The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) have faulted the conviction of Nigerian journalists, Gidado Yushau and Alfred Olufemi, over a report on drug abuse.
Gidado, Editor of News Digest and Convener of Campus Journalism Awards (CJA), and Alfred, a freelance reporter who worked with Premium Times and Punch Newspaper, were arrested and charged in 2019.
The prosecution followed an investigative report published in 2018, alleging Indian-hemp smoking by staff at Hillcrest Agro-allied company, a rice factory in Kwara State.
In February, a Magistrate in Ilorin, Adams Salihu Mohammed, ordered the journalists to be jailed for five months or pay N100,000 each for defamation and conspiracy, which they paid.
But their counsel, Barrister Ahmed Ibraheem Gambari, said there was evidence before the court that the police report which purportedly indicted the duo came into existence even before they were invited.
“Also, an ex-employee of the company testified before the court that he was not only a witness to how smoking of Indian hemp pervaded the site, but it was the persistent smoking that informed his decision to sever his employment.”
“In order to establish the verisimilitude of his assertion, the witness tendered his bank statement evidencing the receipt of his monthly salaries during the period smoking was prevalent. It, therefore, remains a conundrum of how the court found them guilty in the face of this empirical evidence, among others.
“We believe justice will be achieved at appeal so that patriotic youthful elements in society like our clients will not be discouraged from embarking on their respective altruistic endeavours,” Gambari added.
In its reaction, the CPJ described the conviction as “a chilling message to the Nigerian press and highlights the urgent need for authorities to reform the country’s laws and ensure journalism is not criminalized”.
Africa program coordinator in New York, Angela Quintal, noted that the duo should never have been charged, let alone convicted, for publishing an investigative report about a factory.
“The telecom surveillance used to bring the journalists into custody, followed by a more than three-year-long trial, demonstrates the lengths Nigerian authorities will go to arrest and prosecute the press,” Quintal said.
Reacting, CISLAC Executive Director and Head of Transparency International Nigeria, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani described the conviction as an inglorious attempt to muzzle the press and investigative journalism.
“It is saddening that despite the testimony of an ex-employee indicting the company and a lot of infractions by the police, the Magistrate still convicted the duo of criminal conspiracy and defamation. We demand that an urgent step be taken to reform the laws and ensure journalism is not criminalised.
“International human rights courts and UN bodies have repeatedly ruled against criminal sanctions for defamation. It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money when public funds are used in prosecuting cases of personal interests such as this.
“Press freedom has continually waned under President Muhammadu Buhari. Nigeria dropped to 129 from 120 in the 2022 ranking of press freedom across 180 countries. We implore the President to do our justice system the honour to champion the necessary reforms,” Rafsanjani urged.