* Abuja irritated by coverage of Boko Haram insurrection
* Army seized newspapers, halted distribution vans
* Nigerian newspapers dynamic, but beset by problems
* Bribery rampant in newspaper industry
By David Dolan and Tim Cocks
ABUJA/LAGOS, July 20 (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 Organization 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.
"Newspapers have reported this insurgency independently," said The Sun's Adesina. "Apparently they're not comfortable with our independent reportage of what is happening in the country."
While press freedom is guaranteed under Nigerian law, in reality the media face retribution that is "episodic, unpredictable and very often arbitrary", said John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Going after the wrong "Big Man", or politically well-connected person, can be dangerous.
"In a general climate of lawlessness, if a newspaper publishes something that a big man or some part of the government doesn't like, it's likely to have its offices ransacked by a mob," Campbell said.
Nigerian journalists are still killed for their work, just as activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the military government in 1995. The Committee to Protect Journalists names Nigeria as one of 13 countries where the murder of a journalist is most likely to go unpunished.
Since 2009 at least five journalists have been murdered with no perpetrators brought to book, the organization says.
Yet overall the press has always been good at defending its freedom: even military dictator Sani Abacha never fully suppressed its feistiness in the 1990s.
"Press freedom has always been good," said popular journalist and blogger Tolu Ogunlesi. "It's hard to muzzle or intimidate the press in Nigeria. Even Abacha failed to control them: they went underground ... (and) used radio."
"ANY KIND OF STORY"
Taking stock of newspapers in Africa's biggest economy is a dizzying exercise: there are at least a dozen major national dailies running to 40 pages each and scores of regional titles.
The big dailies are clearly influenced by their counterparts in Britain, which ruled Nigeria before independence in 1960. The Sun even publishes photos of "page three girls", albeit fully clothed, unlike the topless models in its British namesake.
But big circulations and flashy headlines fail to mask the sometimes low standards of an industry which, much like the country itself, is mired in corruption and political influence.
Slipshod reporting helps to fuel misinformation about the insurrection in the north, especially since the bulk of the big newspapers, and their reporters, are based in the mainly Christian south.
"You can cook up any kind of story and it gets published," said Dayo Aiyetan, a reporter and the executive director at the International Center for Investigative Reporting, a Nigerian NGO. "You can malign anybody, you can libel anybody and nothing happens. That's the environment."
Aiyetan works with the U.S. Ford Foundation on a program to help train Nigerian journalists in investigative reporting techniques and raise standards. But that also means tackling the culture of "brown envelopes" or bribes for stories.
The practice is so widespread that some reporters say they aren't paid by their employers. Instead, they are expected to earn money from the people they interview.
"The press is certainly lively, though you wouldn't want to rely on them," said a Western diplomat. "Sometimes they expect to be paid to write a story, and we have to say 'No, I'm afraid we don't do that.'"
Bribery compromises reporters' independence and is another disincentive to expose corruption. Even some newspaper owners face corruption allegations.
The owner of Nigeria's Independent newspaper, former Delta State Governor James Ibori, is serving 13 years in prison in Britain after pleading guilty to 10 counts of money laundering.
"You cannot expect these newspapers to be absolutely free to do the kind of critical reportage we need to make an impact on corruption and good governance in Nigeria," said Aiyetan, the investigative reporter. "It's actually not just corruption we're fighting. It's the impunity with which people steal money." (Editing by David Stamp)