Freed journalist Chris Anyanwu calls for democracy in Nigeria

Monday, August 17, 1998
The battle for freedom of expression and democracy in Nigeria is not over, said recently-released Nigerian journalist Chris Anyanwu in a keynote speech given at the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists (CCPJ) Annual Meeting in Toronto, Canada on 17 September. Anyanwu, released after the death of dictator Sani Abacha, thanked the CCPJ and other organisations who had been indispensable in obtaining her release. Anyanwu, founder of "The Sunday Magazine (TSM)", was first arrested in March 1995 in connection with reports in "TSM" about an alleged coup plot. She and three other journalists were charged with being "accessories after the fact of treason" and sentenced at secret trials that year to a life sentence that was later reduced to 15 years' in jail. She was released in June 1998 on medical grounds. Anyanwu said international lobbying annoyed Abacha, and stopped him from imposing the death penalty on journalists such as herself, George Mbah, Kunle Ajibade and Ben Charles Obi who had been arrested for reporting on a coup. She questioned how a journalist could be arrested for "reporting a coup" and called for support for journalist Niran Malaolu. He was imprisoned late last year on charges similar to Anyanwu's. His sentence was recently reduced to 15 years as well. She charged, "The fact that this bad precedent has been repeated by a government that espouses respect for human rights is dangerous. What it implies is a deepening belief among the military that journalists can write a coup." Anyanwu believes that after Abacha was prevented from putting to death the alleged coup plotters and those who reported on the surrounding events, he flew into a rage. "Then to prove to the world that he could bite, he grabbed Ken Saro-Wiwa and his people and slaughtered them secretly." She called for restitution to be made to the family of the Ogoni leader and popular writer, and to others who have been brutalized by the Abacha regime. She thanked the members of the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) network for their support. She said, "The information support of IFEX has really helped press freedom NGOs around the world to lift advocacy work to new heights so that there was pressure everywhere Abacha's government reared its head.... Without the work of groups like CCPJ, the tyrannical grip on Nigeria would have been tighter. The widespread negative publicity and the groundswell of consciousness it raised neutralized the millions of dollars they spent laundering the image of a sick regime." The audience was overwhelmed to hear that she had received 9,000 letters of support in the first load of mail she was permitted to receive. She pasted photographs sent by children from Canada and the U.K. in her prison cell to cover up the gloomy walls. She said the support kept up her strength and she thanked "the people of Canada [who] were among the most consistent and intensive in protesting against the injustice and reaching out to me." She refused to disclose many details of her imprisonment, saying they were too difficult to describe in a few words. She did report that she has received treatment for her failing eyesight and is no longer in danger of going blind. She commented, "What I saw in the days of incarceration is a long story but to me what is important are the positive things that came out of it.... I now appreciate life more fully. I have learned the true meaning of freedom. I value it and will fight for it both for myself and others." She also promised to re-launch "TSM", which went out of circulation while she was in jail. She called for the repeal of decrees and laws which continue to repress the media in Nigeria, such as Decree 29 which imposes the death penalty for reporting negatively on the country's leader. "The Nigerian press won its own freedom without relying on the courts or enjoying their cooperation. Our freedom has been won at very high cost. We value it and fight to keep it every day." In order to keep publishing, Anyanwu said the Nigerian press needs technological support, among other things. "We in the independent press who have borne the brunt of the onslaught are in a state of physical and financial exhaustion. Repression has caused us to retreat into stone-age operations so that publishing now amounts to miracle-working." Finally, in closing, she exhorted the Nigerian people not to give up until democracy is restored in their country. She promised to keep fighting for freedom of the press and pledged to keep working as a journalist despite her harrowing experience in jail. She concluded, "The Nigerian press, the human rights groups and the few vocal individuals and politicians have been alone in the war on the home-front and they have been clobbered by the massive force of repression. While they remain willing to fight on, they need the power of the people behind them for the battle they fight is for the true emancipation of the people. A man who cannot speak out, cannot express his opinion in his own land is not free. Freedom, total freedom should be the goal of every Nigerian now." Contact the CCPJ for more info at 489 College St. #403, Toronto, ON M6G 1A5, tel: + 416 515 9622, fax: +416 515 7879, e-mail: [email protected]

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