SAN FRANCISCO - An award-winning American
filmmaker arrested and imprisoned on spying charges was freed by the Nigerian State Security Service Tuesday, after an international campaign pressed authorities for his release. His translator continues to be interrogated.
Andrew Berends, a recipient of the International Documentary Association's Courage Under Fire award for his work in Iraq, had been living in Nigeria since April making a film about daily life in the oil-rich Niger Delta, where the activities of multinational corporations like Chevron and Shell Oil have provoked the ire of human rights groups.
In the last 10 years, military factions acting on behalf of
multinational oil companies have killed more than 2,000 people in the
Niger Delta, says the San Francisco-based nonprofit group Global Exchange, whose "Freedom from Oil" campaign aims to expose the negative consequences of Americans' oil consumption.
It is unclear if Berends will now be able to complete work on his film.
According to Berends' co-producer Aaron Soffin, Berends and his translator, Sam George,
were arrested in the Delta's main city, Port Harcourt, Friday as they
filmed "fishing boats coming in and women walking with their products
Soffin said the two were imprisoned and interrogated by Nigerian police, military, and state security officers
for 36 hours straight without food, water, or sleep. Their
incarceration drew an immediate condemnation from international press
freedom groups Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists and from Berends' home-state senators, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer.
Four days after his arrest, Berends was transferred to the Nigerian capital Abuja and turned over to the custody of the U.S. Embassy, but was forced to report to the Nigerian State Security Service
for additional interrogation. On Tuesday night local time, Berends was
on a plane out of the country after receiving deportation papers.
At the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, officials defended their
government's treatment of Berends and George. "We all believe in freedom of speech,"
a member of the Ambassador's staff told OneWorld, "but you can't
prevent law enforcement from doing their job. If they have any reason
to question anybody in the normal course of their duties, that's part
of what their job entails. It's just like any other part of the world."
Press freedom groups disagree. "Now that Andrew's case is settled,
we expect his translator and the businessman who was arrested at the
same time to be freed unconditionally as soon as possible," Reporters
Without Borders said in a statement. "We hope the Nigerian authorities
have learned from this episode that it is absurd to arrest reporters in
the Delta region and accuse them of spying when they are simply
reporting, with permission, on economic and political situations in
Human rights and
media freedom groups note Berends and George's arrests are just the
latest in a series of detentions and deportations of foreign
journalists working in Nigeria.
In April, a team of documentary filmmakers were arrested and deported
in the same oil-rich region while working on a film called "Sweet
Crude." Last October, two independent filmmakers and an American peace activist were arrested and deported while taking pictures of Nigeria's oil infrastructure.
The crackdown also comes as a landmark federal court case
over Chevron's behavior in Nigeria lurches toward trial in San
Francisco. The case, Bowoto vs. Chevron, was filed eight years ago by
Nigerian civilians who were injured or killed in violent crackdowns by
Nigerian security forces paid by the California-based oil giant.
After eight years of motions, the case was to go to trial this month, but the Bush administration refused to grant the Nigerian villagers visas to enter the United States.
"We the American public are not allowed to see footage about the way American oil companies operate around the world," said Antonia Juhasz,
author of the upcoming book, The Tyranny of Oil. "Over the last eight
years there has been an increasing U.S. military presence in West Africa to support these oil companies. The Bush administration and the oil companies don't want the American people to know this."
A crackdown on the media, Juhasz said, is also in the interests of the
Nigerian government. "The Nigerian government wants the United States
and the oil companies to think it has everything under control, and the
more it is shown that it is a war zone and the more it is shown that
the people of Nigeria are resisting these oil companies, the more the Nigerian government cracks down."
As of press time, it was unclear whether Berends was able to leave
Nigeria with the material he collected over his months of filming. If
he was, Americans are likely to learn a lot more about daily life in
the oil-rich Niger Delta. If Berends' material was lost, another
opportunity to broadcast the local effects of the world's thirst for
petroleum will have been lost with it.