LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Two journalists were detained Monday by police after their newspaper published a story about supposed plans by the nation's presidency to disrupt opposition parties and potentially raise the price of subsidized gasoline in the country, the publication said.
The detention of journalists from the Abuja-based daily newspaper Leadership comes as security agencies still routinely harass and hold reporters over the stories they publish, despite the democratic nation's laws clearly calling for civil trials over libel claims. Meanwhile, other underpaid journalists have been threatened, killed, beaten by thugs or succumbed to the enticement of bribes to color the stories they write, despite the nation having a largely unshackled free press.
Four journalists from the privately owned newspaper arrived at police headquarters in the country's capital Monday after being invited there by officers investigating a story the daily published last week, said Azubuike Ishiekwene, the newspaper's group managing director. In that story, the newspaper wrote about what it described as a leaked memo from the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan calling for officials to disrupt the business interest of opposition party leaders. It also included a mention of influencing the country's Independent National Electoral Commission, as well as potentially raising the price of the oil-rich nation's subsidized gasoline — an issue that sparked a nationwide strike last year, the newspaper said.
Officials with Nigeria's presidency later described the purported memo as a forgery and "cheap blackmail." Yet, police officials still demanded to question journalists from Leadership about the source for the article, Ishiekwene said.
"We are concerned that journalists can be still taken away on some presidential orders and be detained," the managing director told The Associated Press. "What we are noticing is a gradual descent into lawlessness."
Frank Mba, a federal police spokesman, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday night.
Journalists in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation of more than 160 million people, routinely are targeted by security agencies for the stories they write. In December, two journalists from a Hausa-language newspaper were detained for days without charges after their publication printed stories on alleged abuses by the country's military in its fight against a radical Islamist sect. Journalists also face beatings and worse at the hands of thugs. At least 19 journalists have been killed in Nigeria since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Still, the press in Nigeria at times resembles the age of newspaper barons and yellow journalism in the U.S. Oligarch families and politicians own many of the major newspapers that circulate in the country, while military rulers previously handed out television broadcast licenses to trusted friends. Journalists themselves remain woefully underpaid, sometimes seeing their salaries arrive months late. That forces some to expect money from interview subjects or collect so-called "brown envelope" bribes from politicians to support themselves.
Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at HYPERLINK "http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP" .