The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) welcomes the liberation of Damilola Ayeni, the editor of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ), after nine days in detention.
Ayeni, the editor of the investigative journalism website, was arrested while gathering information at a national park in Parakou, northern Benin. He was accused of engaging in jihadist activities and detained for five days before being transferred to another facility in Cotonou.
A police spokesman in Parakou had told the MFWA that Ayeni would be heard by prosecutors in Cotonou before facing the counter terrorism, cybercrime and economic crime court (popularly known by its French acronym CRIET). However, the police held the journalist for four days and reached out to FIJ to demand 800,000 CFA (approximately N1.2 million) in ransom, according to the FIJ.
The Beninois authorities finally succumbed to pressure from the Nigerian Embassy in Benin, the FIJ and other press freedom groups including the CPJ and the MFWA. Ayeni was handed over to Nigerian envoys on September 8, 2023. In a messaging chat with the MFWA, Editor-in-Chief of FIJ, Fisayo Soyombo, confirmed that Ayeni has returned to Nigeria.
It is at least the second time in less than a year that the Benin security agents have arrested foreign journalists in so-called security zones in the north of the country. On October 9, 2022, the police arrested the French journalist Emilien David at Matéri, near the northwestern border with Burkina Faso, also designated as a military zone. The TV5 and Ouest-France correspondent was accused of “spying for a foreign power” and transferred to the criminal investigations division of the police in Cotonou. David was finally released on October 10 after he appeared before a prosecutor at the CRIET for an interrogation.
While the MFWA welcomes the release of Ayeni and his safe return home, we urge the Benin authorities to caution the security agencies against arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists under the pretext of national security. In this particular, instance we call for a thorough probe into the attempt by a police officer to extort money from FIJ in order to release Ayeni.