Freedom of the Press
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The year 2007 was marked by state harassment of the private media in advance of the April presidential elections, in which the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, was elected to replace Olusegun Obasanjo. Following the elections, state harassment of the media appeared to decrease.
Although the 1999 constitution guarantees freedom of expression, of the press, and of assembly, the state often uses arbitrary actions and extralegal measures to suppress political criticism and expression in the media, and a culture of impunity for crimes against the media persists. Libel remains a criminal offense, and under Nigerian law the burden of proof still rests with the defendant. Criminal prosecution also continues to be used against journalists covering sensitive issues such as official corruption, separatist movements, and communal violence. In addition, Sharia (Islamic law) in place in 12 northern states imposes severe penalties for alleged press offenses. Despite the recent passage of a freedom of information bill by both houses of the National Assembly—which, among other provisions, would criminalize the destruction or falsification of any official record by any officer, government administrator, or public institution—Obasanjo failed to sign the bill into law prior to leaving office in May. The bill was resubmitted under the new administration and had been presented to both the House and the Senate by year’s end. Under the current legal framework, access to information remains limited, with laws—such as the 1962 Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Law—restricting public access to government-held information.
Prior to the April presidential elections, various security agencies, particularly the State Security Service (SSS), an elite corps under the president’s direct charge, continued to use arbitrary detention and extrajudicial measures in attempts to muffle political activism and restrict press coverage critical of former president Obasanjo and the ruling PDP. No SSS member has ever been prosecuted or sanctioned in any way for violence against journalists. On January 9, SSS agents raided the offices of the daily Leadership and detained several staff members following a story alleging that Obasanjo forced fellow PDP candidate Peter Odili out of the party’s primary elections. The following day, agents raided the offices of the Abuja Inquirer and detained publisher Dan Akpovwa and editor Sode Abbah for over a day following a story about the possibility of a military coup due to hostility between Obasanjo and his former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who was also campaigning for the presidency. In another incident in April, security forces raided the transmission studio of the private African Independent Television station, preventing the broadcasting of a documentary critical of Obasanjo and the PDP. Authorities also shut down an affiliated radio station, Ray Power FM, for one hour. At the time of the incident, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the body that monitors the broadcast media, threatened the station with sanctions if it aired the program in the future. Intimidation, including use of the SSS, continued under Yar’Adua’s administration, albeit at a lower level than during the preelection period. On June 27, a group of armed men, including two police officers, raided the printing office of the private Uyo-based weekly Events and reportedly seized several thousand copies of the paper in response to an article on an alleged indictment against the state governor on corruption charges. On October 10, SSS agents arrested Jerome Imeime, editor of Events, on sedition charges owing to critical stories about the state governor. Although Imeime was released after three weeks, the Committee to Protect Journalists noted that these were the first such charges imposed since June 2006.
Violence against journalists remains a common occurrence; however, it is more often a result of the violent environments in which journalists report than a response to the particular content of their writing. In May, over 100 armed supporters of local politicians raided the Oyo state broadcasting office and stole equipment, causing injuries to a number of employees and interrupting service; the perpetrators had not been identified by the end of the year. Journalists have also come under attack in the Niger Delta region, where control over oil revenues has sparked conflict among various armed groups. Armed men raided the offices of the Port Harcourt papers Punch in June and National Point in July, allegedly attempting to rob or abduct staff members. Unlike in 2006, no journalists were killed during the year. However, the December 2006 murder in Lagos of Godwin Agbroko, editorial board chairman of the private daily ThisDay, remained unsolved at year’s end. International journalists were generally able to operate throughout Nigeria but also faced difficulties in the Niger Delta region. Two German documentary filmmakers were arrested in September, detained for two weeks, and charged with breaching Nigeria’s Official Secrets Act by taking photographs and videos of the region’s oil facilities.
There are more than 100 national and local publications, the most influential of which are privately owned. The press is vibrant and vocal against unpopular state policies and was particularly critical in covering Obasanjo’s third-term ambitions and during the run-up to the April election. The broadcast industry has been liberalized since 1992, and by 2006, about 300 licenses had been granted by the NBC, although most licensees continue to experience financial difficulties, limiting their viability. Radio tends to be the main source of information for Nigerians, while television is used mostly in urban areas and by the affluent. Private television stations are restricted by the requirement that 60 percent of their programming be made locally. Foreign broadcasters, particularly the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation, are important sources of news in the country. Over eight million Nigerians—or six percent of the population—reportedly had access to the internet in 2007. There are no reports that the government restricted access to the internet or monitored e-mail, although online news sites critical of the government have occasionally experienced disruptions, possibly because of authorities’ attempts to impair service.