Abuja - Four Nigerian newspapers said soldiers stopped and seized copies of its editions on Friday over security concerns, with one likening the raids to censorship during the country's military rule.
The military confirmed the searches, but officers denied that the moves were designed to muzzle critics, even though at least two of the newspapers had published damning articles about the army in recent days.
Four dailies - The Nation, the Daily Trust, the Leadership and Punch - all said they were affected, while The Nation said soldiers stormed one of its circulation offices.
“One of the military men told us that they were acting on (an) order from above as there were allegations that newspaper circulation vehicles were being used to smuggle arms and ammunition,” one of The Nation's distribution managers said.
The early morning raids did not appear to target specific editions and the copies seized were destined for all parts of the country, the newspapers said online.
Defence spokesman Chris Olukolade said the search “followed intelligence report(s) indicating movement of materials with grave security implications across the country using the channel of newsprint-related consignments”.
Nigeria's military has been under sustained pressure, including in the media, over its response to the Boko Haram insurgency, which has claimed thousands of lives since it began five years ago.
Attacks by the Islamist militant group have increased, with the military apparently powerless to prevent the bloodshed, exacerbated by the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in April.
But Olukolade rejected reports the army was trying to stifle free speech, calling the media “an indispensable partner in the ongoing counter-insurgency operation and the overall advancement of our country's democratic credentials”.
“As such, the military will not deliberately and without cause, infringe on the freedom of the press,” he added, calling the search a “routine security action”.
Sue Valentine, Africa programme coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) warned that “denying Nigerians access to news and information sows the seeds of rumours and distrust.”
“While we recognize that Nigeria faces security threats, these can never effectively be addressed by media blackouts or persecution of journalists,” she added.
Nigeria's response to the mass abduction of the teenage girls has been criticised as slow and lacklustre, while a social media campaign has prompted greater international media scrutiny of the counter-insurgency.
On Tuesday, the Leadership daily claimed that 10 army generals and five senior officers had been court martialled and found guilty of assisting Boko Haram.
The military described the report as “very unfortunate and meant to do maximum damage to the image of (the) Nigerian Army and its personnel”.
“Those concocting it appear hell-bent on misleading Nigerians and the international community to give credence to the negative impression they are so keen to propagate about the Nigerian military,” they said.
The Daily Trust said no reason was given for the search but said that on Wednesday it published a story claiming army generals and their wives were using an Abuja barracks for their personal use.
Punch said on punchng.com that copies of its edition were seized at Lagos international airport and distribution vans stopped and searched across the country.
The operation was “reminiscent of military dictatorship in the country”, it said.
Nigeria's media came under heavy censorship during the military rule of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha in the 1980s and 1990s.
A number of publications were either shut down or forced underground and editors fled abroad after printing articles critical of the government.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Nigeria 112th out of 180 countries worldwide in its 2014 Press Freedom Index.
Censorship and crackdowns have in recent years typically targeted reporters working in older media, like newspapers or television.
But the government has increasingly responded to sensitive reports published exclusively online.
Last month, the military attacked a May 23 New York Times report that suggested a lack of training and endemic corruption in the Nigerian military was hampering the search for the girls.
It accused the article's author of “abysmal mediocrity, arrogance and racist sentiments”.