Fighting Impunity: Appeal’s Court overturns conviction of two journalists after a year

On February 14, 2024, a court discharged and acquitted Alfred Olufemi and Gidado Yushau Shuaib, quashing a Magistrate Court’s ruling against the journalists, exactly one year and a week after they were convicted.

The three-man panel comprising Justice M.O Adegbite, Justice S.B Olanipekun and Justice S.M Akanbi, in their judgement ruled that they find merit in the appeal of the appellants, set aside the conviction and faulted the police prosecutor.

The Nigerian police had arrested Alfred Olufemi, an investigative reporter and Gidado Shuaib, editor of News Digest, an Abuja-based newspaper, in November 2019, and subsequently put them before a Magistrate’s court which convicted them on February 7, 2023.

The ordeal of the duo followed a report they had published in 2018, exposing how employees at a rice processing facility operated by Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industries Limited in Kwara State were permitted to smoke cannabis at work in violation of Nigerian law.

In a bid to arrest the duo, the police had bugged the phone of a former News Digest employee, Adebowale Adekoya, and traced him to Yusuf Yunus and Wunmi Ashafa, two Lagos-based journalists, lying that they were investigating a fraud case involving Adekoya. So, they tricked them into setting up meetings that facilitated Adekoya’s arrest.

After they had arrested him, the police informed him that they had been tracking his calls and SMS messages for a while, subsequently forcing him to lead them to Gidado’s Abuja residence on October 29, 2019. From there, he was taken to Ilorin in Kwara State.

Speaking with the press after his son’s arrest, Gidado’s father, Shuaib Yushau said his son was first taken to Wuye District Police Station, after plain-clothed Police officers stormed his residence in Abuja. Eventually, Alfred turned himself in on November 4.

The pattern through which Alfred and Gidado were arrested explains how surveillance of journalists by government agencies has become widespread practice in West Africa. For example, Nigeria’s Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2015 acquired equipment to spy on phone conversations and oftentimes, journalists are targeted with these gadgets.

Charged with criminal conspiracy and defamation

By November 13, 2019, the Police had arraigned both journalists before a magistrate court in Ilorin Metropolis, following a petition from Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industries Limited. The company is owned by Dr. Sarah Alade, Special Adviser to ex-President Muhammadu Buhari on Finance and Economy.

While the two journalists were charged with Criminal conspiracy and defamation contrary to Sections 97 and 192 of the penal code, they pleaded not guilty before the magistrate court.

A bail application was made by the defense counsel, and the Chief Magistrate of the Court, A.O Muhammed released them on grounds of recognition and that they are innocent until proven otherwise.

But the conditions of bail included two sureties each who are relatives of the defendants with a bail bond of two hundred thousand Naira (N200,000.00).

After over three years of trial, the magistrate’s court convicted the journalists, and ordered that they should be jailed for five months or pay 100,000 naira each, which they paid to avoid jail.

“Premised on the forgoing for the offence of conspiracy, I sentenced the 1st and 2nd defendants to a fine of N40,000 only each or 2 months imprisonment in default of payment. On defamation, the 1st and 2nd convicts are sentenced to a fine of N60,000.00 only each or 3 months imprisonment in default of payment.

“For clarity, each of the convicts is to pay a fine of N100,000.00 only for the offences of conspiracy and defamation respectively, having been convicted in default of payment, the sentence shall run concurrently,” the court said.


While the Africa program coordinator of Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) argued that the journalists should never have been charged, let alone convicted, for publishing an investigative report about a factory, and called for urgent need for authorities to reform the country’s laws and ensure journalism is not criminalized, the journalists’ lawyer, A.S Ibraheem Gambari Esq, told the press that the police had already found them culpable long before they were invited to state their own side of the story.

“…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 equally, it was the persistent smoking of the Indian hemp that informed his decision to sever his employment with the company. What’s more, in order to establish the verisimilitude of his assertion, the same witness tendered his bank statement evidencing the receipt of his monthly salaries from the company during the period when smoking was prevalent. It, therefore, remains a conundrum how the court found them (Alfred and Gidado) guilty in the face of this empirical evidence among others,” the lawyer said, reacting to the conviction.

Speaking with the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) Alfred, who is a 2021 recipient of the Business Reporting category of the West Africa Media Excellence Conference and Awards, said he has always believed in evidence-based journalism and the principle of holding power accountable, regardless of those involved. Even after the conviction, he remained undeterred.

“It would be incorrect to say I was not disturbed by the court verdict despite ensuring that all parties in our report were reached out to. However, I was undeterred as I proceeded to do more daring stories that fetched me both local and international recognition.”


Both Alfred and his editor, Gidado were not only concerned about their conviction, they were more disturbed over the implication of the judgement on press freedom, particularly on how it would undermine accountability journalism and embolden powerful people in public institutions to break the law.

“Our passion for the truth made us proceed to the appeal, believing that regardless of what happens, the court is still the last hope of the common man,” Alfred added.

The journalists’ lawyer urged the Kwara State High Court, sitting as an appellate court in Ilorin to quash the lower court’s conviction, arguing that the prosecution at the lower court did not prove its case beyond reasonable doubt as the trial magistrate did not regard the testimony of the journalists’ key witness and their defence, among other issues raised during the trial.

Interestingly, after over four years of legal battle, the appellate court on February 14, 2024, discharged and acquitted Alfred and Gidado, faulting the police and the trial magistrate’s ruling.

The three-man panel comprising Justice M.O Adegbite, Justice S.B Olanipekun and Justice S.M Akanbi, in their judgement ruled that they find merit in the appeal of the appellants, hence, set aside the conviction and sentence.

“We allow the appeal and enter a verdict of discharge and acquittal for the appellants,” the presiding judge, Justice Akanbi said in a 25-page judgement seen by MFWA.

“I think with all due respect to the learned magistrate, he came to the conclusion after taking into consideration the prosecution’s investigation report which came out before the arrest and invitation of the Appellant. The shoddy and shady investigation embarked upon by the police must have misled the trial magistrate court to its finding without regard to the evidence of the Appellants.

“Investigation report came before an invitation of the Appellants to exhibit P6 and the defence of the DW1 were jettisoned for the evidence of the prosecution witnesses. Every doubt ought to have been resolved in favour of the defence in criminal cases,” part of the judgement read.

MFWA wonders why the magistrate court convicted the journalists without the presence of Sarah Alade, aide to former President Muhammadu Buhari, who the police claimed was defamed in court to give evidence. From the start of the trial in 2019,  Alade, who was named the owner of Hillcrest Agro-allied never showed up in court but sent her son, Ayo Alade to appear on her behalf.

We are not only happy that Alfred and Gidado have been vindicated, the appeal court judgement is a victory for press freedom and right to free expression in Nigeria

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