Govs Wage War On Free Expression, Clamp Down On Journalists, Critics


For criticising the authorities at federal and state levels, journalists and critics are at risk of bogus criminal charges, OLADIMEJI RAMON reports

Social media user and critic, Stephen Kefason, has been in prison custody since May 2019. He was incarcerated after posting some messages on Twitter and Facebook that some highly placed Nigerians considered to be ‘offensive’.

Earlier in January, for example, he posted a video on Twitter, which alleged that some teachers in Kaduna State were protesting over unpaid salaries. This annoyed Governor Nasir el-Rufai so much that he challenged Kefason to substantiate the claim or prepare to answer charges in court.

Recalling that such action had once led to the killing of about 800,000 people in two weeks in Rwanda, the governor had said, “Free speech should not be false, injurious, irresponsible, hateful and divisive. The Penal Code is clear. The Criminal Code is clear.”

The social media critic may have stepped on the toes of other prominent people in Kaduna. One of them, who is the Chairman of a local government area in the state, Cafra Caino, also had cause to bear a grudge against him. Kefason reportedly, through his posts on Facebook and Twitter, suggested that Caino threw a lavish birthday party in his residence, while “bandits and other attackers forced his subjects in Kajuru to flee their homes and suffer in refugee camps.

For his social media posts, Kefason is facing trial for “criminal defamation, injurious falsehood and disturbance of peace.”  But he is not the only one facing trial for criticising the Kaduna State Government.  A former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Prof Chidi Odinkalu, is also being persecuted for his comments on the number of casualties resulting from the February attack on Kajuru, which the government described as “an incitement and injurious falsehood.”

Like Kefason, journalist and human rights activist, Agba Jalingo, is spending time in detention after running into trouble with Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State. Jalingo had allegedly written and posted on his online newspaper, Cross River State Watch, an article titled, ‘How Ayade approved and diverted N500million for Cross River Microfinance bank,’ on July 17, 2019.

He wrote, “Information available to me suggests clearly that after the approval of the N500 million, Governor Ayade diverted the fund and embezzled same and this has stalled plans for the microfinance bank.”

Responding to a complaint from the governor, the police arrested and locked up Jalingo for 34 days before he was arraigned in court on four counts of treasonable felony and terrorism on September 24.

Jalingo applied for bail, but Justice Simon Amobeda rejected his bail application, holding that the charges against him were grave.

Only last week, an Abuja-based lawyer, Leo Ekpenyong, was arrested by the police and flown to Akwa Ibom State to stand trial before a magistrate court in the state.

Ekpenyong had reportedly, in an interview, which he granted a local tabloid in Uyo, alleged that Governor Udom Emmanuel bribed some election petitions tribunal judges with $1.5m to secure a favourable ruling for the Peoples Democratic Party.

He was quoted to have said, “Justice W. O. Akanbi, who many thought was a righteous judge, has received a whopping $1.5m from Governor Udom Emmanuel and he has recruited one Justice Ebetu, another judge from Bayelsa State to join in the justice-for-sale scam.

“Akanbi has clearly jettisoned justice in preference for Governor Udom’s Greek gift.”

Displeased with Ekpenyong, the governor had in August given him a seven-day ultimatum to substantiate his claim or be ready for a court case.

Also last week, Taraba State University reportedly declared one Joseph Israel, a “ghost student” and expelled him from the institution.

The university authorities said they expelled the 100 level Laboratory Science undergraduate for his “failure to attend a students’ matriculation ceremony and refusal to fill his matriculation form.”

But Israel said he was expelled because of his relentless criticism of Governor Darius Ishaku on Facebook.

The student recalled that he had earlier been summoned by the university’s malpractice committee, which dealt with issues of indiscipline and academic wrongdoing.

He claimed that during his appearance before the committee, he was questioned about his incessant criticism of the governor. In his response, he had asked if there was any law in the university that stopped the students from using the social media and expressing their views on governance in the state.

