilian succession in the 1983 elections, media critics argue, the press's prominent coverage of alleged electoral fraud was used as part of the pretext for the military coup that interrupted democracy in the country for 15 years.

As a result, coverage of Muhamadu Buhari, the retired general who led the 1983 coup and Obasanjo's main rival in the 2003 election, was not favorable. A Muslim from northern Nigeria, Buhari was portrayed as a promoter of Shariah, or Islamic law. The press, which is concentrated in the predominantly Christian southwest, maintained that he was incapable of unifying the country. Buhari claimed that the elections were marred by fraud, but the Nigerian media barely covered his legal challenge to the results.

State-owned media outlets throughout the country tended to favor incumbents, and politicians from the smaller opposition parties complained that the press overlooked them in favor of candidates from larger and richer parties. But victorious government officials celebrated the role of the local media in the elections. At a press conference after the presidential poll, Obasanjo, who was the clear favorite in the Nigerian media, praised local journalists for their "patriotic reporting." Journalists groups, primarily concerned with postelectoral stability, commended the elections as free and fair and cautioned losing candidates against inciting the population to unrest.

Meanwhile, PDP officials lashed out at foreign media and election observers who criticized the polls and exposed alleged fraud, or who expressed concerns about the legitimacy of the results. CNN, VOA, and the BBC in particular were condemned for their "negative reportage." Information Minister Jerry Gana threatened to force CNN to replace its correspondent in the country because of the channel's coverage. Obasanjo accused European Union (EU) election observers of not understanding Nigerian democracy after the EU's monitoring team criticized the elections. The EU also criticized the Nigerian media's performance during the vote, saying the press "failed to provide unbiased coverage of the political parties and candidates contesting the elections."

Nonetheless, Nigerian journalists said the media were better equipped to cover the polls than in any previous election. With the help of the United Nations and foreign governments, the Independent National Electoral Commission opened a 24-hour media center in the capital, Abuja, that gave journalists timely access to poll results and to officials who could respond to press complaints and concerns. The National Broadcasting Commission, Nigeria's official regulatory body for broadcast media, also instituted a progressive set of guidelines ahead of the elections to try to ensure equitable access to the airwaves for all parties. Local journalists said that the most egregious breach of the guidelines occurred in southern Delta State, where, according to journalists, a gang of opposition supporters raided the private Jeremi FM radio station and forced the station's presenter at gunpoint to falsely announce that their candidate had won.

The variety and magnitude of problems facing Obasanjo have not diminished since he took office in 1999. Though he pledged to make defeating corruption his top priority, local journalists say little progress has been made on that front. The international nongovernmental organization Transparency International has consistently ranked Nigeria as one of the world's most corrupt nations. Journalists who report on corruption scandals have faced harassment and censorship from authorities. In June, State Security Service (SSS) agents attempted to purchase the entire print run of the popular Tell magazine after it ran an article alleging fraud in the awarding of broadcasting equipment contracts for the All Africa Games, a pan-African multisports event that Nigeria hosted in October.

State governments took the more drastic step of trying to banish reporters in reprisal for their stories. In late October, the Cross River State government attempted to expel Daily Independent journalist Bassey Inyang from the state after he reported on an alleged bribery scandal in the state assembly. And in August, the Akwa Ibom State Assembly attempted to expel Haruna Acheneje, a correspondent for the newspaper The Punch, after he reported that legislators had not been paid allowances. Both governments reversed the decisions after popular protest and pressure from journalists groups.

Nigeria is the world's seventh-largest oil exporter, but citizens complain that they have not benefited from the country's oil wealth, and authorities are sensitive to coverage of scandals relating to the industry. In early July, police attacked Associated Press photographer George Osodi and Vanguard newspaper journalists Funmi Komolafe and Rotimi Ajayi while they covered protests in Abuja over the federal government's decision to increase gasoline prices by more than 50 percent. In November, three journalists with Insider Weekly were charged with sedition and defamation after the magazine published an article alleging that presidential aides were involved in oil theft in the Niger Delta Region.

Journalists say that police harassment remains the biggest obstacle to reporting. Local police forces are often politicized, and journalists who question police allegiances or integrity often face brutality. In August, a police superintendent in Anambra State ordered a group of young men to attack Emma Nwatu of Minaj Systems Television after he helped produce a report alleging that the superintendent was extorting money from bus drivers. Worsening police antagonism toward journalists led the SSS to hold several meetings aimed at improving relations between government authorities and the media. In the run-up to the December meeting of Commonwealth heads of state in Abuja, a presidential task force explicitly warned security personnel against attacking journalists during the summit, saying the government would not tolerate any tarnishing of the country's image.

