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Unlike Rest of Africa : Press Alive and Well in Nigeria

Times Staff Writer

The police moved in on a squat building along a deserted industrial street here one night this month, quietly sealing off the headquarters of Newswatch, one of Africa’s most independent and respected weekly news magazines.

A day later, Newswatch was shut down officially by government decree and its three top editors were charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. But that week’s edition was already on the street, unveiling the long-awaited secret report of a presidential task force charting Nigeria’s future.

Such drastic actions, or the ever-present threat of them, keeps the press cowed in most African countries. But the press in Nigeria, considered by far the freest on the continent, was emboldened by the recent confrontation.

“Government has . . . killed a fly with a sledgehammer,” the newspaper Vanguard complained in a front-page editorial expressing a popular sentiment.

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Refrain Joined

Lawyers, doctors, academics and labor leaders joined the refrain, using the pages of the country’s two dozen newspapers and three surviving weekly magazines to call the ban on Newswatch illegal, undemocratic, fascist and a blot on the country’s human rights record.

The heated reaction was clear evidence that despite the setback, Nigeria’s lively press is resilient. But the episode also pointed up the enduring hazards of publishing in Africa, where written guarantees of press freedom are usually undercut by unwritten rules about what types of news and comment pose a threat to the stability of a developing nation.

“Publishing in the Third World is like walking through a mine field while blindfolded,” Ray Ekpu, editor of Newswatch, said. “When government can act by whim, it becomes more difficult to know where to stop, to see the safe cut-off points.”

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Mugabe Angered

In Zimbabwe last week, for example, the editor of the Sunday Mail was suspended for reporting that Cuba had expelled some Zimbabwean students. The story angered Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, who was hosting Cuba’s foreign minister at the time. The previous editor of the paper, which is run by a state-owned trust and has the largest circulation in the country, was fired two years ago for not bowing to government pressure over editorial policy.

In most African countries, official, government-owned newspapers, magazines and wire services are the only outlets for news, and nearly all of the radio and television stations on the continent are controlled by governments.

A few countries, such as Senegal, Cameroon and Nigeria, have many independently owned newspapers competing with the government press. But private ownership in Africa rarely guarantees the freedom to criticize the sitting government. Self-censorship has become a way of life for most African journalists.

Kenya’s constitution, for example, promises freedom of expression. But any criticism of President Daniel Arap Moi is seen by the courts as a threat to the country’s stability. Although two of Kenya’s three daily newspapers are privately held, none carries articles or editorials critical of the president or the ruling party.

Remarkable Freedom

The press in Nigeria, by contrast, feeds on opinions, analysis and criticism--of the government and everything else. Its freedom is remarkable, considering that the country has been ruled by military governments for most of the past two decades.

One reason is that Nigerians demand an outlet for their opinions.

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“Nigerians like to be heard. We like people to know what we think,” said Sonala Olumhense, editor of This Week, Newswatch’s prime competitor. “That’s our nature, and I think even military men know that. Each time you try to suppress that, it opens up all sorts of problems.”

Nigeria’s 105 million people are a diverse, frequently contentious lot living on a half-arid, half-tropical chunk of West Africa about twice the size of California. As citizens of Africa’s most populous nation, they consider it their duty to ponder the day’s issues and speak their mind about every country in the world, including their own.

The papers carry “a lot of long-winded, anguished columns about what’s wrong with the Nigerian soul,” a Western diplomat in Lagos said recently. “The Nigerian spends a lot of time discussing why this is not the powerful and respected country in Africa it should be.”

23 Daily Newspapers

Nigeria has an array of 23 tabloid-sized daily newspapers, 29 weekly newspapers and 53 magazines, owned by the federal government, state governments, private investors and, in the case of Newswatch, by journalists themselves. Four of the larger daily newspapers are privately owned and have circulations ranging from 200,000 to 400,000.

Although reporters in Nigeria generally earn less than a low-level civil servant and have to work a lot harder, journalism is one of the most popular fields of study among college students. The University of Lagos had 1,500 applicants for 30 openings in its mass communications department this year, and professors say students see journalism as a high-status profession that has the added benefit of offering the opportunity to influence opinion.

When Newswatch was launched in December, 1984, by four veteran Nigerian journalists, Nigeria did not have a weekly news magazine. Newswatch spawned imitators, and now three other weekly news magazines compete for the national audience. They all circulate in Europe, the United States and other parts of Africa.

Temporary Lapse

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In a temporary lapse, press freedom in Nigeria virtually disappeared under the military regime that came to power in 1983. That government issued Decree No. 4, which prohibited reporting on government officials and effectively restricted any reporting on government activities.

But in 1985, a bloodless coup staged by Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida brought brighter days. Babangida immediately abolished the notorious decree and took steps that heartened journalists and human rights advocates.

In a move unheard of in Africa, Babangida opened up to public debate the question of whether Nigeria should enter an agreement with the International Monetary Fund. Then he announced a return to civilian rule by 1990 and appointed a task force of citizens, known as the “Political Bureau,” to talk to people across the country and recommend a new political agenda for Nigeria’s future.

