The Goodluck Jonathan Administration on Friday moved against the Nigerian media by preventing the circulation of some newspapers and harassing vendors in a nationwide crackdown that has been likened to the dark days of the military era.
Armed soldiers and operatives of the State Security Service on Friday morning raided distribution vans, seized and damaged copies of newspapers nationwide.
Major Nigerian newspapers were affected by the apparently coordinated operation.
There were random forceful seizures of newspapers, including The PUNCH at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Ikeja, Lagos, while distribution vans were stopped and searched in different parts of the country.
Distributors told our correspondents that wrappers of The PUNCH were stripped off with the cover of some copies damaged, while several copies of The Nation, Leadership and Daily Trust were confiscated.
One of our circulation officials, who witnessed the situation at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Ikeja, Lagos, said that a group of heavily armed soldiers stormed the cargo unit of the airport in a search of an undisclosed newspaper.
The soldiers, who arrived in a commando style at about 4:35am in a bus used to convey Vanguard newspapers to the airport, vigorously began to search all papers on ground.
The leader of the team, who spoke to our correspondent, reluctantly said, “Mr. Man, We have screened your paper, so leave us to do our job.”
The team leader, who was always on phone to communicate the update to their boss, said, “It is an order from above.”
In Nigeria, order from above is a term used to describe instructions handed down officially from the Presidency or from some top government officials.
On the website of the Leadership, the paper said, “Soldiers on Friday intercepted and destroyed newspaper copies meant for the North-West region at the Kaduna tollgate. The copies booked for South-South and South-East regions were also seized by the soldiers.”
According to the newspaper, the soldiers and SSS operatives were said to be acting on ‘orders from above.’
Similarly, The Nation stated that its distribution vans were stopped by soldiers who “waylaid the vans along the Area 1 Road, Garki, Abuja, commanding the drivers to unload.”
“The same scene played out on Benin-Warri Road, Port Harcourt, Kaduna-Kano Road and Nasarawa-Jos Road,” it said.
Also seized were copies of The Nation meant for the Warri and Benin areas. The copies were confiscated by soldiers of the 3 Battalion of the Nigerian Army at Okwuokoko, Delta State.
Scores of soldiers in Ekiti, Oyo, Osun, Ondo and Edo states prevented all the newspapers from entering the states as early as 5.45am.
Soldiers also invaded newspapers distribution centres in the states and personally monitored distribution to vendors.
In Ado-Ekiti, armed soldiers stormed Okeyinmi, the town’s major newspapers distribution area, around 6.10am, demanding copies of The Nation, Daily Trust and Leadership.
The soldiers came in three Hilux vans marked NA 32 OPS 08, NA 32 0PS 05 and NA 32 OPS 07.
In Akure, the Ondo State capital, soldiers prevented distribution.
Soldiers also prevented newspapers’ distribution in Oke Padre area of Ibadan, Oyo State.
Disruption was also recorded in Osogbo, Osun State, as 18 soldiers invaded the distribution centre at Gbaemu.
The soldiers, according to some agents, came to the place around 5am and waited for the arrival of the newspapers.
To prevent the soldiers from seizing copies of the newspapers and other newspapers titles, which did not arrive early, it was learnt that salesmen had to warn delivery drivers on the telephone to stay off the area.
The drivers were said to have diverted the newspapers to unknown places where they distributed a few copies.
The Osun State Commissioner for Information, Mr. Sunday Akere, described the development as a surprise.
Distribution in Iseyin, Saki and other towns of Oke-Ogun area of Oyo State was also disrupted as delivery vans were impounded by soldiers at about 7.30am in Okaka, near Saki.
The Oyo State Police Public Relations Officer, Olabisi Ilobanefor, said that the command knew nothing about the seizure.
Soldiers stormed the Nigerian Union of Journalists Press Centre in Benin, Edo State, at about 8am, and searched vehicles en route to the centre.
When contacted, the Army Public Relations Officer, Four Brigade Command, Benin, Capt. Abdullahi Abubakar, said, “The Army Headquarters has already made a statement concerning the issue.”
The Editor, Daily trust, Mr. Habeeb Pindiga, said, soldiers seized copies of Daily Trust newspaper in Port Harcourt as soon as they were offloaded from the plane.
“In Osogbo, soldiers threatened to arrest any distributor or vendor seen with Daily Trust,” he added.
He added that most of the company’s vehicles were released in the evening but that troops set up checkpoints on roads leading to its head office.
Reports also said soldiers intercepted and destroyed Leadership Newspaper copies in Kaduna.
Likewise, the Managing Editor of The Nation, Mr. Lekan Otufodunrin, said operational vehicles and newspaper parcels were still in the custody of the army as of the time of compiling this report.
A statement signed by Otufodunrin, said, “As early as 3.10am on Friday, June 6, drivers of our distribution vans began filing reports of arrests and seizures of our vehicles and consignments of newspapers for the day by soldiers across the country. Areas of our operations affected are Bauchi, Kano, Kaduna, Jos, Lafia, Okene, Lokoja, Markurdi, Sokoto, Maiduguri, Warri, Benin, Asaba, Auchi, Akure, Ikare, Ilorin, Ado Ekiti, Ondo, Ore and Ibadan.
