02 September, 2008


American Journalist Arrested in Nigeria


Published: September 2, 2008

LAGOS, Nigeria — An American documentary filmmaker and his translator working in the volatile Delta region of Nigeria have been arrested and accused of spying, according to Nigerian government officials and media watchdog groups.

Andrew Berends, a New York-based freelance journalist who was working on a film about the oil-producing Delta region, was arrested on Sunday and held for 36 hours before being released. Mr. Berends's passport and equipment were confiscated, and he was made to report back to the State Security Service early Tuesday morning. His translator, Samuel George, was also arrested.

"When you come to a security area with no clearance it's against the rules," said a military spokesman, Major Sagir Musa, who confirmed that Mr. Berends had been arrested and handed over to the security service. "He had no security clearance. It is for his own safety. If something happens to him it's an embarrassment to the security agencies. It's not normal times in the area right now. The S.S.S. will investigate him and once they are satisfied they will release him, God willing."

Mr. Berends contacted both Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists Monday night, and both advocacy groups condemned his detention.

"Berends was arrested just for doing his job and no other reason," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement Tuesday. "It is absurd for the authorities to think that, by arresting him and his interpreter, they can conceal the economic and ecological disaster unfolding in the Niger Delta."

Despite its oil riches, the Niger Delta is a desperately poor and increasingly lawless part of the country where wealth is siphoned away by corrupt officials. Militants demand a greater share of the area's oil resources and claim to be fighting on behalf of the impoverished residents, but also appear to be engaging in many criminal and opportunistic acts of violence. Hundreds of foreign workers and wealthy Nigerians have been kidnapped for ransom, and oil theft is rampant.

Several other foreign journalists and filmmakers have been detained while working in the region in recent years. In April, four members of a Seattle-based film crew were arrested while filming in the Delta and held for six days on spying charges. In May, a CNN journalist was detained while in the main Delta city of Port Harcourt and questioned by the S.S.S. for five days before being released.

"The government probably knows the fellow's real mission and that it has nothing to do with espionage, but they want to do it to discourage others from coming to report on the situation on the ground," said Chris Alagoa of the Niger Delta Peace and Security Secretariat, a community organization in the region. "They shouldn't report on things that aren't true, but if they're reporting objectively on the situation, the world and the Nigerian people have a right to know the truth. Hounding journalists and filmmakers who want to inform the public is in bad taste."

While Nigeria has a significantly freer press than most other Africa nations, gathering information in the tumultuous Niger Delta is particularly difficult.

"We have one of the freest presses in Africa, but there are rules," said Nwuke Ogbonna, Information Commissioner for Rivers State, of which Port Harcourt is the capital. As for Mr. Berends, he said, "He may have engaged in actions that are not in the national interests of this country. Whether that means spying or entering off-limits areas I can't say. It's for the security agents to determine whether this means he was spying."

Mr. Berends had visited Nigeria on several occasions and had been in the country since April on this particular trip. He often ventured into the creeks of the Delta to film in local villages affected by oil drilling. Two weeks ago, Mr. Berends said he had nearly finished his work and was planning on returning to New York this month.