LAGOS, Nigeria — The police moved in on a squat building along a deserted industrial street here one night this month, quietly sealing off the headquarters of Newswatch, one of Africa's most independent and respected weekly news magazines.
A day later, Newswatch was shut down officially by government decree and its three top editors were charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. But that week's edition was already on the street, unveiling the long-awaited secret report of a presidential task force charting Nigeria's future.
Such drastic actions, or the ever-present threat of them, keeps the press cowed in most African countries. But the press in Nigeria, considered by far the freest on the continent, was emboldened by the recent confrontation.
"Government has . . . killed a fly with a sledgehammer," the newspaper Vanguard complained in a front-page editorial expressing a popular sentiment.
Lawyers, doctors, academics and labor leaders joined the refrain, using the pages of the country's two dozen newspapers and three surviving weekly magazines to call the ban on Newswatch illegal, undemocratic, fascist and a blot on the country's human rights record.
The heated reaction was clear evidence that despite the setback, Nigeria's lively press is resilient. But the episode also pointed up the enduring hazards of publishing in Africa, where written guarantees of press freedom are usually undercut by unwritten rules about what types of news and comment pose a threat to the stability of a developing nation.
"Publishing in the Third World is like walking through a mine field while blindfolded," Ray Ekpu, editor of Newswatch, said. "When government can act by whim, it becomes more difficult to know where to stop, to see the safe cut-off points."
In Zimbabwe last week, for example, the editor of the Sunday Mail was suspended for reporting that Cuba had expelled some Zimbabwean students. The story angered Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, who was hosting Cuba's foreign minister at the time. The previous editor of the paper, which is run by a state-owned trust and has the largest circulation in the country, was fired two years ago for not bowing to government pressure over editorial policy.
In most African countries, official, government-owned newspapers, magazines and wire services are the only outlets for news, and nearly all of the radio and television stations on the continent are controlled by governments.
A few countries, such as Senegal, Cameroon and Nigeria, have many independently owned newspapers competing with the government press. But private ownership in Africa rarely guarantees the freedom to criticize the sitting government. Self-censorship has become a way of life for most African journalists.
Kenya's constitution, for example, promises freedom of expression. But any criticism of President Daniel Arap Moi is seen by the courts as a threat to the country's stability. Although two of Kenya's three daily newspapers are privately held, none carries articles or editorials critical of the president or the ruling party.
The press in Nigeria, by contrast, feeds on opinions, analysis and criticism--of the government and everything else. Its freedom is remarkable, considering that the country has been ruled by military governments for most of the past two decades.
One reason is that Nigerians demand an outlet for their opinions.
"Nigerians like to be heard. We like people to know what we think," said Sonala Olumhense, editor of This Week, Newswatch's prime competitor. "That's our nature, and I think even military men know that. Each time you try to suppress that, it opens up all sorts of problems."
Nigeria's 105 million people are a diverse, frequently contentious lot living on a half-arid, half-tropical chunk of West Africa about twice the size of California. As citizens of Africa's most populous nation, they consider it their duty to ponder the day's issues and speak their mind about every country in the world, including their own.
The papers carry "a lot of long-winded, anguished columns about what's wrong with the Nigerian soul," a Western diplomat in Lagos said recently. "The Nigerian spends a lot of time discussing why this is not the powerful and respected country in Africa it should be."
23 Daily Newspapers
Nigeria has an array of 23 tabloid-sized daily newspapers, 29 weekly newspapers and 53 magazines, owned by the federal government, state governments, private investors and, in the case of Newswatch, by journalists themselves. Four of the larger daily newspapers are privately owned and have circulations ranging from 200,000 to 400,000.