Because Nigerian journalists are poorly paid, they are susceptible to bribery by politicians and other powerful figures, local sources said. High printing costs and low sales have placed a significant financial strain on print publications. Making the situation even worse, local courts have begun awarding excessive libel damages that threaten to bankrupt media companies. In November, the president's wife sued the Independent Communication Network Limited, publishers of The News, for 1 billion naira (US$7.5 million) after the magazine alleged that a company she owned was awarded a large contract for the All Africa Games. The case was pending at year's end.

But the robust and vibrant Nigerian media also have considerable influence in political affairs, and journalists' organizations have effectively pushed for reforms of government policies and redress of particular offenses. In July, the federal legislature withdrew a new code of conduct for journalists covering the National Assembly following protests by the Nigerian Union of Journalists and other media rights groups. The code would have forced all reporters to confirm sensitive information with the assembly administration before publication, as well as mandating punishment for "speculative journalism" and the leaking of official secret documents.

However, journalists' groups could not persuade lawmakers to pass media-friendly legislation during Obasanjo's first term. The Freedom of Information Bill, which would allow journalists and citizens greater access to government information and provide protection for whistleblowers in the government, is still pending. Though PDP legislators promised to pass the bill during Obasanjo's first term, the bill has stagnated in the National Assembly. On a positive note, assembly members said they were considering amending broadcasting laws to allow private broadcasters to transmit nationwide. Private stations are currently prohibited from broadcasting beyond their state or allocated zones. Nigerian journalists say the restriction resulted from government fear that allowing broadcasters nationwide reach could compromise national security.

Religious tensions in the predominantly Muslim north have adversely affected the media. Nigerian journalists, who have generally tried to strike a balanced tone on issues of religious and ethnic conflict, have nonetheless been caught in the fray. According to press reports, Jama'atul Nasril Islam, an influential Islamic body based in Kaduna, reaffirmed a fatwa sanctioning the killing of two ThisDay journalists in its annual 2003 report. The edict was issued in 2002 by the Zamfara State government after ThisDay published an article that sparked religious riots in the north that killed more than 200 people. Local journalists said they believe that the action was symbolic, and that Islamic authorities do not intend to enforce the ruling. One of the two ThisDay journalists, Isioma Daniel, remained in exile at year's end.

2003 Documented Cases – Nigeria

JULY 1, 2003

George Osodi, The Associated Press
Funmi Komolafe, The Vanguard
Rotimi Ajayi, The Vanguard

Osodi, a photographer for The Associated Press (AP), and Komolafe and Ajayi, reporters for the Lagos-based daily The Vanguard, were attacked by police while covering a demonstration in the capital, Abuja. The journalists were reporting on a general strike by workers who had gone to state administration buildings to protest the government's recent decision to raise the price of fuel by more than 50 percent.

According to Osodi, the journalists were in a group reporting on the action when police, armed with riot gear, charged at them and began to manhandle the reporters. When Osodi showed the police his press accreditation, they beat him with their fists and rifle butts, telling him it was in reprisal for the pictures journalists had taken.

According to the AP, police dragged Osodi away from the other reporters and beat him for several minutes. They then destroyed his camera and seized his other equipment. Before leaving, one of the officers told Osodi he was lucky they did not shoot him. The AP later filed a complaint with the Office of the President.

JULY 22, 2003

Ben Adaji, The News

Adaji, Taraba State correspondent for the Lagos-based weekly magazine The News, was arrested at the Government House, the executive office of the Taraba State government.

Adaji was among a number of journalists who had gone to the Government House to cover the state governor's meetings that day. According to Adaji, several police arrived at the house as the journalists were leaving the governor's office. Police Commissioner Nwachukwu Egbochukwu, who recognized Adaji, ordered his officers to arrest the journalist and take him to the police station, where he was detained for several hours.

Later in the day, officers took Adaji to court, where he was charged with defaming Egbochukwu in connection with a July 21 The News article that questioned Egbochukwu's support for Governor Jolly Nyame during the spring gubernatorial election campaign. Adaji was denied bail and was remanded to police custody after the court hearing.

According to journalists in Lagos, defamation is a civil offense under Nigerian law. Journalists said that the police chief was abusing his office by jailing Adaji in reprisal for the article. On July 24, Adaji was released on bail, but the case is still pending.

