Outrage Over Clampdown On Newspapers
'FG Is Chasing Shadows'
Action Will Continue Until 'Satisfied', Says Defense Hqrs
Presidency Denies Suppression Of Media
THE Defence Headquarters Saturday battled to explain its reasons for clamping down on newspaper distribution vans, even as the action intensified.
Unlike Friday when about three papers were restricted from circulating, all newspapers leaving Abuja were confined to the vendors' village, Area 1.
A military official said the action would continue until Defence Headquarters was satisfied. He was, however, unwilling to explain what he meant.
As early as 4am Saturday, heavily armed solders in five Toyota vehicles took position at the Area 1 circulation point where newspaper distributors, vendors, and representatives gather to offload, load, and coordinate the day's sales. They stopped all vehicles from moving out with newspapers.
Also present was the bomb disposal unit of the military. All vehicles, including private cars, were thoroughly searched by the combined team of soldiers and the anti-bomb squad. Each driver was ordered to open the bonnet and boot for scanning. Parts of the interior of each vehicle were subjected to rigorous search. Bundles of newspapers already loaded into such vehicles had to be offloaded.
The team of vendors, distribution officials and representatives of various newspaper and magazine houses were ordered to line up in a single file and were thoroughly frisked.
As at 11am, no newspaper-laden vehicle had been allowed out of the arena.
Eventually, private cars were allowed to drive out, but only after the security officials had confirmed that no page of newspaper was in such vehicles.
None of the security personnel was willing to speak on the action. Heavy silence descended on the vendors' village. Nobody had an answer as to what was next. The soldiers and the anti-bomb squad completed their search and remained in their positions, as though daring any of the branded distribution vehicles to move a step. The vendors, distribution officials and representatives were on the other side, frantically making calls to their offices and superiors.
The waiting game soon gave way to a brief reprieve. Around 9am, a senior military officer who did not introduce himself addressed the newspaper officials. He explained the reason behind the action. But he craved understanding, saying the action stemmed from insecurity in the country.
According to him, security officials on stop-and-search mission in Jos recently stopped a vehicle, which bore the name of a prominent Christian denomination, and that a search of its haul uncovered heavy arms and ammunition.
He said another vehicle bearing the name of yet another denomination was impounded in Plateau State, after a routine search revealed it contained arms and ammunition.
He explained how Boko Haram insurgents allegedly use ambulances and harmless looking vehicles to move weapons around.
'We also intercepted a Pure Water delivery van around Orange Market, Mararaba, and when we searched it, we found arms. These people even go to the extent of using ambulances to convey arms,' he said.
He thereafter instructed the distributors and vendors' associations to immediately commence the process of issuing uniform identity cards to all their members, as those without such cards would be arrested. This, he said, would enable security personnel identify true newspapermen from among insurgents using related vehicles for operations.
The official later left and promised to release the vehicles to continue with their businesses if he received 'instructions from headquarters.'
But left a stern message, however, that the exercise would continue, until they are 'satisfied'.
By 10.30am, a one-star general drove in to the area with a team of escorts, looked around the environment, spoke to one or two solders, rushed back into his vehicle and was driven off.
But in an earlier statement on Friday, the Director Defence Information, Chris Olukolade said: 'The Defence Headquarters wishes to clarify that the exercise has nothing to do with content or operation of the media organizations or their personnel, as is being wrongly imputed by a section of the press.'
The Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN) has, however, reacted to 'the harassment of newspaper vendors/distributors and the seizure of large volumes of newspapers by soldiers who initially targeted the following newspapers: LEADERSHIP, DAILY TRUST, The NATION and PUNCH, but later extended the siege to all major newspapers in the country for the second day.'
In a statement after its emergency meeting with representatives of vendors and distributors in Abuja, yesterday, NPAN resolved as follows: 'The NPAN unequivocally condemns this attack of FREE SPEECH by soldiers, in Abuja, Kaduna, Kano, Jos, Maiduguri, Ibadan among other cities, claiming to be acting on 'orders'. This assault on FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION through the stoppage of distribution of newspapers is inconsistent with the values of any democratic society and the Constitution of The Federal Republic of Nigeria. We therefore call upon the military authorities to lift the siege immediately and call the soldiers to order.
'The NPAN notes the statement issued on Thursday, June 6, by the Director Defence Information, Major General Chris Olukolade, that newspaper distribution channels may have been infiltrated by some persons to transport 'materials with grave security implications.' As citizens and businesses, we take the security of our nation very seriously, and especially condemn the continuing daily destruction of human life by a mindless, cruel and criminal insurgency. We have, at our own instance, engaged various security agencies in the past to find ways of dealing with the security challenges we all face. We shall continue to do so.
