MFWA hails ECOWAS court order to Nigerian government to pay compensation to abused journalist

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) welcomes the order by the ECOWAS Court of Justice for the Nigerian government to pay journalist Agba Jalingo the sum of 30 million naira (USD 73,000) as compensation for subjecting him to dehumanising treatment while in detention in Cross River State in Nigeria.

The MFWA hope that the court ruling will send a very clear warning to human rights abusers and those who use their power to maltreat journalists to desist from doing so, knowing that there will be consequences.

“We have looked at the evidence before us. There was no answer as to the facts that Jalingo was arrested and illegally detained, brutalised and dehumanised. This is against international human rights treaties, particularly the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to which Nigeria is a state party. The Nigerian government has flouted the provisions of these treaties on international fair trial standards, the ECOWAS Court, in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, said while delivering the judgement on July 9, 2021.”

“For these reasons, on the claims of compensation for ill-treatment and torture, SERAP has been able to establish the claims. We condemn the Nigerian government for these acts, and hereby award compensation of N30 million to Mr Jalingo for violations of his human rights. The Nigerian government must comply with the order of the court within three months, and file a process to this court to this effect.”

Reacting to the judgement, Jalingo told the MFWA correspondent in Nigeria that he was most grateful to Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) for filing the case on his behalf.

“Actually, the judgement came to me as a surprise because we weren’t part of those who fought the matter in court. It was done by SERAP. So first and foremost, I want to thank SERAP because I understand the matter was filed in court while I was still in prison and they were diligent in following it up until the judgement was obtained.

“I am also glad that the judgement is sending a clear message to not just those who kept me in prison but also to journalists who are going through pain that it is possible to get justice in court. That is the message that is more important to me,” Jalingo said.

“I encourage Nigerian journalists and those in other countries to have courage. Politicians will continue to shut down journalists who are unwilling to make compromises, but ultimately, no politician or government will be able to win journalism,” the journalist added.

Jalingo, who is the publisher of CrossRiverWatch, a privately owned news website, was arrested on August 22, 2019, over a report alleging that the Cross River State Governor Ben Ayade, diverted N500 million (USD 1.2 million) belonging to the state.

On August 30, 2019, federal authorities in Cross River State charged the journalist with disturbing public peace and treason for his writing and social media posts about the governor, his lawyer, Attah Ochinke, said.

According to the charge sheet, the first charge stems from a July 12 article published in CrossRiverWatch that alleged corruption involving Ayade and the Cross River Micro Finance Bank.

The treason charges alleged that Jalingo agitated for Ayade’s removal through “various malicious publications” on CrossRiverWatch and social media.

Jalingo was thereafter remanded in custody in Calabar but was released on bail on February 13, 2020, after spending 179 days in detention. The journalist after his release said his jailers made life unbearable for him. At a period in the prison, he said his two hands were chained to a deep freezer for more than two weeks.

While in detention, a civil society organization, SERAP filed a suit against the Nigerian government and Cross River State government at the ECOWAS Court in Abuja over the prolonged, arbitrary detention, unfair prosecution, persecution, and sham trial of Mr Jalingo.

After hearing arguments from the counsel for SERAP and MFWA board member, Mr Femi Falana, and counsel for the government, Abdulahi Abubakar and AA Nuhu, the court ordered that Jalingo be compensated for the injustice meted out to him by state parties.

“In view of the ongoing brutalisation of hapless Nigerian citizens by the police and other security agencies, this judgment could not have come at a more opportune time than now,” Falana reacted to the ruling in a statement obtained by MFWA.

“It is to be hoped that the federal and state governments and all law enforcement agencies will study the terms of the judgment and desist from further infringing on the human rights of the Nigerian people, including criminal suspects who are presumed innocent until the contrary is proved by the state,” he added.

The MFWA hails the court verdict as an emphatic rejection of impunity for attacks on press freedom. We commend SERAP for taking up the matter. We are deeply concerned about the country’s fast deteriorating press freedom environment.

A report produced by the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the MFWA and launched on June 28, 2021, revealed that over 300 press freedom violations, including seven killings, have been recorded in Nigeria over the past six years. We, therefore, urge the Nigerian authorities to act to reverse the trend.

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