AUGUST 14, 2003

Haruna Acheneje, The Punch

The Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly attempted to expel Acheneje from the state, which is located on the country's southern coast. Acheneje is a correspondent based in Uyo, Akwa Ibom's capital, for the national daily The Punch.

On August 11, The Punch ran an article by Acheneje titled "Lawmakers protest non-payment of allowances." The article was based on a series of interviews Acheneje conducted with House of Assembly members. The next day, Acheneje received a letter signed by the speaker of the Hhouse asking him to appear before that body on August 14, according to Acheneje. Acheneje told CPJ that he replied to the letter in writing, requesting that the House contact his main office in Lagos. On August 14, the House of Assembly passed a resolution to expel Acheneje from the state. The journalist told CPJ that he learned of the resolution when it was broadcast on state radio. According to Acheneje and his colleagues at The Punch, the newspaper's Lagos office received a letter on August 15 stating that the journalist had seven days to leave Akwa Ibom.

On August 21, three men arrived at The Punch's Uyo office demanding to speak to Acheneje, according to the journalist and his colleagues at the newspaper. Acheneje's colleagues later told him that they could see pistols protruding from the men's back pockets. Acheneje's assistant told the men that he was not there, and when the men left the office, Acheneje called the police. The police provided Acheneje with an armed guard to accompany him during the day and patrol his house at night.

AUGUST 16, 2003

Lawson Heyford, The Source

Three police officers arrested Heyford, a senior editor at The Source magazine, in the southern city of Port Harcourt, where the journalist is based. Heyford was held overnight in a prison cell in Port Harcourt and then transferred to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) headquarters in Lagos, where he was detained until August 26 and released without charge.

According to local journalists, Heyford's arrest stemmed from an August 13 article he had written for The Source about a dispute between competing chieftains in Ataba, a village in southern Nigeria where he is from. In the article, Heyford accused Emmanuel Njah, a local government official, of causing a riot in Ataba by inciting one side of the dispute against the other. Njah subsequently ordered Heyford's arrest, local journalists said.

Heyford told CPJ that after his release from detention, he received three threatening phone calls in which the caller ordered him to stop writing about the conflict in Ataba.

AUGUST 19, 2003

Emma Nwatu, Minaj Systems Television

Michael Chika, Minaj Systems Television

A police superintendent ordered a group of young men to attack Nwatu, a reporter and editor for privately owned Minaj Systems Television (MST), in southeastern Nigeria's Anambra State. In early August, Nwatu had edited an MST report about a group of traffic-police officers led by superintendent Justina Achike who were allegedly extorting money from bus drivers, the journalist told CPJ. According to Nwatu, on August 12, a man entered the MST office in Anambra and confronted him, demanding that the station kill any story about Achike. The station ran the report anyway, broadcasting it on the radio on August 14 and on television on August 15.

On August 19, Nwatu was conducting interviews for a report on traffic conditions with MST cameraman Chika and reporter Cunde Chiazo when Achike approached the team and told them that, because of the MST report, she was going to kill Nwatu and his family, the reporter told CPJ. Then she ordered a group of young men to assault Nwatu. Two of the men seized Chika's camera and attacked Nwatu, beating him and severely injuring his jaw and neck.

The superintendent then took Nwatu to the police station, where he was held for several hours, the reporter said. The next day, the journalist went to the hospital, where he spent four days recuperating from his injuries. Nwatu told CPJ that he feared for his and his family's safety after the assault, and that he had filed a formal complaint with the Anambra police commissioner to try to protect himself against further attack.

NOVEMBER 24, 2003
Posted: January 29, 2004

Osa Director, Insider Weekly
Janet Mba-Afolabi, Insider Weekly
Chuks Onwudinjo, Insider Weekly

Director, editor-in-chief of the Lagos-based Insider Weekly magazine, and Mba-Afolabi and Onwudinjo, executive directors of the publication, were arrested by police and taken to a police station in Lagos.

The editors' arrests stemmed from an article that in the November 24 edition of the magazine alleging that top officials, including Vice President Atiku Abubakar and National Security Advisor Muhammed Gusau, were involved with criminal syndicates that steal oil in the southern Niger Delta Region.

All three were held until November 26, when they were brought before a court and charged with defamation and sedition. Local journalists were shocked at the sedition charge because they believed that Nigeria's sedition law, passed by the British colonial administration, had been expunged after independence in 1960. The journalists' lawyer, Festus Keyamo, told the U.N. Integrated Regional Information Networks news service that the courts had ruled that the sedition law is inconsistent with constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of expression. The journalists, who were released on bail, are being charged anyway. Their case is pending.

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