'It is, however, deeply troubling that a siege has been laid to the media for two straight days on a suspicion over which no one consulted the NPAN. We stand ready, able and willing to work with all relevant security agencies to ensure the integrity of the newspapers' distribution process.
'The NPAN wishes to reassure its readers, partners and the public at large, that it will continue to work to promote peace and unity in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, while defending its constitutional role to hold governments at all levels accountable.
'Finally, we do not believe that given the already tense situation in the country the government or any agency acting in its name, will engage in acts that can only stifle free speech and encourage rumours to fester. We, therefore, welcome the assurances to NPAN leadership by senior security officials to end this unnecessary siege.'
The Presidency yesterday, denied it ordered a clampdown on media houses because of the security situation in the country.
Addressing a press briefing in Abuja, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs, Dr. Doyin Okupe, explained: 'If the collective security of Nigerians is at risk, those in charge of security must do something, even if we are all at pains at the moment.'
He said: 'The attention of the Presidency has been drawn to stories in some major newspapers today (Saturday June 7, 2014) to the effect that the Federal Government has ordered a clampdown on media houses as a result of some isolated incidents of security checks reportedly carried out on some newspaper delivery vans in the last few days.
'The news publications suggested that President Jonathan might have ordered that the media be suppressed and prevented from carrying out their constitutionally guaranteed responsibilities of holding government accountable to the people.
'We wish to state categorically that these reports are untrue, unfair and totally not in consonance with the posture of Mr. President on issues concerning Press freedom.
'The Media, as the fourth estate of the realm, is held in very high regards by the President, and this has been practically demonstrated in various ways by this administration in the last three years.
'While we sympathize with media houses, which might have suffered one discomfort or the other as a result of these security checks, we assert, for the avoidance of doubt that the President has not and will never give any order capable of hampering the smooth running of any media organization or harass media practitioners in the lawful performance of their duties.
'This government will neither engage in nor encourage any acts that will constitute an assault on any media organization or infringe on the freedom of the Press.
'We have received assurances from the military that no personal liberties of media practitioners or their employees will be unlawfully tampered with and that as soon as there is significant reduction in the level of the security alert, the ongoing exercise will be relaxed.'
Reacting, the International Press Centre (IPC) stated that the forceful stoppage of the circulation of some national newspapers is unprecedented, especially since the advent of the current civil dispensation, the Media Right Agenda (MRA) said it is shocking that rather than address security challenges, the Federal Government is chasing shadows by unleashing the military and security agencies on the media.
In a statement, the Director of IPC, Mr. Lanre Arogundade, said the excuse by the military could not negate the fact that the massive operation constitutes a violation of the right to free expression and press freedom.
He said: 'The International Press Centre condemns the incident, as there was no justification for it. Such should not be allowed to happen again.'
Former governor of old Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, said: 'It shows that this government is more military than civilian. If there is the need for what the military is doing to the media, it should have been done by the police. We are gradually returning to the military era of late Gen. Sani Abacha.'
Former governor of Ogun State and a national leader of All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief Segun Osoba, said the report was shocking and unbelievable. 'I cannot believe this. It is strange under a democratic government,' he said.
Also condemning the act, a delegate to the National Conference, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, described the action as 'very bad,' asking: 'Are we returning to the Abacha era?'
Adebanjo, one of the leaders of pan-Yoruba organisation, Afenifere, noted that the action portends danger. While admitting that some of the media houses might have veered off media ethics, Adebanjo said that shouldn't have necessitated what the military did. 'That wouldn't be in anybody's interest.'
The Head of Department, Mass Communications, University of Lagos, Prof. Ralph Akinfeleye, said: 'Our government need to be told that they cannot padlock the air, and it is in their own interest not to attempt doing so. Any attempt to do that is tantamount to fighting the people of Nigeria.'
He said instead of confronting the media, 'the government should rather partner with the press to fight terrorism, ensure the success of the ongoing National Conference and other challenges the Jonathan administration is facing.'
In another reaction, Mr. Tony Uranta said: 'While I don't support media censorship by the military, the truth is the media also has the responsibility to censor it reports and conduct proper investigation before dishing out information. For instance, the report that some generals in the army were court marshaled was untrue. But at the same time it is not the job of the military to censor the media.'
Spokesman for Afenifere, Yinka Odumakin, said the security outfit should be careful not to give the impression they are fighting the media. 'There must be a balance of relationships between the two. The defence authority must hold meeting with publishers and the Guild of Editors to ascertain the media house that erred and not clamp down on the entire media.'