Nigerian Press under Fire from Military Leaders Routinely, Newspapers Are Closed and Journalists Imprisoned

Article excerpt

For much of the world, last November's execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian writer and minority-rights activist, was a jarring wake-up call. With the exception of Nigerians and a handful of people abroad who had bothered to follow events in Africa's most populous country, few saw it coming.

The hanging of Saro-Wiwa and eight others, which followed an unfair murder trial, drew universal condemnation. It also managed to attract international attention to the excesses of Nigeria's current bunch of military rulers -- the very attention Saro-Wiwa and many other human rights campaigners had been striving to attract for almost 10 years.

But for now, much less is being said about the military regime's determined attempt to destroy Nigeria's feisty independent press. It would be a tragedy if the outside world were to wait to hear of hangings of editors and reporters before taking a resolute stand in support of journalists in Nigeria.

The Nigerian press once had a well-deserved reputation as Africa's freest and boldest. Some of the boldness is still there, but the freedom is all but gone. Too bad, because in a proud history that has spanned 137 years, the press in Nigeria has been at the center of the nation's life, through war and peace, joy and sorrow.

The Nigerian press has survived harrowing economic downturns, closures, arrests, and state-sponsored murder. It has also survived harsh military decrees in a nation that has been ruled by soldiers for 26 of its 36 years since independence. But now it is fighting for its life. For the independent press in Nigeria, the period since Gen. Sani Abacha seized power in November 1993 has been the worst since the nation's first newspaper was published in 1859. (Nigeria's military strongmen have no problems with the many government-owned media; these say only what the government wants to hear.)

Unfettered press? Not true

Looking at the newsstands, a visitor to Nigeria might assume the press is unfettered. That's because newspapers and magazines that refuse to trumpet the official line are available. But what's not seen are the daily risks Nigerian journalists take to produce such stories and the sacrifices they make.

Nigeria's military rulers point to the very existence of some independent publications as "evidence" that the Nigerian press is free. What they never tell the world is that many of the journalists working for these publications are under constant surveillance by government security agents. They never talk about the editors they have jailed, nor the reporters and photographers that police have beaten up on the job.

They never mention their list of "troublesome journalists," who are not allowed to travel abroad because when they do, these journalists tend to give their foreign colleagues firsthand accounts of their plight. …

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