The Nigerian military for two days – Friday and Saturday – last week undertook a clampdown on national newspapers never before seen under a democratic dispensation. It effectively denied Nigerian readers access to their newspaper copies by shutting down distribution outlets in Abuja and other major cities. In Abuja, soldiers, armed to the teeth, descended on the popular Area 1 newspaper distribution point, stopped delivery vans from offloading copies, detained the drivers, assaulted and chased away vendors.
It took 24 hours and persistent complaints by publishers and editors for the military to offer a limp excuse for its unwarranted action. Defence Hqrs spokesman, Major General Chris Olukolade, issued a statement late Friday, saying that “intelligence” had come to hand, indicating that “sensitive materials are being moved across the country through newsprint related consignments.” He said what happened was “a routine security action that should not be misconstrued for any other motive…The Defence Headquarters wishes to clarify that the exercise has nothing to do with content or operation of the media organisations or their personnel as is being wrongly imputed by a section of the press”.
Expectedly, the premeditated media clampdown has been condemned by NPAN, which is the umbrella body of newspaper publishers, the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and Nigeria Union of journalists (NUJ) and, opposition parties, particularly, the All Progressives Congress (APC). The NUJ, Abuja council, issued an instant statement, saying “We urge our respected senior colleague and Special Adviser to the President, Dr. Reuben Abati, to counsel government on the foolhardiness of attempts to muzzle the press in this technologically advanced global village.”
Dr. Abati and General Olukade appeared on RayPower’s Political Platform, yesterday morning, offering “clarifications” of the action of the military that rather begged many questions. They both said these were difficult times for the country and everyone, including the media, should be prepared to pay a temporary small price for their security and that of the entire nation. But, as we pointed out earlier, their explanations begged many questions. First, has the quality of intelligence gathering by the military that has so far performed so dismally against Boko Haram improved so dramatically that it was able to say categorically that the media were complicit in the insurgency? Secondly, why were the vans not stopped before they reached Abuja if indeed the motive was to head off a major security breach especially in the capital city?
Thirdly, why did the military authorities this time, unlike before, choose not to confide in newspapers publishers and professionals as they usually did in matters of national security? Fourthly, why was the action selective at first, targeting only what the government considers the “critical press”? Abati and Olukolade betrayed this selectivity when they said their alleged misconstruing of the clampdown was by only “a section of the press”.
As it has now turned out, the soldiers did not order the delivery vans emptied of what they carried so that the vehicles would be checked. Instead they were stopped from offloading newspaper copies for vendors to take away. The goal was anything but security; it was clearly aimed at the financial jugular of the newspaper houses considered too critical of the Jonathan government which itself is responsible for the bad press it believes it is getting. Its failure to rise to the nation’s security challenges that require vision, wit and resources to overcome has been acknowledged even outside our shores. Now consider this: at the same time as the military were busy hounding media houses, Boko Haram struck again at Chibok, kidnapping over 20 women – the same rural community in Borno state where the insurgents took away over 200 schoolgirls in April. Is the press to blame for this second successful Boko Haram attack?
Our position is that this Jonathan government’s siege mentality has deteriorated into a paranoia that may consume it eventually. As the NUJ warned, it is foolhardy to engage the press in a war of nerves you cannot win. History bears this out abundantly.