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On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, Sokari Ekine reflects on the murders of three Nigerian journalists. She accuses the Nigerian press of colluding with government in its own oppression and presenting an illusion of the free press by failing to defend its own members.

Over the past 15 years 1,500 journalists have been killed whilst working. Some of these have been Nigerians and though more than 24 years ago we should still remember Dele Giwa who was killed by a parcel bomb in October 1986. The three latest journalist murdered are : Edo Ugbagwu, Nathan Dabak and Sunday Gyang Bwede.

Edo Ugbagwu, 42, a court reporter with the Nation, was shot dead at his home in Lagos after men broke in and began arguing with him. According to Lawal Ogienagbon, a deputy editor at the Nation, Ugbagwu had not been working on any controversial stories and had received no threats.

On the same day, Nathan S Dabak, 36, and Sunday Gyang Bwede, 39, working for the Christian newspaper the Light Bearer, were stabbed to death while on their way to Jos, the central Nigerian city which has seen the deaths of hundreds of Christians and Muslims.

Shortly after the murder of the three Nigerian journalists another four jounalists received death threats by SMS.

“We will deal with you soon. Remember Dele Giwa, Bayo Ohu, and Edo Ugbagwu?” the text messages said, invoking three unsolved Nigerian journalist murders, according to local reports. The reporters who received the message were: Yusuf Ali of The Nation, Olusola Fabiyi of The Punch, Chuks Okocha of ThisDay and Gbenga Aruleba of Africa Independent Television (AIT).

The journalists received identical messages after covering Acting President Jonathan Goodluck’s decision to remove the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Maurice Iwu.

A brief look at the International Press Institute reports on Nigeria highlights the culture of media repression in Nigeria and shows an alarming number of suspensions and arrests of Nigerian journalists.

As conflict broke out in several areas of the country, violations against press freedom in Nigeria were increasingly prevalent this year with journalists being suspended, assaulted, threatened, arrested and deported by aggressive police and security forces. The escalation of politically motivated violence against journalists was representative of the instability that spread throughout the country.

Looking at the reasons behind the harassment and detention of journalists it is clear that their “crimes” were reporting the truth such as election rigging, strikes, political disputes between the President and other members of government, or as in the case of Gbenga Faturoti of the Daily Independent, beaten almost unconscious for failing to turn off his mobile phone whilst in the Osun State Assembly. Altogether 21 journalists were victims of either the police or SSS in 2004 – arrested, beaten, threatened, detained. Most were tortured. All were released without charge after period of 24 hours to 1 week. In addition 2 radio stations in Anambra State were vandalised and staff beaten up and the offices of Insider Weekly and Global Star were also vandalised and staff arrested.

A common factor behind all of the above is the lack of accountability for the actions by the security forces and by implication the State and Federal government including the then president, Obasanjo. Why did Nigeria’s the national media fail to report the kidnapping of Jonathan Elendu? Was it for fear of intimidation by the authorities? However the Nigerian Press continues to refuse to acknowledge that it’s freedoms are being seriously curtailed. In that sense the Nigerian media have in the past and at present colluded with the state in their own oppression by not only failing to speak in defense of their fellow journalists but possibly worse, presenting the illusion of a free press. With the rise of sites such as Nigerian Village Square and Sahara Reporters as well as the growing number of Nigerian bloggers particularly those writing from the Disapora, it has become increasingly more difficult to keep up the pretense of a free press. Whilst the new online media and bloggers are prepared to take on the government, albeit from afar and in most cases anonymously, this does not excuse the failure of traditional media to challenge the government on freedom of speech, through the media itself or the courts.

Sokari Ekine