Northern Nigerian Breaking News

CPJ, CISLAC condemn ‘political conviction’ of young journalists over drug abuse report

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC)  have condemned the conviction of two young Nigerian journalists, Gidado Yushau and Alfred Olufemi over an investigative report on drug abuse.

Gidado, Editor of News Digest and the Convener of the annual Campus Journalism Awards (CJA), and Alfred Olufemi, a freelance reporter who later worked with the Premium Times and the Punch newspapers were arrested and charged to court in 2019 over an investigative report alleging Indian-hemp smoking by staff at Hillcrest Agro-allied company, a Kwara rice factory.

The investigative story was first published in the Abuja-based News Digest sometime in 2018.

The company, Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industries was allegedly linked to a former Deputy Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and currently a Presidential Economic Adviser, Sarah Alade.

Last February, a magistrate in Ilorin, Adams Salihu Mohammed, ordered the journalists to be jailed for five months or pay N100,000 each for defamation and conspiracy, which they paid to avoid jail.

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After the judgment, counsel to the journalists, Barrister Ahmed Ibraheem Gambari, revealed that “there was evidence before the trial court that the police report which purportedly indicted our clients came into existence even before they were invited by the police. In other words, the police had already found them culpable long before they were invited to state their own side of the story.

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“Also, 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’s, therefore, remains a conundrum of how the court found them guilty in the face of this empirical evidence among others.”

Gambari added that they believe that “justice will be achieved at appeal so that patriotic youthful elements in the society like our clients will not be discouraged from embarking on their respective altruistic endeavours.”

In its reaction, CPJ, an independent, non-profit organisation that promotes press freedom worldwide, described the conviction as “a chilling message to the Nigerian press,” and highlights the urgent need for authorities to reform the country’s laws and ensure journalism is not criminalized.

According to the CPJ’s Africa program coordinator in New York, Angela Quintal, the duo should never have been charged, let alone convicted, for publishing an investigative report about a factory.

“The telecom surveillance used to bring the journalists into custody, followed by a more than three-year-long trial, demonstrates the lengths Nigerian authorities will go to arrest and prosecute the press.”

Reacting in the same vein, CISLAC, an independent, non-profit organisation, described the conviction as an inglorious attempt to muzzle the press and investigative journalism in Nigeria.

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The Executive Director of CISLAC, who is also the Head of Transparency International Nigeria, Auwal Ibrahim Musa Rafsanjani said: “It is saddening that despite the testimony of an ex-employee indicting the company and a lot of infractions by the police, Magistrate

Adams Salihu Mohammed of the Ilorin Court still convicted the duo of criminal conspiracy and defamation by the court on February 7, 2023

“We also demand that an urgent step be taken to reform the country’s laws and ensure journalism is not criminalized like this. International human rights courts and UN bodies have repeatedly ruled against criminal sanctions for defamation.

“It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money when public funds are used in prosecuting cases of personal interests such as this. It is no coincidence that press freedom has continually waned under President Muhammadu Buhari. Nigeria dropped to 129 from 120 in the 2022 ranking of press freedom across 180 countries.

“We implore the President, whose adviser is involved in this, to do our justice system the honour to champion the necessary reforms.”

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