Among many other critical posts on his Facebook wall, Israel had on September 10, 2019, written, “Some Governors have achieved more in the last 100 days than Governor Darius Ishaku has done in the past four years. Taraba don enter one chance.”

Earlier on the same day, he had posted: “Governor Darius is a tested and trusted failure, The 100 days of any government hows the direction of that government. the Darius Ishaku Administration has no direction, His Government is the worst in the 28 years of the existence of Taraba State. I call on the people of Taraba whose hopes are high to keep their hopes down till 2023. Maybe we’ll have a proactive and a serious governor!”

Although the Taraba State University authorities claimed that Isreal’s expulsion was due to some irregularities that occurred during registration, the young man maintained that he was victimised for criticising Governor Ishaku.

Before now, it was normal for people who felt maligned by media publications to sue for libel or defamation of character. In the cases of Kefason, Odinkalu, Jalingo and Ekpenyong, there appears to be a clear departure from the norm.

A Nigerian lawyer based in the United Kingdom, Mr Femi Aina, described the new trend of filing criminal charges against critics as “dangerous”.

Aina said, “It is a dangerous trend and a serious attack on the freedom of speech and the freedom to express one’s opinion without intimidation. It is also wrong to use the criminal justice system as a tool for suppressing critical opinion in a democratic society.

“The judges must try as much as possible to live up to expectation by looking at the motive behind some of these criminal charges. That is the way to go.”

Similarly, Lagos-based lawyer, Wahab Shittu, said the act of filing criminal charges to seek redress over alleged injurious publications run contrary to the fundamentals of democratic traditions.

Shittu, however, warned social media users against spreading falsehood to injure other people’s reputation. He said, “I have two perspectives on this. First is that whatever is published by anyone must reflect the truth and not based on falsehood. So, if what is published reflects the truth and not based on falsehood, anyone who is then arrested as a result of such a publication can proceed against the state for exemplary and aggravated damages through a civil action.

“My second perspective is that if any party feels aggrieved by any publication, the decent thing to do is to file a civil action for defamation and not to use the machinery of the state to harass the source of the publication. That will not be democratic.

“Proceeding against people for publications, which are civil in nature, runs against the fundamentals of democratic traditions. But the two sides must ensure that they operate within the ambit of the law.

“Journalism practice and media publications are guided by ethics, standards and professionalism. Those standards must be respected always because the reputation of any individual is sacred. If you remove an individual’s reputation, what you have left is an empty shell.

“So nobody should unjustifiably malign other people’s reputation. But if a person’s reputation is maligned, the decent thing to do is to resort to civil action and not criminal action.”

The Legal Adviser to Amnesty International, Dr Kolawole Olaniyan, also said the new trend of filing criminal charges against government critics showed that media freedom is shrinking under President Muhammadu Buhari’s government.

Olaniyan said, “The space for the right to freedom of expression and media freedom in Nigeria since President Muhammadu Buhari came into power is rapidly shrinking, as authorities at both federal and state levels continue to bring bogus criminal charges in response to criticism of public officials.

“What many of these state governors are doing and seem to be getting away with amounts to a flagrant violation of people’s right to freedom of expression and media freedom.

“By attacking the media and restricting the civic space, state governors and the Federal Government are implicitly taking away the constitutional duty of the media to ensure that governments at all levels are accountable to the people at all times.

“We didn’t allow attacks on freedom of expression and media freedom during many years of military dictatorship in this country and Nigerians shouldn’t allow these infractions by state governors and by the Federal Government.

“Those state governors jailing journalists simply for doing their job should be named and shamed.

“The too-true cliché says that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, which is why the Nigeria Guild of Editors and the Nigeria Union of Journalists should wake up to their responsibilities and challenge these attacks on freedom of expression and media freedom in court.

“The attacks won’t just go away. You don’t protect a reputation by intimidating those criticising you. Nigeria’s judiciary should be proactive in protecting the right to freedom of expression and media freedom from officials who may be tempted to flex their muscles against their critics.