KANO, Nigeria – Police in northern Nigeria arrested and charged three radio journalists for allegedly being responsible for the killings of at least nine women gunned down while trying to administer polio vaccines, officials said Tuesday. Police claimed on-air comments about a vaccination campaign in the area sparked the attacks.
The allegations against the journalists working for Wazobia FM show the continuing struggle over free speech in Nigeria, a nation that only came out of military rule in 1999 and where simply taking photographs on the street can get a person arrested. Though Nigeria has a rambunctious free press, threats and attacks against journalists remain common and unsolved killings of reporters still haunt the country.
On Friday in Kano, the largest city in Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north, gunmen in three-wheel taxis attacked women preparing to give the oral-drop vaccines to children, killing at least nine in the assault, police said. Witnesses later said they saw at least 12 dead from the attack.
A few days before the attack, Wazobia FM aired a program in which presenters talked about how one of the station's journalists had been attacked by local officials and had his equipment confiscated after coming upon a man who refused to allow his children to be vaccinated. Those on the program apparently discussed the fears people have about the vaccine, which then spread through the city.
Kano state police commissioner Ibrahim Idris ordered the journalists be arrested immediately after Friday's attack. On Tuesday, two journalists remained held by police, while the other had been released on bail, police said.
On Tuesday, Idris said the journalists would face charges of "culpable homicide" over the polio workers' deaths. Those charges can carry the death penalty.
Sanusi Bello Kankarofi, manager of the Wazobia FM station in Kano, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
There have long been suspicions about the polio vaccine in northern Nigeria, with people believing the drops would sterilize young girls. In 2003, a Kano physician heading the Supreme Council for Shariah in Nigeria said the vaccines were "corrupted and tainted by evildoers from America and their Western allies." That led to hundreds of new infections in children across the north, where beggars on locally made wooden skateboards drag their withered legs back and forth in traffic, begging for alms. The 2003 disease outbreak in Nigeria eventually spread throughout the world, even causing infections in Indonesia.
Today, Nigeria is one of only three countries where polio remains endemic, the others being Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Nigeria came out of a long period of military rule in 1999 and has an unbridled free press, but journalists are often harassed by police and the State Security Service, the nation's secret police. Local journalists also have been attacked and killed in the oil-rich nation over their reporting in the past. Last year alone, two journalists in Nigeria were killed. Eighteen journalists have been killed in Nigeria since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists
Newspapers and radio stations also often hold off paying journalists their salaries for months at a time. That forces reporters to make money from selling advertising to those they cover or through collecting so-called "brown envelope" bribes slipped into briefing materials at news conferences.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Johannesburg contributed to this report.