“The soldiers, who stormed our offices, arrested the drivers after searching the vehicles and the consignments. Although nothing incriminating was found in any of the vans searched, our vehicles and drivers were detained.
“In Abuja, the vehicles heading for Jos, Bauchi, Makurdi, Minna and other towns in the North were detained and they were not released until about 9am. The Jos-bound vehicle was again detained by another team of soldiers at Riyam Local Government area about 40 kilometers to Jos and was not released until 4pm.
“On arrival in Kaduna, the circulation vehicle with the consignment was detained till late afternoon. In Warri, where the vehicle from Port Harcourt conveying our papers to Benin, Sapele and other towns in Delta and Edo states was held, the driver was not released until 4.pm.”
He added, “The vehicles convening our parcels to Akure, Ondo, Ikare from Lagos were seized at Ore and moved to Okitipupa Army Barrack where it was detained till 5pm. The parcels from Ibadan, Ilorin and Ado Ekiti could not be delivered also as the vehicles conveying them were released late yesterday.
“It is necessary to point out that the seizures of the editions of The Nation and Sportinglife of Friday, June 6, has caused the company huge losses. The soldiers prevented us from carrying on our legitimate business. We call on the military authorities to release unconditionally all our operational vehicles and newspaper parcels still in their custody.”
In an interview with one of our correspondents, the Managing Director of Leadership Newspaper, Mr. Azubuike Iseikwene, said he was still at a loss as to why the newspaper was being targeted.
He said “The (security services) didn’t give reasons; they don’t even understand it themselves. I have received calls from all over the country indicating that it was actually a coordinated and widespread siege which I find very curious and I am concerned about.
“No reasons have been given; no explanations. They have attacked vendors who even sell our Hausa edition, it is incredible. They are still living in the past, we have also tried to find out what the problem is but we have not received any explanations.”
Asked if he was aware of any recent story that could have triggered such an action, Ishiekwene said, “We can only imagine when you are faced with situations like this but there is a story that we carried on the military which was streamed on a lot of foreign newsfeeds about generals that have been court-martialed over Boko Haram.
“We can only suspect that they found that a little irritating. They are looking for Leadership newspaper everywhere. They are still living in the past.”
The SSS could not be reached for comment. Calls to its spokesperson, Marilyn Ogar, were not responded to and a text message sent to her number had yet to be replied.
Efforts to reach the Chairman of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, on the clampdown were unsuccessful as several calls put through to his mobile phone did not go through.
A text message sent to his number was undelivered, with the delivery status stating “pending.”
But the Nigerian Guild of Editors has condemned the forcible seizure.
In a statement made available to media houses on Friday afternoon, the President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Mr. Femi Adesina, described the seizure as unacceptable.
Adesina said the action had caused huge economic losses to the publishing houses.
He said the action showed that the military had been itching to open a battlefront with the country’s media and thereby hid under the umbrella of insecurity to wreak the havoc.
The NGE president said, “The media do not bear arms; rather, we bear information, which sheds light on darkness, no matter how seemingly impenetrable the darkness is. Let no one accuse the media of any flimsy and nebulous security breach, and hide under that umbrella to traumatise us.
“We reject the label of bearer of arms, or any other form of ordinance, to do mischief against our own country.
“If the siege arose out of the need to call the dog a bad name in order to hang it, Nigerian editors roundly and soundly reject such negative profiling.”
Reacting to the development, a Lagos-based lawyer and human rights activist, Festus Keyamo, condemned the attack and described it as barbaric and uncivilised.
He said, “It is a breach of the provisions of the constitution, especially Chapter Four, which guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Such Act curtails free speech and poses a danger to the sustenance of democracy because it is free speech that sustains democracy.”
Another legal practitioner, Jiti Ogunye, said the incident was an unprovoked assault on the press, the right to freedom of association and the constitutional role of the media.
Ogunye said, “It is a reminder of the era of brutal siege on the media during the military era, which is a sad pointer to the that constitutionally guaranteed rights are still under threat. Not even the belated, weak, incoherent and disingenuous explanation given by the Defence Headquarters can make Nigerians to believe that the right to freedom of expression is not under assault.”
He said the Nigeria Army and the government owe the Nigerian media an unreserved apology and that such flagrant assault would not happen again.
In a similar tone, an activist, Mr. Malachi Ugwummadu, condemned the action, describing it as a threat to the nation’s democracy.
Ugwummadu said the action of the military was unacceptable especially barely a week after the Commissioner of Police in the Federal Capital Territory, Joseph Mbu, banned the activities of the group clamouring for the release of the abducted schoolgirls.
He said, “It is highly regrettable this happened under Jonathan’s watch. It is clearly against the tenets of democracy. In less than one week ago, the overzealous Commissioner of Police of the FCT, Joseph Mbu, banned the activities of the BringBackOurGirls campaign with a bizarre claim of constituting nuisance to the country. It is a pity.
He said, “Going by this development, the same government is reminding us of the battles we had fought and won as a country. This is against the constitution.
“The action of the military contradicts the provisions of the constitution of the country as it directly contradicts Section 39 of the constitution; it is a deliberate attempt by this government to roll back the hands of the clock and ruin the success of the country. It is against the rights of the people.”
Ugwummadu added that the security agencies should rather focus on attacking the Boko Haram terrorists and not harassing the media based on whatever reason they might claim.”