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Journalism Under Fire

Nigeria | Press Freedom

ONE FRIDAY AFTERNOON, we received what had become familiar visitors in my newspaper's offices. They were soldiers from Nigeria's military intelligence unit. We were used to visits from them and other security operatives, but this was different.

A truck-load of troops, armed with automatic riffles and clad in battle fatigues literally overran our office premises. On arrival, the soldiers were deployed to the two main entrances to our office complex. No visitors were allowed in and persons within the offices were barred from leaving. A group then made straight for the newsroom. In a commando style operation, they took up positions in the newsroom, guns held ready for use. They marched to my office, but were informed by frightened staff that I was off duty for the day. Incensed by this, they stormed out of my office and headed for the office of our director. Threateningly, they ordered him to produce the editor who they believed was hiding somewhere. They were not convinced by his explanation that I was away for the day.

All this while, they did not state why they had come looking for the editor. They forced the director to take them to the press hall where they ordered that the printing machines should be turned off. Soldiers were left to watch over the press hall. They then returned to the offices, and insisted on taking the director, along with the chief executive officer and another senior executive to their base. On getting there, their commander announced the reason for the invasion of our premises. He said they were angered by a story in the day’s edition of The Guardian. The story, he added quickly, was accurate, but the headline was not a true representation of the body of the story.

The directors, relieved at last to hear that the complaint was only about the headline of a story, explained that newspaper headlines were written by different people from the writers and reporters of the stories. Besides, they promised to publish a correction in the next day’s edition of our newspaper. The commander, now feeling triumphant, obliged and allowed them to return to the office. He told them that we were also now free to continue with the day’s work. The ordeal was over, but it left a deep scar in the minds of all those who witnessed and experienced the wrath of the soldiers.

While they made a point with their show of force, a short rejoinder, or a phone call, would have resolved the matter as we are always willing to publish corrections where necessary. But the temperament of the times, these past five years, did not permit a civilized form of reaction to a newspaper article. It demanded that the press be taught a very serious lesson on how not to misquote or rather misunderstand the director of military intelligence or any military officer for that matter. In the past five years, the press like all sectors of civil society was under siege by the military.

This made an already difficult job, much worse. We walked a minefield of restrictive rules. There were, on one hand, the self-regulating codes generally recognized and honored by journalists. On the other hand, there was the mesh of governmental prescriptions and jackboot treatments that hamstrung journalists. For us, it was back to the jungle.

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