- Observers talk about a "crackdown on freedom of expression in the country." In contemporary Nigeria, one journalist has just been beaten and threatened while three others have been "arrested and charged with sedition and defamation of character."
The Media Foundation of West Africa (MFWA) is currently issuing more and more alerts on press freedom violations in Nigeria. Only last week, three senior editors of the 'Insider Weekly' magazine were arrested and detained by police authorities in Lagos.
They were accused of "sedition" and "criminal defamation", in connection with a story published in the 24 November edition of the magazine, where they allegedly conspired to publish seditious information against Vice President Abubakar Atiku and General Aliyu Muhammed Gusau, National Security Advisor to President Olusegun Obasanjo, thereby committing criminal defamation. Criminal defamation is punishable by imprisonment.
The increasing number of MFWA alerts is mirrored by a new report by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, presented today. The 40-page report, 'Nigeria: Renewed Crackdown on Freedom of Expression,' documents killings, arrest, detention, ill-treatment, torture and other forms of harassment and intimidation of real or perceived critics of the government over the past two years.
Most of these abuses have been carried out by the Nigerian police or by members of the intelligence services known as the State Security Service (SSS), according to the new report.
- Commonwealth leaders meeting in Abuja should not give Nigeria a free pass on human rights, commented Peter Takirambudde of Human Rights Watch. "Even though military rule has ended, Nigerians still cannot express themselves freely without fear of grave consequences," he added.
The US group found that brutal measures had been used to repress critical expression. "In the most serious cases, people have been shot dead simply for exercising their right to protest," the investigators found.
During massive public protests in July at an increase in the price of fuel, between 12 and 20 people were shot dead by the police in Lagos, in the oil city of Port Harcourt, and on the outskirts of Abuja. The victims had included peaceful protestors and passers-by who were not even involved in the protests.
The report also contains the testimonies of individuals who were among a group of around 30 people arrested after staging a peaceful protest outside the US embassy in Abuja against US President George W. Bush's visit to Nigeria in July. They told they had been detained for two weeks and several claimed they were "tortured on direct instructions from the highest levels of the police force."
- President Obasanjo's promises of democracy mean little as long as people are being detained, tortured and shot simply for expressing views critical of the government, commented Mr Takirambudde. "No one has been brought to justice for these acts," he added.
The human rights activist dared the Commonwealth Heads of Government, who are to meet in Abuja 5-8 December, to address these violations. "Foreign governments remained virtually silent about election violence in Nigeria, yet abuses during the Zimbabwe elections provoked widespread condemnation," said Mr Takirambudde.
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