New York — Nigerian authorities should immediately release Uthman Abubakar, an editor of the privately owned Daily Trust, return equipment seized in raids on the paper's offices, and cease the intimidation of news outlets covering the conflict in Nigeria's northeast, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Nigerian security services yesterday forced their way into the offices of the Daily Trust in the northeastern city of Maiduguri and the capital, Abuja, according to Mannir Dan-Ali, editor-in-chief of the paper, and media reports. The military detained two staff from the Maiduguri office--reporter Ibrahim Sawab and northeast regional editor Abubakar--and seized computers from the Abuja office, Dan-Ali and Sawab told CPJ. The same day, the military surrounded the Daily Trust office in the southern city of Lagos for about five hours, from 9 p.m. local time, Dan-Ali told CPJ.
Abubakar, who was arrested with his laptop and two phones, has yet to be released, according to Sawab, who was permitted to leave with his tablet and phone after eight hours in military custody. Sawab told CPJ today that neither he nor Abubakar had been charged.
In a statement posted on the military's Facebook page, Sani Kukasheka Usman, brigadier general and director of the army's public relations, said that the action was in response to a Media Trust report yesterday about the extremist group Boko Haram that "divulged classified military information" and undermined national security. Media Trust is the parent company of the Daily Trust.
The raids and arrests come just over a month before a national election is scheduled to take place in Nigeria.
"Nigerian security services should immediately and unconditionally release Daily Trust editor Uthman Abubakar and return all Daily Trust equipment and materials," said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal. "Nigeria's military operations are a matter of public interest. This deliberate attack signals a dearth of respect for press freedom nearly a month before the national election, when the public must be permitted to make informed decisions."
Dan-Ali told CPJ that hours before the raid he was in contact with senior government officials to discuss authorities' security concerns about Daily Trust reporting, but said that he had not had any direct dialogue with the military.
Sawab told CPJ that he was in an editorial meeting with Abubakar when at least 12 armed men from the military, police, Department of State Security, and the security and civil defense corps entered their Maiduguri office, followed by another dozen security service agents holding cameras. "They filled up the office. There wasn't any space," Sawab said. The journalists were questioned about the whereabouts of Hamza Idris, a political editor based in Abuja, before being transported to the Maimalari military base in Maiduguri, Sawab said.
Idris and Abubakar had bylines on a Daily Trust report yesterday about a Nigerian military operation against Boko Haram. Idris told CPJ today that he is concerned he could be detained.
During yesterday's raid on the Abuja offices, security services detained the head of editorial production, Hussaini Garba Mohammed, forced everyone to evacuate the building, and left with at least 24 computers, Dan-Ali told CPJ today. Mohammed told CPJ that he was taken to a base in Abuja after officers took his phone and found a phone number for Idris. Mohammed said he was threatened with detention if he did not provide information about the location of Idris and Daily Trust deputy editor-in-chief Mahmud Jega. The journalist said he was released an hour later, after repeating that he did not know where they lived.
Staff were later allowed to return to the office and were able to resume work, Mohammed told CPJ. The journalist added that he pleaded with the military to let them publish today because the paper had not missed a deadline in 21 years.
Idris told CPJ that he believed the raids and arrest may have also been in reprisal for a December 31 Daily Trust report that he, Abubakar, and another reporter wrote about a Boko Haram attack in northeastern Borno state.
CPJ's calls today to Usman, the director of the army's public relations, went unanswered. Presidential spokesperson Garba Shehu tweeted yesterday that the presidency had "directed the military to vacate the premises of Daily Trust." CPJ's calls and WhatsApp messages to Shehu today went unanswered and Lai Mohammed, Nigeria's minister of information, declined to comment.
In early December, Usman stated on Facebook that the military defined fake news as any "misconception and misrepresentation of issues as it affect our operations and other military activities" and said that it was a threat to national security.