Nigeria's press, which enjoys an unfettered freedom that is rare in black Africa, recently has come under strong government attack in the aftermath of unauthorized publication by one relatively independent newspaper of sensitive government reports.

The same paper also has published embarrassing official correspondence and been willing to confront police with sharp, biting criticism.

That there is even a public dispute here is noteworthy. In virtually all of black Africa, excluding only Senegal and Kenya, the issue of what the media can publish or broadcast outside government controls does not arise because such freedom does not exist.

The upcoming court battles here will be watched closely because they could end up defining the limits of press freedom in Nigeria, a freedom enshrined in Nigeria's 1979 Constitution. The 1979 charter was modeled, in part, on that of the United States.

In the controversy here today, two editors who have been the focus of considerable police attention argue that they are being harassed to turn them away from the Nigerian Constitution's provision that the press is "to uphold the accountability of government."

Nigerian police officials, for their part, say the issue is not that lofty and, at least in the most prominent part of the conflict, that the issue involves simple obedience to the law as laid out in the 1962 Official Secrets Act.

Under the act, Sunday Concord editor Dele Giwa since November has been arrested, jailed for a total of 14 days, had the charges against him dropped and then reinstated by the police and been rearrested four times.

Giwa, 35, a New York Times reporter for 4 1/2 years before returning here in 1978, incurred official wrath by publishing a government report on the torching of a public building to hide embezzlement. Giwa published the findings of arson before the report was officially released and followed that report, in January and February, by printing revealing correspondence between government officials.

All of this would be considered fair game to many American reporters, whose traditions of journalism have heavily influenced Giwa, but much of this is unsettling and new to Nigerian officialdom.

Ray Ekpu, 35, also works at the Concord and was recently charged by the police with murder, arson and conspiracy because of a satirical column he wrote. The column suggested that some government officials under investigation for embezzlement were stupid for not following the Nigerian practice of burning down their headquarters to destroy all of the accounting records. The next day, two people died in a fire in the building Ekpu mentioned, the 37-story office of Nigerian external telecommunications.

Ekpu was arrested a week later. A judge threw the case out of court but not before Ekpu, who has been highly critical of the police in the past, spent 16 days in prison.

"The government believes we're dangerous," said Giwa, "and therefore subterfuges are used to hold us in jail in the hope that we will be cowed into silence." Although the arson report "was not damning to the government, it was the first time someone published a report without official approval and the government wants to intimidate the press from continuing such action," Giwa added. "They're afraid of investigative journalism."

Nigeria's approximately 25 newspapers, most of which back one of the country's six political parties or are controlled by the government, were silent on the arrests of Giwa and Ekpu, but a second independent paper, The Guardian, editorialized in its first edition of Feb. 27:

"When the police arrest a journalist, bring him to court on wild charges, and the charges are thrown out and they proceed to rearrest him on other equally wild charges, which are again thrown out of court, that is police harassment."

"Such behavior" by an institution "charged with enforcing law and order under the Constitution is an abuse of public office and opens the way to tyranny," the editorial concluded.

But Nigeria's federal police chief, Inspector General Sunday Adewusi, denied the accusation.

"It is a firm belief of the silent majority that the land shall be built on law and not lawlessly laid to waste," he said in response to a question on how Giwa had broken the secrets act. "Is stealing government documents investigative journalism?" he asked. "Publication of such documents is not in the interest of the security of the country," he said in an interview.

"The whole business of publishing the letters was just to embarrass the government," Adewusi added.

The first letters Giwa printed involved an angry exchange between Adewusi and Attorney General Richard Akinjide over Akinjide's dropping of the original secrets act violation charge against Giwa as unwinnable. That charge was subsequently reinstated.

The second set of letters involved a complaint by the federal budget director to the head of the presidential Cabinet office that he was approving too many expensive overseas trips by federal officials. Giwa faces charges of two further secrets act violations on the letters stories.

Adewusi avoided any extensive discussion of the since dismissed murder charges against Ekpu.

While Ekpu is completely free of the murder charges, Giwa is out on bail on the three separate secrets act charges, reportedly the first time a Nigerian journalist has been charged under the 21-year-old act. Giwa has filed an $800,000 suit against Adewusi for unlawful detention.