Abuja, October 23, 2023—Authorities in Nigeria should immediately and unconditionally release journalist Saint Mienpamo Onitsha, swiftly drop all charges against him, and stop criminalizing the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said on Monday.
On October 10, police officers arrested Onitsha, founder of the privately owned online broadcaster NAIJA Live TV, in the home of his friend Charles Kuboro James in the southern city of Yenagoa, Onitisha’s lawyer Anande Terungwa, and James, told CPJ.
James told CPJ that the officers arrived at his house and forced him at gunpoint to phone and summon Onitisha. The officers then forced both men into police vehicles at gunpoint and began driving towards the police station, he said. James said the officers accused him of involvement in a criminal conspiracy with Onitsha and dropped him on the roadside midway to the station.
Terungwa said the officers held Onitisha overnight at the Criminal Investigation Department office in Yenagoa, capital of Bayelsa State, and then flew him to the capital, Abuja, where he remained in detention in the police headquarters.
On October 17, police charged Onitsha with cyberstalking under the Cybercrimes Act—for which the penalty is a 25 million naira (US$32,694) fine and/or up to 10 years in jail—as well as defamation and the publication of defamatory matter under the Criminal Code Act—for which he could be imprisoned for two years, according to Terungwa and a copy of the charge sheet reviewed by CPJ.
“Nigerian authorities should swiftly and unconditionally drop all charges against journalist Saint Mienpamo Onitsha and reform the country’s laws to ensure journalism is not criminalized,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ Africa Program Coordinator, in New York. “The arrest of a journalist at gunpoint sends a chilling message to the press across Nigeria that they will be treated as criminals if their work displeases authorities.”
CP has repeatedly documented the use of Nigeria’s Cybercrimes Act to prosecute journalists for their work.
The charge sheet cited a September 8 NAIJA Live TV report alleging that there was tension in the southern Niger Delta because a man had been killed by security guards outside the offices of the Presidential Amnesty Program (PAP), which was set up in 2009 to end a militant insurgency in the oil-rich region.
It said the man, Pere Ebidouwei, had gone to Abuja to submit his documents to the PAP after the government delisted some amnesty program beneficiaries, who receive a monthly stipend in exchange for laying down their arms.
Later that day, Onitsha shared a link to the article on Facebook, as well as a video showing someone pouring water over a man lying on a street, who Onitsha identified as Ebidouwei.
He also posted a letter, dated September 8, which appeared to be from solicitors working for the PAP, who said Onitsha’s article was defamatory and demanded that NAIJA Live TV publish a disclaimer and apology or face court action.
On September 9, Onitsha published another article, in which he quoted a PAP statement saying that they “decided to discipline” Ebidouwei for trying to force his way into their offices and that when he “pretended to have passed out,” they arranged for him to go to hospital where he was confirmed to be okay.
As of October 23, Onitsha had not been given a date to appear in court, Terungwa told CPJ.
Nigerian police spokesperson Olumuyiwa Adejobi told CPJ that the officers were carrying out their duties by implementing the law and were not to blame for the charges against Onitsha. Adejobi said he was unaware of allegations that the officers aimed their guns at the two men but he would investigate.
In 2020, Nigerian authorities also charged Onitsha with cybercrimes for his reporting on COVID-19. Onitsha said the case was later withdrawn at the request of the complainant.
CPJ’s phone calls and text messages to PAP and email to the solicitor apparently acting for PAP did not receive any response.