20 October 1997

Joint action

32 press freedom groups appeal to CHOGM over Nigeria, noting freedom of expression violations

Incident details


The following is a joint letter signed by 32 press freedom groups
worldwide to the leaders attending the Commonwealth Heads of
Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Edinburgh, Scotland on 24-27
October, calling attention to the numerous violations in Nigeria
against freedom of expression. In light of these violations and
the seemingly doomed transition to democracy, the undersigned
press freedom groups are calling for Nigeria to be expelled from
the Commonwealth, or at the very least, have its suspension
continued. The letter is to be circulated to Commonwealth leaders
at the meeting, and members and subscribers are encouraged to
disseminate it to their own governments and the media. Anyone
attending the CHOGM is encouraged to take copies of the letter as

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17 October 1997

Dear Commonwealth leaders,

On the occasion of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting
(CHOGM) in Edinburgh, Scotland on 24-27 October, we, the press
freedom organisations listed below, would like to draw your
attention to the numerous violations in Nigeria against freedom
of expression, one of the most basic human rights. In light of
Nigeria's failure to satisfy the conditions set out by the CHOGM,
Nigeria should be expelled from the Commonwealth, or at the very
least, have its suspension continued.

It has been two years since the Nigerian government judicially
executed the Nigerian author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight
other Ogoni activists. Not only has Nigeria's human rights record
not improved, but it has deteriorated even more. In addition,
political prisoners, including four prominent journalists, remain
in jail in abysmal conditions. Dissent is stifled on an almost
daily basis despite the efforts of the dictatorship of General
Sani Abacha to promote the deception that he is following through
with the so-called transition to democracy. A transition to
democracy should surely include freedom of expression, and given
the current crackdown on the media, the international community
can not be fooled into believing it is a genuine transition.

Upon suspending Nigeria for its lack of democratisation, respect
for human rights, and progress in the release of political
prisoners, the CHOGM stated "that if no demonstrable progress was
made towards the fulfilment of these conditions within a time
frame (of two years), Nigeria would be expelled from the
association." The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG),
charged with advising the Commonwealth on Nigeria, has found no
improvement on these fronts.

Beyond the discussion of broader human rights abuses, freedom of
expression violations are rampant in Nigeria. Newspapers are
seized and news vendors - as well as journalists - are thrown in
jail for publishing or selling news that offends the government.
Many journalists have fled the country in fear of their lives,
and other journalists have simply "disappeared." Among Nigeria's
most famous political prisoners are four journalists: Chris
Anyanwu of the now-defunct "The Sunday Magazine", George Mbah of
"Tell", Ben Charles Obi of "Weekend Classique" and Kunle Ajibade
of "The News". All have been in prison since May 1995, sentenced
to 15 years for their alleged involvement in a failed coup plot -
their "crime" was to report on the issue. All of them are in very
poor health. Another journalist, Mohammed Adamu, the Abuja editor
of the "African Concord" magazine, is detained without charge.
Moshood Fayemiwo, the exiled publisher of the defunct Lagos
weekly "Razor", was abducted from neighbouring Benin Republic and
has been detained in a military dungeon since February 1997.

Since the beginning of September, many journalists and news
vendors have been detained over stories in independent
publications on the state of Abacha's health. Police arrested or
tried to arrest journalists from "The News" and "Tell" in Lagos
and other cities, and confiscated copies of "The News", and their
editors have now gone into hiding. On 5 September, Oby Eke Agbai,
the chair of the Imo state council of the Nigerian Union of
Journalists "disappeared" after being beaten by security forces
and has not been seen since. A correspondent for "The Punch"
newspaper was arrested over a story on Ken Saro-Wiwa, as was a
"Vanguard" correspondent in Rivers State for reporting that
copies of Saro-Wiwa's books had been impounded by security
forces. Most recently, on 5 October, Reth Ateloye, of "FAME"
magazine, died after developing an illness in jail after being
detained for five days on 17 September. The other violations are
too numerous to document.

In addition to attacks on the media, the Nigerian government has
implemented press laws which severely restrict the media, and has
introduced new laws, including one which would create a press
court that would try journalists who "report untruths." The
Newspapers Registration Decree 43 of 1993, which the government
has promised to revive, would impose prohibitive fees on an
independent press which struggles to survive economic pressures
from the government, and would allow the government to assert
control over which newspapers receive licenses. A provision in
the draft constitution proposes a National Mass Media Commission,
which will restrict newspaper circulation to their states
(provinces) of production and interfere in the day-to-day running
of media organizations.

The Nigerian government has failed to demonstrate that it is
serious about the transition to democracy; conversely it has
attempted to silence those who promote democracy. Nobel laureate
Wole Soyinka is one of the many exiled advocates for democracy in
Nigeria, in addition to prominent editors and journalists who
have escaped arrest and fled their home. Adding to this injustice
were treason charges laid against Soyinka and others by the
government in March in the wake of bombings for which Soyinka
denies any responsibility. These charges demonstrate the lengths
to which the government will go to silence its critics. Given the
unfair trial afforded to Ken Saro-Wiwa, there is little reason to
believe Soyinka would be given a fair trial on these charges.

By the recently promulgated Decree 9 of 1997, the National
Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) was empowered to shift
the dates of the remaining transition elections if it so desires.
None of the five registered political parties is willing to
present candidates for the presidency - a few politicians who
hinted of presidential ambitions have been effectively harassed
and silenced. In late September, the army command issued a
statement that it would give General Abacha absolute support if
he chooses to run for the presidency. Everything points to a
perpetuation of military rule or a self-succession plan that
makes the "transition to democracy" a name without substance.

In light of these freedom of expression violations, this
silencing of dissent and the voice of democracy, coupled with the
continued detention of political prisoners, the CHOGM should have
little difficulty taking the right decision against the Nigerian

Yours sincerely,

Independent Journalism Centre (IJC), Nigeria

Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists (CCPJ)

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), United States

Free Expression Ghana

Free Media Movement (FMM), Sri Lanka

Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), South Africa

Freedom House, United States

Human Rights Watch (HRW)

International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Belgium

International PEN, United Kingdom

International Press Institute (IPI), Austria

Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Namibia

Network for the Defence of Independent Media in Africa (NDIMA),

Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression (NFFE)

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), Fiji

Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

PEN American Center

PEN Canada

West African Journalists Association (WAJA), Senegal/Ghana

World Association of Newspapers (WAN), France

World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), United States

Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN, United Kingdom

African Writers Abroad, United Kingdom

English PEN Centre

Ghanaian PEN Centre

Kenyan PEN Centre

Malawi PEN Centre

The New Zealand Society of Authors, incorporating PEN New Zealand

Scottish PEN Centre

South African PEN Centre

Swiss German PEN Centre

PEN Centre USA West

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