On March 30, 2023, Agba Jalingo, journalist and publisher of online newspaper CrossRiverWatch.com, who has been in custody for three days, was released on bail to the tune of 500,000 naira (US$1,000) with one surety in like sum by the Federal High Court in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.
Jalingo had been remanded in the Medium Security Custodial Centre at Kuje, Abuja on March 27, 2023, for publishing an article deemed malicious against Elizabeth Ayade, wife of the younger brother of Ben Ayade, governor of Cross River State in south-southern Nigeria.
The journalist was slammed with a two-count charge bordering on false publication intended to cause “annoyance, ill will and insult” on the person of Elizabeth, in the suit with charge number FHC/ABJ/CR/565/2022. He was alleged to have committed an offence punishable under Section 24(1)b of the Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention, Etc.) Act 2015.
During the March 27 appearance, Jalingo pleaded not guilty during his arraignment, and afterwards, the prosecution counsel, Fidelis Ogbobe, sought an adjournment for trial. The defense counsel, F Baba Isa did not oppose but pleaded for the matter to be stood down because the lead counsel, Marshal Abubakar, was just on his way to the court.
Ogbobe claimed that Abubakar’s absence in court was a ploy by the defence counsel to postpone Jalingo’s arraignment and asked the court to turn down Isa’s request. Isa continued to plead that the court should not visit the “sin” of the lead counsel’s absence on the defendant. Eventually, Justice Zainab Abubakar of the Federal High Court refused to grant the defence counsel’s request to move the motion for bail, inclining rather to the prosecution’s argument. She, therefore, adjourned the matter until March 30, 2023, for the court to take the bail application of the defendant. However, the judge held that the defendant should remain in custody, pending when he perfects his bail conditions.
At the resumed proceedings in the matter on March 30, the defendant, through his team of lawyers led by Femi Falana, applied to be released on bail pending the determination of the case against him. Justice Abubakar granted the bail and adjourned the case till May 31 for trial.
Why Jalingo is on trial
MFWA earlier reported that the whole thing started when in May 2022 when one Paschal Aboh, a lecturer of law at the University of Calabar, Cross River State, was allegedly arrested for impersonation during an examination at the Nigerian Law School. After conducting an investigation, Jalingo published an article dated June 24, 2022, in which he reported that Aboh indeed impersonated Elizabeth during the said exam. The journalist sought enquiries from the law school about the dealings between Elizabeth and Aboh, but the school declined to furnish him with the details. Instead, the school directed him to the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, which was like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Jalingo reported that Aboh, the lecturer, had been on prosecution since he was exposed and had been suspended by the University of Calabar. But he was baffled why Elizabeth was spared and not prosecuted. This he reported in his article.
However, Elizabeth, through her lawyers, Uyi Frank Obayagbona & Co, denied the allegation and filed a defamation petition against Jalingo, seeking 500 million naira (US$1.1 million) in damages from the journalist. The petition resulted in Jalingo’s arrest by the police in August 2022, but he was released on bail a day later. On December 8, 2022, the petitioner charged Jalingo to court, for which he appeared on March 27, 2023.
“The whole situation means there are still attacks on freedom of the press in Nigeria. The press is not free from attacks, intimidation and harassment,” Isa told the Media Foundation for West Africa by phone.
A non-profit, the Coalition for Whistle-blower Protection and Press Freedom (CWPPF), also condemned Jalingo’s remand and called for a review of the Cybercrime Act, as it has become a tool for the suppression of free speech and press freedom.
The MFWA sees Jalingo’s prosecution and serial detentions in connection with this matter as a blatant attack on press freedom of the press and a clearly deliberate attempt to gag the journalist. The journalist’s publication about the alleged exam fraud, for which a suspect is standing trial, can at worst, be subject to a civil defamation case. This criminal trial is an act of persecution which we call on the Nigerian authorities to discontinue.
The notorious Section 24(b) of the Cybercrime Act
Section 24(b) of the Cybercrime Act 2015 criminalises using computers or other devices to transmit information that the sender “knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another or causes such a message to be sent.”
According to the law, anyone convicted of cyberstalking faces up to three years in prison or a fine of 7 million naira (US$16,820) or both. Since the Act’s enactment, many public officials have used it to harass and arrest journalists who report on government corruption, human rights abuses, and other issues of public interest.
Jalingo has long been a victim of intimidation and harassment by public officials, who have often been the subjects of his investigative journalism. He spent six months in prison in 2019 following his series of investigative reports on the alleged corrupt practices of the administration of Ben Ayade, the governor of Cross River State. The governor accused him of terrorism, treason, treasonable felony and attempts to overthrow his government.
The journalist was abused and dehumanised while in prison, saying during interviews that at a time, prison warders chained his two hands to a deep freezer for more than two weeks.
After his release, the ECOWAS Court of Justice ruled that he be paid a sum of 30 million naira (US$65,000) as compensation for his dehumanisation in prison. Jalingo recently told MFWA that the compensation had not been paid.
The MFWA condemns Jalingo’s remand and calls for his immediate release. The authorities must drop all charges filed against him immediately and allow him to exercise his right to freedom of expression as guaranteed in Section 39 of the Nigerian constitution.
We also urge the Nigerian government to review the Cybercrime Act and ensure that it is not used to suppress freedom of expression.