Nigeria's junta keeps press on the run

Battle for democracy: 'Guerrilla journalists' are fighting to keep the dream of free expression alive

DAVID ORR

Lagos

Sitting behind his desk in shorts, sandals and red sports shirt, Babafemi Ojudy hardly fits the image of a newspaper executive. Which is precisely the point, for Mr Ojudy, editor of AM News, is on the run.

He lives out of a suitcase in his car, moving from house to house, only occasionally seeing his family. His visit to his Lagos office the other day was his first in more than two months. Just over two months ago he was arrested and held for 10 days without charge. During that time he says he was beaten, denied regular food and, despite a medical condition, locked in an airless cell.

A number of his colleagues have been forced underground by death threats. Most of the reporters keep away from the office. The paper is printed at a secret location in the outskirts of Lagos. Every day AM News carries in a box beside its masthead the names of five journalists held in detention. Four are believed to have received life sentences for articles considered seditious by the government.

"I feel my life is in danger," Mr Ojudy, who is in his thirties says. "My family wants me to quit, but I intend to carry on."

Mr Ojudy is one of a number of practitioners of a brand of "guerrilla journalism" which has evolved in response to the military regimes which have ruled Nigeria for most of the past 12 years. No sooner is one title shut down than another one is launched, often with the same journalists.

AM News is among a range of independent publications openly critical of the military government of General Sani Abacha, who seized power following an annulled presidential election in 1993, after which democratic institutions were dismantled.

In the past 22 months numerous critics of the regime - opposition politicians, civil rights activists as well as journalists - have been detained.

With a few exceptions, Nigeria's tabloid titles are published in the south which believes it is victimised, for ethnic reasons, by the northern establishment.

In recent weeks the press has been filled with speculation about General Abacha's programme for return to civil rule, due to be announced tomorrow. The expectations of most journalists are not high. A lengthy transition period is expected.

Nigeria has one of the oldest and most vigorous histories of newspaper publishing in Africa. Iwe Irohin, launched by an Anglican missionary in 1859, was not only Nigeria's first newspaper but also the first paper on the continent published in an indigenous language. The lack of tolerance which it met foreshadowed the fate of many of its 20th-century successors. Eight years after its establishment, Iwe Irohin was burned down by rioters.

"Journalism here is a dangerous game," Nduka Odaigbena, editor of This Day, said. Like many of his colleagues, he has been detained by the authorities. "Every week my reporters are being threatened and told we'll be shut down."

Although laws exist to regulate the practice of journalism, the military government rarely seeks recourse to them, preferring to rule by edicts. In the words of one report put out by the Lagos-based Constitutional Rights Project: "Media houses and journalists accused of publishing 'offending' stories and articles are faced with arbitrary sanctions ranging from unauthorised search to outright closure of media houses and the arrest, interrogation and detention of the journalists involved."

Three groups of newspaper titles were shut down last year: Concord, Punch and the Guardian. In all, a dozen publications were suspended. The Abacha regime maintains a strict silence on most matters of government. General Abacha has never held a news conference and has granted only one known interview, to CNN, on the basis of a pre-submitted list of questions.

As they are denied government press statements, journalists are forced to rely on rumours and leaks. Some editors believe their publications were used to plant false information to give a pretext for the arrest of 40 alleged coup plotters earlier this year, 14 of whom are believed to have received death sentences.

"This is the darkest hour for journalism since independence," according to Nsikak Essien, editor of National Concord, now working as a freelance journalist under an assumed name. "Even in colonial times no papers were shut down by the authorities."

The Concord group was owned by the millionaire businessman Moshood Abiola, who is generally accepted to have been the winner of the annulled 1993 presidential election. Chief Abiola subsequently declared himself president and was arrested last year. He is still in detention.

One hopeful beacon is the Guardian, which is due to hit the streets again tomorrow following a year's ban. Launched in 1983, it has long been regarded as one of the best newspapers in Africa. No official reason was given for its closure and its publisher, a government minister, was sacked from office soon afterwards.

"We are happy to be coming out again," the editor, Emeka Ezeze, said. "But there is no evidence that the government has become more tolerant. We could be shut down again next week."

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