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
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
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. …