The President Goodluck Jonathan regime on Saturday continued its onslaught on the media by impounding packs of major newspapers, their circulation vehicles and arresting drivers.
The clampdown, which began on Friday, entered its second day on Saturday with greater ferocity. Our correspondents, who monitored developments round the country, report that early on Saturday morning, soldiers stormed newspaper distribution centres in the Federal Capital Territory and other parts of Nigeria.
In Abuja, Saturday Punch could not distribute early because soldiers barricaded the newspaper distribution centre at Garki, ‘Area One’, marching out newspaper marketers, distributors and vendors around 2am.
This was similar to what happened on Friday when soldiers and officials of the State Security Service tore wrappers of The Punch at the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Ikeja, Lagos, damaging copies of the newspaper in the process.
On Saturday, the armed soldiers prevented marketers from offloading newspapers from distribution vans that brought the papers to the centre.
The military men searched each of the marketers, distributors and vendors, before allowing them to enter the centre.
The situation worsened around 7am, when the soldiers ordered them to go home, declaring that they would not allow distribution of the newspapers.
When the workers of the media houses and distributors assembled near the centre, the soldiers dispersed them, threatening to deal with any one who failed to leave the area.
The Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Newspaper Distributors in Abuja, Mr. Oladipupo Moses, said the distribution vans in the custody of the soldiers included those of The Guardian, Leadership, Thisday, Daily Trust, Sun, Pilot, Newswatch and The National Mirror.
Oladipupo said the soldiers led by an officer in a green tracksuit said henceforth, all distributors and vendors must operate with identity cards.
He said, “They impounded all our distribution vans. The soldiers then searched all of us. They didn’t allow us to distribute newspapers.”
When SUNDAY PUNCH contacted the Director of Defence Information, Maj. Gen Chris Olukolade, for his comment on the action of the soldiers, he referred our corrrespondent to his press statement on Friday where he said the clampdown was a product of an intelligence report that the vans were used to circulate dangerous weapons.
He said, “See my statement of yesterday.”
Attempts to reach the Minister of Information, Mr. Labaran Maku, were unsuccessful at the time of filing this report. Calls to his mobile telephone did not go through and a text message to his telephone indicated that the message was pending.
When contacted, the Police Public Relations Officer, Federal Capital Territory Police Command, Altine Daniel said, it was not part of police operations, adding that inquiries be directed to the “appropriate quarters.”
Calls to the mobile telephone number of the Force Public Relations Officer, Frank Mba, indicated that it was switched off.
Several vendors who spoke to our correspondents said they were had to take full inventory of the losses incurred because of the clampdown.
A newspaper vendor, who gave his name as Abubakar Sadiq, told one of our correspondents in Abuja that the action of the military was an assault on the rights of ordinary Nigerians.
“I don’t know what the poor man has done to the leaders of this country. They cannot protect us, they cannot provide jobs, yet they want to destroy the only means of our livelihood. God will judge them,” he said.
A group of soldiers on Friday waylaid the vehicle conveying copies of SATURDAY PUNCH newspapers at Elele Alimini in Emohua Local Government Area of Rivers State.
After detaining the driver of the vehicle conveying the papers (name withheld) and confiscating his mobile phone, the soldiers refused to release packs of the newspapers meant for Bayelsa State.
Speaking with our correspondent, the Circulation Executive of Punch Nigeria Limited in Port Harcourt, Mr. Raji Tajudeen, said the circulation vehicle, which took off from Port Harcourt, was moving to Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital, when it was accosted and impounded.
The driver was later released around 8pm on Saturday. When contacted, the spokesman of 2 Brigade of the Nigerian Army, Port Harcourt, Major Michael Etete, said he was not aware of the seizure of circulation vehicles belonging to any media organisation or the arrest of any driver.
“We don’t have any report of such arrest,” Etete said.
Residents, newspaper distributors and vendors in Kwara State have decried the interference by the army in newspaper distribution in the state.
A driver of the Punch Nigeria Limited (name withheld) who was on his way to deliver the paper was on Saturday delayed by soldiers for many hours.
He was, however, allowed to go after the security officials had ransacked the vehicle.
Our correspondent, who visited a newspaper distribution centre at Emir’s Road, Ilorin, observed that no fewer than eight soldiers searched all vehicles and only allowed them after thorough checks.
Most of the vendors complained that newspapers were delivered very late due to checks and delays experienced by the delivery vehicle drivers.
The Police Public Relations Officer, Kwara State Command, Ajayi Okasanmi, dissociated the police from the action.
Some newspapers such as The Nation, Leadership and Daily Trust newspapers failed to arrive in Ondo State on Saturday for the second day running following the continued interception and seizure of the newspapers by soldiers.
The 32 Artillery Brigade, Akure denied any involvement in the seizure of the papers.
Its Public Relations Officer, Capt. Ademola Adegoke, while responding to enquiries by our correspondent, said, “Some persons have called me on this issue, I have said I am not aware of it.
“Was your paper seized? I am not aware of it. That is what I have to say.”
The Ondo State Police Public Relations Officer, Mr. Wole Ogodo, said he would not make any comment on the issue.
However, vendors in the state have expressed fears that the situation may continue and that it will affect their earnings.
Mr. Anthony of the Progressive Agency, Akure, said, “We don’t have enough papers to sell and that means a cut in what we make as earnings. With what happened today, we don’t know how long this will last and we are worried about it.”
In Ibadan, the capital of Oyo State, the seizure of newspapers by soldiers, which started on Friday, continued on Saturday as the weekend edition of The Nation newspaper was seized as it made its way into the city.
A van of the newspaper was seized by soldiers at Oke Padre Area, the city’s main distribution centre.
The driver of the vehicle, who did not give his name, said he made his way to Ibadan, passing through an unusual route.
“I took the Abeokuta route instead of the Lagos/Ibadan Expressway in order to beat the soldiers. But a few minutes to the newspaper depot at Oke Padre, I was stopped by soldiers who impounded the vehicle.
“They did not allow distribution of our papers and they did not ask questions or answer us when we asked why we were stopped,” said the driver.
Our correspondents also learnt that the distribution of the same newspaper was made impossible in other parts of the state like Ogbomoso, Iseyin, Saki and other towns in Oyo North and Central divisions.
At the Ibadan end of the Lagos/Ibadan Expressway, another vehicle with the newspaper was stopped by soldiers.
The driver said the newspapers were meant to be distributed in other parts of the South-West.
Armed soldiers continued to lay siege to the newspapers distribution centre at the Gbaemu area of Osogbo on Saturday.
The soldiers, who were in three vans, parked close to the distribution centre, searched newspapers including SATURDAY PUNCH which arrived there for distribution.
Soldiers from the 7 Division of the Nigerian Army, Maiduguri, stormed the popular Post Office area of the city where vendors share newspapers. A vendor who spoke with SUNDAY PUNCH said, “They (soldiers) alighted from their patrol vehicles confiscated all our papers including unsold papers and arrested some of our colleagues.”
The arrested persons, who were later released at about 1:30pm, said they were held at the army headquarters for over four hours, adding that they were not informed of their offences.
Vehicles conveying Leadership, Daily Trust and the Nation newspapers were stopped by security operatives and detained for many hours.
The papers were only allowed into Jos at about 2 pm on Saturday.