People read newspaper headlines at a vendor's stand along a road in Ikoyi district in Lagos(AKINTUNDE AKINLEYE,, Reuters / July 20, 2014)
ABUJA/LAGOS, NIGERIA (REUTERS) - Nigeria's press is traditionally free to write almost anything about anyone - whether it's true or not. But reporters fear a government sensitive to criticism is now cracking down, especially on coverage of the battle against Boko Haram.
After 15 years of democracy, journalists believe the state is trying to tame the vibrant, prolific media during its faltering campaign to stamp out the militant Islamist group.
One Friday last month the army seized newspaper print-runs, halted distribution vans across the country and ransacked offices of newspaper distributors and agents, detaining staff for several hours, the Nigerian Press Organisation said.
For Femi Adesina, now editor-in-chief of Nigeria's top tabloid, The Sun, this awoke bad memories of life under military rule, when reporters were routinely hauled in for questioning over their news stories.
"You virtually had your heart in your mouth. You wrote the story and you didn't know whether you should sleep at home or sleep somewhere else," recalled Adesina, who is also president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. "If we are not careful as a country, we could slide back to those dark days."
While reporters accuse the security forces from time to time of intimidation, conditions for journalists remain a long way from the era of military dictatorship. Newspapers are able to publish vitriolic criticism of President Goodluck Jonathan that is largely tolerated.
Spokesmen for the presidency and police and a spokeswoman for the state security service did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
However, the military said it made the searches last month after receiving intelligence on the movement of "materials with grave security implications" through newspaper distribution channels. One security source told Reuters there was a genuine concern that militants were using the vans to transport explosives.
Nevertheless, the press organization says the military is using national security as an excuse for a crackdown on critical media coverage before elections next year.
Adding to journalists' anger, Nigeria's broadcast regulator has ruled that stations must give at least 48 hours' notice in writing before airing a live political program - a near impossibility given the impromptu nature of such coverage.
A local election in the western state of Ekiti in June that was otherwise deemed free and fair was marred by allegations of intimidation of local journalists, five of whom were arrested by police. In Akwa Ibom state in the oil producing Niger Delta, the editor of the Global Concord newspaper has been detained for two weeks after being bundled into a car by state security agents. The paper had repeatedly criticized the local government.
Nigeria ranks 112th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, above India and Mexico, but below East African nations Kenya and Uganda.
Jonathan has repeatedly expressed his support for freedom of the press, while also calling on its members to be "professional and accurate".
"Under my leadership, journalists in our country will continue to fully enjoy their constitutional rights and freedom of expression," he said in 2012.
The government seems to be losing patience with press coverage of its fight against Boko Haram, an insurgent group which has killed thousands since 2009 in a push to carve out an Islamic state in the largely Muslim north.
Boko Haram's own attitude to press freedom was neatly displayed in 2012, when it blew up the offices of mildly pro-government ThisDay for what it called "insulting the Prophet".
The newspaper had angered Muslims a decade ago when one of its columnists suggested the Prophet Mohammed might have wanted to marry a beauty queen.
Jonathan, a southern Christian, has been criticized at home and abroad for his slow response to Boko Haram's April kidnapping of more than 200 girls from a school in the rural northeast, and for his inability to quell the violence.
----David Dolan and Tim Cocks, Reuters