On October 19, U.S.-based Nigerian blogger and journalist Jonathan Elendu of Elendu Reports was arrested by the Nigerian State Security Services (SSS) upon his arrival at Abuja airport. It was some days before the SSS announced that Elendu had been charged, first with money laundering and then sedition.

Yet another report claimed he was charged with sponsoring a guerilla news agency. The charges relate to his supposed involvement with the online news site Sahara Reporters which, together with Elendu’s blog, is highly critical of both Nigerian President Yar’Adua and the government in general; both sites particularly criticize the government’s response to conflicts between foreign oil companies drilling in the Niger Delta and local ethnic minorities.

Sahara Reporters recently drew official scrutiny after publishing photos of Yar’Adua’s son holding a machine gun and playing with bundles of Nigerian money. Independent journalist Chidi Opara reported on his blog that the charges against Elendu were a ruse and that he was actually detained because he had discovered information that could be used against top politicians. In any case, we won’t know the truth until Elendu himself is able to speak.

Jonathan Elendu

However, Sahara Reporters has strongly denied any connection with Elendu. According to a report in the Daily Independent in Lagos, “Elendu was being kept in inhuman conditions and tortured to either disclose the sources of the several embarrassing news reports on prominent political leaders in Nigeria.” The Human Rights Writers Association (HURIWA) heard from Elendu’s lawyer that the online journalist “was also being reportedly pressured into framing up some others.”

Late on Thursday, October 29, reports began to appear that Elendu had been released and was receiving medical treatment. While this is excellent news for him and his family, the actions of the SSS and the Nigerian government are not what one would expect from a so-called democracy.

Governments Pressuring Bloggers

Jonathan Elendu is the first Nigerian blogger-journalist to be targeted by the government, but I doubt that he will be the last. He is, however, not the first African to be subjected to government pressure for his blogging — Egypt and Morocco have both taken oppressive steps towards bloggers and activists using social media like Facebook and Twitter. Egyptian blogger and activist Kareem Amer is now in his second year of imprisonment for criticizing Islam and the government on his blog.

As I wrote in a previous post, Nigeria has a vibrant and well established blogosphere, often highly critical of the government. However, it is noteworthy that most Nigerian bloggers write and comment anonymously; Elendu is one of the few, including myself, who write under their real names.

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Given the history of media censorship in Nigeria, the government’s reaction is not surprising. I felt that such a response was just a matter of time and I wonder how other Nigerian bloggers will respond to the news that one of their own was kidnapped by the same government they had all criticized so vocally. The first blogging report of his arrest came from Nigerian Curiosity. In addition to providing an excellent analysis of the situation, Nigerian Curiosity has been instrumental in disseminating information — partly because Solomon Sydelle has access to a relative of Elendu. Sydelle wrote:

There is enough fear in Nigerians when it comes to politics and standing up for what is right. We have suffered from Persistent Psychological Paralysis for long enough that a democratic president, in this case Yar’Adua, should not be party to further destroying national participation in what rightly belongs to the citizenry — the freedom to express their concerns and ideas. After all, the Nigerian Constitution guarantees, as “Fundamental Rights” the freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of thought and conscience, and freedom from discrimination.

Although there has been a lively discussion on Nigerian Curiosity and a few other blogs, by and large the blogosphere has been unusually silent about Elendu. After a week, Nigerian Curiosity and fellow blogger Mootbox created a Facebook group Free Nigerian Blogger, Jonathan Elendu. However, a Facebook group is only as good as its members. After 5 days, the group still only has 59 supporters. Although supporters left messages on various Nigeria-related Facebook groups and pages, there had been relatively little response.

Criticism of Elendu’s Reporting

The comments left on the Nigerian Forum, Nairaland (ranked in the top 10 Nigerian sites by Alexa) may explain the silence: Many see Elendu’s writing as being sensationalist and unreliable, and do not consider his detention a worthy cause. To quote just a few comments:

“I prefer to call it imaginative journalism, because the standards of that publication are so low!”

“Their stuffs sometimes reflect publicity stunts, they also churn out unsubstantiated facts, which is sometimes caused by Jonathan Elendu’s hallucination, what one of my role model Edgar Hoover calls mental halitosis.”

“I think these guys are just ‘sensational gangster-style’ journalists. I thought I was over critical of the quality of Elendu’s reportings until I read the views of other people. I can’t substantiate this fact, but I believe Elendu is making money from the sensationalism…If you read his story about the Sokoto State government before and after his visit to the state (God knows what transpired during the visit, I hear journalists too collect brown envelopes) you will wonder where his objectivity lies.”

“He also seems to be partisan in his views of the Nigerian politics. I suspect he might be on some politician’s payroll going by his write ups”

Whether the above accusations are true or not, the fact remains that a blogger-journalist was taken into custody by the State Security Services as he arrived at the airport, denied counsel, interrogated, possibly tortured, and finally released after 11 days. Even after his release, officials have refused to return Elendu’s passport, meaning that he cannot return to his home in Michigan.

Nigeria Turns Against the Media

His arrest is part of a culture of media censorship that has reigned for the past 30 years. Just last September, television station Channels TV was shut down by Presidential order after it mistakenly reported that he might resign due to ill health. This reaction was far too drastic; even if the station reported the details of the story wrong, surely a simple reprimand would have been a more appropriate response. In 2004 alone, there were 21 attacks against journalists in Nigeria. A commenter on Black Looks said:

Looking at the reasons behind the harassment and detention of journalists it is clear that their ‘crimes’ were reporting the truth such as election rigging, strikes, political disputes between the president and other members of government, or as in the case of Gbenga Faturoti of the Daily Independent, beaten almost unconscious for failing to turn off his mobile phone whilst in the Osun State Assembly. Altogether 21 journalists were victims of either the police or SSS in 2004 — arrested, beaten, threatened, detained. Most were tortured. All were released without charge after a period of 24 hours to 1 week. In addition two radio stations in Anambra State were vandalized and staff beaten up and the offices of Insider Weekly and Global Star were also vandalized and staff arrested.

In 2005, a friend and well known political activist had his weekly newspaper column suspended. He was sure that the regime had pressured the newspaper to drop him due to his repeated criticisms of then President Olusegun Obasanjo.

I asked one prominent online individual who wishes to remain anonymous what he felt about the Elendu matter. His response speaks to both the fear and intimidation under which all Nigerians live as well as the suspicions about Elendu and the perceived bias of his reporting:

I can’t really take a stand on the matter for two reasons:

(1) I live in Nigeria and I don’t want them to arrest me.

(2) I live in a country where people can be arrested for telling the truth. That makes it hard to leap to the defense of someone who was arrested for telling lies. He shouldn’t be detained without trial, but there are thousands of truly innocent people languishing in jail
and awaiting trial. Why support him and not them?

For Nigerian bloggers and online readers, the arrest of Elendu justifies their remaining anonymous — how else can they safely return home? For those who are “out,” the risk of returning is a heavy one. As for the Nigerian government, it will have to wake up to the fact that online media sites and citizen journalists — many of whom live abroad — cannot be intimidated and controlled in the same way as traditional media. As more Nigerians gain access to the Internet, more people will be in a position to challenge the repressive mindset of the military-influenced civilian leadership of the the last two presidents.

Sokari Ekine is an activist with a background in human rights in Africa. She presently works with The Global Women’s Strike and Kabissa: Space for Change in Africa. Sokari blogs at Black Looks, Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine and Niger Delta Solidarity Campaign, and is the African correspondent for MediaShift.