Journalism Under Fire
While government spokesmen boasted exuberantly of the freedom of the press in the country, they actually meant publications that were strictly within the limits of government tolerance. We were walking a tight rope. We could, of course, not mortgage ethical norms of truth, responsibility and objectivity. But the reality remained that we had to device survival instincts. Quite infrequently, this dictated the way we played some stories, especially when we anticipated that using such stories prominently could break the tenuous official tolerance and incur a backlash from them.
Such repercussions in the past jeopardized our business, as happened when our newspaper was forcefully shut down for one year by the government. Our offence then as it turned out was not for any discernible misdemeanour other than that we were unfavorably disposed towards arbitrariness, corruption, human rights abuse. We were also committed to the enthronement of democratic, transparent and accountable civil government freely elected by Nigerians. These were values that were not given vent by those in authority in the past five years.
But we recognized like Leonard Silk that our job transcended mere business, that “journalism is more than a business … (for) in the case of newspaper, the aim is not just making money, but is also essentially the same as the business of a university: truth seeking and truth telling.” But while the licence for the press in the free world is “publish and be damned”, for us it could translate to “publish and be hanged”. Journalists with no more than their forthright pens could be made to cool their impetuous heels in long detentions. Their wives and infants were on occasions, literally taken hostage by security agents. Some of them suffered vicarious arrests in the hands of the agents who came seeking the journalists in futile midnight raids.
Expectedly, journalists were thrown to the front line of repression. Twice some soldiers were dubiously arraigned for plotting to overthrow the military government, in 1995 and 1997. On each occasion, journalists were charged along with them. It was an unprecedented escalation of the persecution the press had ever experienced in the country. They were jailed for either being aware of the alleged plots, or being accessories after the event, that is, publishing stories that largely doubted the authenticity of the coup plots.
But this did not stop the press from highlighting the excesses of the military government. Soon, at least two news magazine offices were taken over by the security agents. They had earlier resorted first, to seizing copies of the magazines from both the printers and newsstands. Later, they started carting away the computers and other equipment used by the magazines in the vain hope that this would keep the publications out of business. When this failed, the offices of the magazines were sealed off with security agents taking permanent positions there. Still the journalists were undaunted. They started operating underground. Reporters who worked in disguise would drop off stories in designated locations, from where they were picked up by editors who then produced the papers in various locations, often shifting bases every week, far from the prying eyes of the security agents.