In its first official reaction to the attacks being carried out by soldiers on newspapers, the presidency on Saturday defended the Nigerian military and denied that President Goodluck Jonathan ordered the attacks.
Soldiers on Friday and Saturday seized and in some cases destroyed thousands of copies of several newspapers including Leadership, The Nation, and Punch Newspapers. The general distribution centre for all newspapers in Area 1, Abuja, was also sealed by soldiers on Saturday. Several newspapers circulation staff were also harassed and detained in the process.
The military on Friday claimed the attacks were security checks based on intelligence it received that materials with grave security implications were to be distributed alongside the newspapers. The military neither mentioned the materials, nor said it found any; but continued with the attacks on Saturday.
While Nigerians and several groups have been condemning the attacks, President Jonathan's Senior Special Assistant on Public Affairs, Doyin Okupe, who addressed the media in his office on Saturday, justified the attacks saying they were "isolated incidents of security checks."
Mr. Okupe said newspaper publications that the president ordered the clampdown were untrue.
"We wish to state categorically that these reports are untrue, unfair and totally not in consonance with the posture of Mr. President on issues concerning Press freedom," he said.
He said President Jonathan holds the media in very high regards and has demonstrated so in various ways in the last three years; including by signing the Freedom of Information Act in 2011.
The presidential aide also said restated the military's claims that the newspapers were being targeted not because of their contents.
"The reported incidence of checks being carried out by the military on major Nigerian roads and cities is not targeted at newspaper vans because of the contents of the publications as insinuated in the reports," he said. "Rather, the military had explained that those routine checks were being carried out following intelligence reports on the possibility of some elements within the society using such vehicles to convey "materials with grave security implications across the country".
"While we sympathize with media houses which might have suffered one discomfort or the other as a result of these security checks. We assert, for the avoidance of doubt, that the President has not and will never give any order capable of hampering the smooth running of any media organization or harass media practitioners in the lawful performance of their duties," he said.
According to Mr. Okupe, the government will neither engage in nor encourage any acts that will constitute an assault on any media organization or infringe on the freedom of the press.
The aide also gave an indication that the attacks may continue, saying, "We have received assurances from the military that no personal liberties of media practitioners or their employees will be unlawfully tampered with and that as soon as there is significant reduction in the level of the security alert, the ongoing exercise will be relaxed."
"We live in very trying times which may necessitate that some section or sectors of the society might experience some temporary discomfort in the overall interest of ensuring that the ideals of freedom, peace and security which we all hold dear will not be compromised by a few unscrupulous elements in our midst," he said.