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Arbitrary Arrest and Detention of Journalists, Citizens Raise Human Rights Concern

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Arrest, harassment and intimidation of journalists for criticism and defamation of political leaders or their associates, appear to have become rife, with State powers and resources deployed to serve personal interests. The most recent incident was the arrest of Agba Jalingo, a Nigerian journalist and publisher of the media outfit, Cross River Watch, on allegation of defamation against the sister-in-law of Cross River State Governor, Ben Ayade. The journalist had on 19th August 2022, disclosed that his house was surrounded by policemen and that members of his family were being held hostage by the security agents. The Nigeria Police later confirmed his arrest and subsequent transfer to the Criminal Instigation Department in Abuja. He was eventually released the following day. It is appalling that an allegation of defamation, a civil matter is being handled in such a manner, apparently because of the status of the persons involved.

It will be recalled that Jalingo was arrested in August 2019 by the Cross River State government and charged with treasonable felony, terrorism and cybercrime for accusing the Governor of diverting public funds. He was later discharged and acquitted in March 2022.

In a similar development, a blogger on the Eagles Foresight platform, Bashiru Hammed Adewale Olamilekan was arrested and detained by the Department of State Services (DSS) in Ogun State for publishing a story relating to purported criminal records of the Ogun State Governor, Dapo Abiodun in the United States. His lawyer disclosed that he was subsequently transferred to the custody of the Nigeria Police. The blogger who was arrested on 13th May 2022, has spent over 100 days in detention, despite deleting the said publication and tendering an apology to the Governor.

These instances also bring to mind, the circumstances leading to the one month imprisonment of human rights lawyer, Inibehe Effiong for contempt of court by the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State, Hon. Justice Ekaette Obot. Effiong was in court to defend his client, Leo Ekpenyong, a lawyer in a libel suit filed by Akwa Ibom State Governor, Emmanuel Udom. The Governor had sued Ekpeyong for defamation of character over a publication in which he alleged that the Governor procured judgment from an Election Petitions Tribunal following the 2019 general elections. A High Court in Akwa Ibom State presided over by Justice Obot (who is now the Chief Judge of the State) ordered the defendant to pay the sum of N1.5 billion to Governor Udom as damages, in a judgment delivered in December 2020. However, Inihebe Effiong, lawyer to Ekpeyong challenged the judgment, and had the court set it aside in February 2022.

At the hearing of the case on 27th July 2022, the judge was said to have asked a journalist to leave the court for covering proceedings without permission; an order that Effiong protested, insisting that the journalist had a right to make a video recording of the proceedings. He therefore refused to continue with his cross examination. Effiong was also reported to have complained that the presence of several police officers in the court room was intimidating. The judge accused him of being insolent and stalling court proceedings. She went on to cite him for contempt and committed him to one month in a custodial centre. Individuals and groups alike have criticised Justice Obot’s decision, saying that Effiong was denied fair hearing before his committal to prison. 

Several similar incidents involving political leaders and journalists have been observed in the past. It is disconcerting that rather than challenging media publications alleged to be libelous in civil lawsuits, some political office holders resort to channeling State instruments to violate the rights of journalists and other citizens.