Circulation Topped 100,000

Newswatch, meanwhile, had grown to a profitable publication with 130 employees and a circulation of more than 100,000 per week. It also had acquired a reputation for honesty and fairness, although some of its investigative articles did cause grumbles in the inner circles of government.

But then the mood changed. Newswatch Editor Dele Giwa was killed in October by a parcel bomb delivered by messenger to his apartment. A day before his death, the director of military intelligence called Giwa’s home and asked for the address and directions to it. Two days before his death, Giwa was interrogated by the state security service and accused of antigoverment activity.

The directors of the intelligence services have denied involvement in the murder, no one has been charged, and police investigators have not publicly indicated any progress in the case.

Ekpu, Giwa’s friend, colleague and next-door neighbor, became editor of the magazine.

Newswatch clashed with the government again when its April 13 issue printed a detailed analysis of the conclusions reached by the Political Bureau after a year of mostly secret deliberations. The panel had suggested, among other things, that Nigeria adopt a presidential system with two parties and a more socialist-oriented economy. It also recommended that six new states be carved out of the 19-state nation, a highly volatile issue here.

Sold 20 Times Cover Price

The magazine devoted most of its 38-page issue to the report, with Ray Ekpu promising in an editor’s note that it would be a collector’s item for all Nigerians interested in the country’s future. Indeed, within a few days, it was selling on the streets for 20 times its 75-cent cover price. But not for the reasons that Ekpu had mentioned.

In banning Newswatch, the government said that publication of confidential proposals on sensitive issues “can be explosive and pose a threat to the stability of the nation.” Officials said they had warned the magazine’s editors that the government would be angry if the Political Bureau’s findings were made public before the government had a chance to study the report.

“We thought, going by past experience, that it was possible to publish this and there would not be too much headache,” said Ekpu, who is free on bond. “You work by a rule of thumb in deciding how far to go. Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you don’t.”

The Political Bureau report was officially secret, under the Official Secrets Act of 1964. But the definition of official secrets is especially broad here. Invitations to parties from government officials have been known to arrive with a “secret” stamp. Government news releases are frequently labeled as secret at the top, but with the urging “Please give this the widest possible publicity” at the bottom.

Journalists Can’t Agree

Even journalists have been unable to agree about whether Newswatch did the right thing. Few argue with the government’s right to take Ekpu and his colleagues to court under the Official Secrets Act of 1964. But most agree that banning Newswatch without a court hearing was an overreaction.

“You don’t attack a mosquito with a pile driver,” said Tunde Thompson, managing editor of the Guardian newspaper. Thompson himself was jailed for a year in 1984 under Decree 4 after writing about government officials being considered for ambassadorships.

This time, however, Babangida’s military government backed down slightly after a week of listening to the harangue. It announced that Newswatch will be allowed to return to the streets after six months.

Ekpu said the ban, as well as the charges against him, was “a serious blow to investigative journalism here. It is a warning that it can be done, that government can use a big whip and that everybody better behave themselves.”

Limit on Freedom

The government seemed to be saying, “ ‘Don’t flaunt your freedom at us. We’re not going to let you be so free as to bring the government down,’ ” a Western observer here said.

Olumhense, editor of This Week, sees the Newswatch ban as a sign of changes in Babangida’s military regime. A year ago, he said, the government wanted a free press to keep track of what people were thinking; now that it has the support of the people, it may feel it no longer needs the press to test the public mood any more.

“Administrations come and go, but the people and the press are continuous,” Olumhense said, “and the government does not always see Nigeria the way we see it.”

Tony Momoh, Nigeria’s information minister and a former journalist, says the government’s action against Newswatch was an isolated incident that does not hamper freedom of the press, as long as the press acts responsibly and within the law.

“We see press freedom within the system,” Momoh said. “Journalism which is ignorant of the law is not journalism.”

Journalistic Responsibility

Many journalists here agree that they have a responsibility to promote national development.

“It is best for journalists to act in the best interests of their country,” said Idowu Sobowale, head of the mass communications department at the University of Lagos.

A reporter at an independent newspaper in Lagos puts it this way: “Our press cannot afford to be as free as the press in America.”

The problem in developing countries is that editors and government officials rarely agree about what type of journalism promotes development and what hinders it.

“The process of nation-building is a very delicate one for journalists in the Third World,” Thompson, of the Guardian, said. “A newspaper that wants to contribute positively to building a nation cannot help but give offense to some people.”

Ekpu said Newswatch published the Political Bureau’s conclusion “to open up the debate on Nigeria’s future.” But some journalists in Lagos suspect Newswatch got carried away with its desire to scoop its competitors.

‘Wants to Get There First’

“Newswatch is my idea of an enterprising magazine that wants to get there first with the best,” Thompson said, “but if you want to go to the moon, though, you’d better be sure you have a landing pad.”

Setting competitive urges aside, two of Nigeria’s weekly magazines made the banning of Newswatch their cover stories a week later. This Week carried the headline “Clampdown,” with a photograph of the special edition of Newswatch being ripped apart. An editorial called Newswatch a national legacy and suggested that the “quasi-democratic era of unhindered self-expression . . . may now be over.”

Even Ekpu had to admire the initiative of his competitors.

“You cannot put out the fire that is burning within the press of Nigeria just by closing down one publication,” he said.


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