The Nigerian police have charged two journalists and a controversial Muslim cleric Tuesday over a radio programme that allegedly repeated conspiracy theories about polio vaccinations days before deadly attacks on polio clinics.
Gunmen attacked two polio clinics in the northern city of Kano on February 8, killing at least 10 people, after Wazobia FM broadcast a story allegedly reviving claims that the vaccines are part of a Western plot to harm Muslims. Two journalists from Wazobia and controversial cleric Abubakar Rabo were all charged on Tuesday in a judge’s chambers at magistrate’s court in the presence of journalists and others. All three denied the charges.
Charges include criminal conspiracy, inciting disturbance, intentional insult, obstruction of a public servant in discharge of his public functions, defamation and uttering injurious falsehoods. They were denied bail for now, but the judge said he would decide later whether to grant it.
Wazobia’s station chief Sanusi Bello Kankarofi earlier told AFP that a third journalist, the station’s head of content, was also questioned by police but later released. After the court appearance, Kankarofi denied any wrongdoing by the station. Claims that polio vaccinations are used to render Muslims infertile have long spread in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north, often stoked by local politicians and clerics, dealing setbacks to efforts to eradicate the crippling disease.
Such conspiracy theories led to the suspension of vaccination campaigns in Kano in 2003. Nigeria is one of only three countries still considered to have endemic polio, along with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Wazobia’s popular Sandar Girma programme, known for being provocative often at the expense of sourced reporting, focused on the cleric, who said he was allegedly forced to submit his children to vaccinations by district officials.The programme accused health officials of taking money from the West to conduct the harmful vaccinations, an AFP reporter who heard it said. However, one of the Wazobia journalists claimed he was beaten and his equipment seized during the altercation at the cleric’s home when health officials were seeking to immunise the children. Rabo is a hardline cleric and ex-head of the state-run censorship board in charge of ensuring films do not violate sharia law.
It is not yet clear who was responsible for the February 8 attacks and there was no evidence linking Wazobia’s piece to the violence. Islamist extremist group Boko Haram has carried out attacks in Kano, though gangs linked to local politics also operate.According to the World Health Organisation, Nigeria accounted for 121 of the world’s 222 polio cases in 2012.
The United Nations and the United States spoke out after the killings, with the world body saying the population was being "robbed of basic life-saving health interventions." A concerted campaign to eradicate the disease that once crippled and killed children worldwide was started in 1988. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his foundation have led a high-profile effort to stamp out polio, including in Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer and the continent’s most populous nation with some 160 million people.