Is freedom of the press being eroded in Nigeria?

Nigerian leader Olusegun Obasanjo once had a notice posted at the gate of his farm and presidential retreat: “No dogs and journalists allowed.”

Obasanjo saw it as a joking reference to what he considered unfair criticism from the press. The sign is gone, but tensions between the president and the press linger, and, with elections imminent, local and international human rights activists fear an onslaught on the press reminiscent of the dark days of military rule in Nigeria.

Obasanjo, who stepped down as a military leader in the late 1970s and re-emerged as an elected president in 1999, denies he opposes freedom of expression and of the press.

“I believe that I am one of the most tolerant presidents in the world,” he told the Associated Press last month. “I believe responsible journalism has an important role to play in democracy and in any civilised society.”

But he went on to criticise journalists who “fabricate” and said he will sue any who defames him.

In recent weeks, two Nigerian journalists have been arrested on sedition charges: Rotimi Durojaiye, an aviation reporter for the local Daily Independent and Gbenga Aruleba, host of a political talk show on an independent TV station.

On June 12, Durojaiye had written a report for his newspaper questioning the true age and cost of a purportedly new jet recently acquired for the presidential fleet. The next day, Aruleba made comments on the same issue on air.

Bukhari Bello, head of the National Human Rights Commission—the official rights monitor—was relieved of his position after he criticised the arrests.

“What we have here is a president trying to clamp down on the media and those who oppose him,” said Clement Nwankwo, a human rights lawyer. “The hope is to teach the media a lesson.”

A strong campaign by Obasanjo’s supporters to give him an extra term in office after the two allowed by the Constitution had met strong opposition in the mass media. The proposal to amend the Constitution was defeated in Parliament in May.

Days before the Bill was defeated, secret police raided the offices of private station AIT to confiscate the tape of a documentary tracing previous, failed attempts by Nigerian rulers to extend their rule.

The private station said it also received telephone threats over its live transmission of the constitutional debate in Parliament, perceived as going against the president.

As military ruler Obasanjo had banned a news magazine that had criticised him, and his soldiers had burned the house of famous Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti weeks after he released a song, Zombie, ridiculing the military.

Under the military rulers who followed Obasanjo, reporters were jailed for reports that embarrassed the military rulers, and a prominent journalist was killed by a parcel bomb days after secret police accused him of undermining the government.

Nothing comparable has happened since Obasanjo’s election as civilian president in 1999 ended more than 15 years of military rule and restored relative freedom under constitutional government.

But human rights activists fear the government is set to erode these freedoms again.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it has documented “an increase in harassment of the media in the run-up to the 2007 presidential elections,” with the main culprits state security agents who report directly to the president’s office.

Questions have been raised about the decision to use the sedition charge against journalists. The sedition charge dates from British colonial law, which was ruled by the Court of Appeal 23 years ago to be incompatible with the Nigerian Constitution.

Nwankwo, the human rights lawyer, said prosecutors probably do not expect to be able to use the law successfully, but are pursuing the case “just to keep up the pressure on the media”.—Sapa-AP



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