Babangida fails to silence the press

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The Independent Online
GENERAL Ibrahim Babangida's eight-year-old military government has used threats, bannings and detention orders for offending editors to tame the fourth estate, but nothing seems to work.

'There is a feeling of a manifest destiny, and that freedom of the press will always triumph,' said Sully Abu, chief editor of the respected weekly magazine the African Guardian. 'The press believes that no matter what happens, one day it will see the back of the Babangida regime.'

Five media houses were closed on 23 July, including Concord press, owned by Chief Moshood Abiola, winner of the aborted 12 June elections. The Information Secretary, Uche Chukwumerije, said the government was forced to act to stem 'excesses' by the media 'against the higher interest of the state'.

Two weekly magazines, Tell and Tempo, have defied the military by moving their publishing operations underground. The editors of Tempo, formerly known as the News before it was proscribed in late May, have been on the run for the past month after police orders were issued for their arrest.

'We defied their occupation, and we literally moved our operations into the field and started publishing,' said Bayo Onanuga, editor of the News and now Tempo. 'They have made us very defiant of them. If tomorrow they ban Tempo, there are so many names, so many titles, we will come out under another title.'

Harnessing the Nigerian press would be a daunting task at the best of times. With 35 daily papers, half of them owned by the federal or state governments, and 19 weekly magazines, all but two in private hands, the industry defies simple control.

Only the broadcast medium is tame. Until now, all civilian and military governments have continued the British colonial tradition of maintaining a tight rein on radio and television by allowing no private ownership. Gen Babangida has set up a commission to determine which private broadcasters deserve licences, but so far it has granted none.

Many Nigerian journalists feel the media are not doing enough, however, with proprietors too vulnerable to government pressure tactics, such as the withdrawal of advertising. 'You usually find the publishers so easy to buy,' said Ndaeyo Uko, formerly an editor with the government-owned Daily Times, who was sacked last year. 'You will not find many editors who will say, 'To hell with it, I will publish what I think.' '

Others criticise the media, largely based in Lagos, the country's commercial centre, for championing the cause of the south and reflecting bias against the north. But few doubt they have played a key role in checking abuses by the governments of the day.