KANO, Nigeria (AP) — Police in northern Nigeria arrested and charged two radio journalists and a local cleric alleged to have sparked the killings of at least nine women gunned down while trying to administer polio vaccines, officials said Tuesday. Police claimed their on-air comments about a vaccination campaign in the area inflamed the region and caused the attacks.
The allegations against the journalists working for Wazobia FM show the continuing struggle over free speech in Nigeria, a nation that came out of military rule only 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, police said. Witnesses later said they saw at least 12 dead from the attack. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, though suspicion immediately fell on the sect known as Boko Haram, which is waging a campaign of guerrilla shootings and bombings across northern Nigeria.
A few days before the killings, 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. The journalists and the cleric 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 and the cleric be arrested immediately after Friday's attack.
Initially, Idris said the journalists would face charges of "culpable homicide" over the polio workers' deaths. Those charges can carry the death penalty. However, at an arraignment hearing Tuesday afternoon, prosecutors brought lesser charges that included conspiracy, inciting a disturbance and obstruction of a public servant. Magistrate Ibrahim Bello ordered a follow-up hearing Thursday.
Onimisi Adaba, operation manager for Wazobia FM and its sister stations, later told The Associated Press that the radio group was "fully aware of the situation."
"We are presently attending to the matter," Adaba said. He declined to comment further.
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. 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.
Mohamed Keita, an official with the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, said his organization is investigating the circumstances surrounding the journalists' prosecution.
"We are troubled by the detentions of journalists insofar as there appears to be no evidence linking their program to the murderous attacks on the polio clinics," Keita said. "We call on Nigerian authorities to afford the journalists due process under the law."
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Johannesburg contributed to this report.