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Nigeria: media repression as security forces clamp down on 'guerrilla news agencies'

On 19 October, Nigerian blogger and journalist Jonathan Elendu of Elendu Reports, was arrested by the Nigerian State Security Services (SSS) upon his arrival at Abuja airport. It was some days before that the SSS announced Elendu had been charged first with money laundering then sedition and one report claimed he was also charged with ‘sponsoring a guerilla news agency’. The charges relate to his supposed involvement with the online news site Sahara Reporters which – together with Elendu Reports – is highly critical of President Umaru Yar’Adua and the Nigerian Government in general – particularly their actions in the Niger Delta. Sahara Reporters had recently published photos of Yar’Adua’s son wielding a machine gun and playing with bundles of naira. One report claimed the charges were a ruse to cover the real reason behind Elendu’s detention which is that he had discovered information that could be used against top politicians.

However Sahara Reporters have strongly denied any connection with Elendu. Nigerian blogger Solomon Sydelle of the Nigerian Curiosity blog (who was in touch with a member of Elendu’s family) announced on Tuesday that he had likely been detained in order to disclose the sources of several embarrassing news reports he published on prominent political leaders in Nigeria and that Elendu is currently on hunger strike because he is afraid that he will be poisoned in jail. Human Rights Writers Association of Nigerian (HURIWA)’s National Coordinator, Mr Onwubike, said that Elendu: ‘was also being reportedly pressured into framing up some others.’

The news came in late on Thursday 29 October, that Elendu had been released and was receiving medical treatment. These are the known facts around his detention and whilst it is excellent news for him and his family, the actions of the SSS and the Nigerian government are not the actions one would expect or hope from a so-called democracy.

Jonathan Elendu was released from custody yesterday, it is presumed that a number of restrictions have been placed on his release. Nigerian Curiosity explains this further…

Unfortunately, although he is now receiving medical attention, Elendu is not actually free. His passport was not returned to him and therefore he is not free to return to his family in Michigan. Although he is no longer in detention, Elendu remains detained in Nigeria by the Nigerian government because without his travel documents, he does not have the right to leave Nigeria and return home.

Elendu’s detention needs to be seen in the context of a history of constant harassment of Nigerian and foreign journalists dating back to the military regimes that governed the country from the civil war period until 1997 and through the two post-military regimes of Obasanjo and now Yar’Adua.

A number of comments by bloggers and readers have described the arrest as a regression back to those ugly military days but if one scrapes the surface a clear pattern and culture of media repression and torture emerges throughout the post Abacha civilian period. As one blogger mentioned recently in respect of the closure of independent television channel Channels TV, ‘our memories soon fade’. What should have been a warning on censorship was, to a large extent, seen as an isolated case. Definitely the outrage at media censorship from the blogoshere was nothing like with the case of Elendu. Possibly this was due to the fact Channels TV may have made an error which is no small matter but it certainly does not warrant their closure nor the draconian tactics displayed by the ominously named SSS.

To return to the culture of media repression in Nigeria, a brief look at a 2004 report by the International Press Institute (IPI) shows an alarming number of suspensions and arrests of Nigerian journalists.

As conflict broke out in several areas of the country, violations against press freedom in Nigeria were increasingly prevalent this year with journalists being suspended, assaulted, threatened, arrested and deported by aggressive police and security forces. The escalation of politically motivated violence against journalists was representative of the instability that spread throughout the country.

Looking at the reasons behind the harassment and detention of journalists it is clear that their ‘crimes’ were reporting the truth such as election-rigging, strikes, political disputes between the President and other members of government, or as in the case of Gbenga Faturoti of the Daily Independent, beaten almost unconscious for failing to turn off his mobile phone whilst in the Osun State Assembly. Altogether 21 journalists were victims of either the police or SSS in 2004 – arrested, beaten, threatened, and detained. Most were tortured. All were released without charge after a period of 24 hours to one week. In addition two radio stations in Anambra State were vandalized, staff beaten-up. The offices of Insider Weekly and Global Star were also raided and staff arrested.

A common factor behind all of the above is the lack of accountability for the actions by the security forces and by implication the State and Federal government including the then president, Obasanjo. The failure of the national media to report the kidnapping of Jonathan Elendu is proof of how intimidated the Nigerian press is. However I don’t believe this is an excuse especially since the Nigerian press itself refuses to acknowledge that its freedoms are being seriously curtailed. In that sense, the Nigerian media have in the past and at present colluded with the state in their own oppression by not only failing to speak in defence of their fellow journalists, but possibly worse – presenting the illusion of a ‘free press’. With the rise of sites such as Nigerian Village Square and Sahara Reporters as well as the growing number of Nigerian bloggers writing from the diaspora, it has become increasingly more difficult to keep up the pretense of a free press. Whilst the new online media and bloggers are prepared to take on the government, albeit from afar and in most cases anonymously, this does not excuse the failure of traditional media to challenge the government on freedom of speech, through the media itself or through the courts.

A recent report by Amnesty International on the state of Nigerian Prisons and statements made by members of Nigeria’s Civil Liberties Organization exposes the squalid, inhumane and unjust treatment of prisoners and police detainees in Nigeria. Jonathan Elendu would have been subjected to these conditions and reports of him being tortured are not surprising. After all, you can be dragged out of your car or bus and beaten senseless by the police at any time so why not carry out torture knowing full well that you act with impunity? See also the Report by the 2008 UN Special Rapporteur on Torture on Nigeria which states ‘there were reports that security forces beat journalists during the year’ and… ‘torture was endemic in law enforcement operations, including police custody, and was often used to extract alleged confessions of guilt.’ According to this report, the methods of torture included flogging with whips; beating with batons and machetes; shooting a suspect in the foot; threatening a suspect with death and then shooting him with powder cartridges; suspension from the ceiling; and denying food, water, and medical treatment.

There were credible reports during the year that security forces committed rape and other forms of sexual violence on women and girls with impunity. Police officials acknowledged that rape was a problem. Amnesty International reported that women were frequently raped while in detention but did not report the abuse because of the social stigma attached to rape and the fact that police officers were the perpetrators. On 10 December, the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria said it had monitored 400 police stations in 13 states for a year and found that killings, torture, extortion, and rape had become routine because the authorities shielded police officers from the law.

The kidnapping of Jonathan Elendu has brought to centre stage the issue of human rights in Nigeria. If the belief in those rights include everyone irrespective of their difference, then something positive will have been gained from this experience. Comments such as this one implying that the Nigerian media had decided the story was ‘not worth the ink and paper’ and that there might ‘possibly be some credit to their (SSS) approach’ and that ‘they could be right’, are particularly disturbing.

It is this kind of nonchalant attitude by the mainstream Nigerian media that is the reason why Nigerians are so dismissive and lame when it comes to making any real challenge to the existing power structure in the country or creating a meaningful opposition to the abuse of human rights. Human rights are not exclusive. Just as the rights of gays and lesbians are refused and ridiculed in Nigerian society and legislation, so too will the rights of journalists and everyone else be. A country that does not respect the rights of one group will not respect the rights of others. You may think you are safe because you are not a journalist or a gay man but one day they will come for you too. We need to wake up. If one good thing comes out of this campaign it will be that Nigerian bloggers and their readers respect the notion of human rights for all people irrespective of their personal feelings.


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