Two organizations condemned the convictions of two journalists in Nigeria who were arrested in 2019 after they exposed pot smoking at a business associated with a high-ranking politician. While Nigeria is the world’s third-highest consumer of cannabis, according to the New Zealand Ministry of Health, the plant is illegal in the country. Some view it as a double standard for officials and commoners.
The Eagle reports that the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) condemned the conviction of two young Nigerian journalists, Gidado Yushau and Alfred Olufemi over an investigative report. CPJ, an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide, described the conviction as “a chilling message to the Nigerian press.” The Eagle called it an “inglorious attempt to muzzle the press and investigative journalism in Nigeria.”
Yushau serves as editor of The News Digest and is Convener of the annual Campus Journalism Awards (CJA), while Olufemi is a freelance journalist with bylines in Premium Times and Punch, two Africa-based newspapers. It’s not the publications’ first dance with danger: Premium Times, for instance, exposed crimes such as those targeting women and civilians allegedly committed by Boko Haram.
Both journalists were arrested and charged in court in 2019 after they wrote an investigative report exposing the prevalence of pot smoking by staff, a Kwara, Nigeria-based rice factory, which is associated with Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industries. Why is that significant? Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industries is linked to a high-ranking official: Presidential Economic Adviser Sarah Aladea, who formerly served as Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
Organization leaders worry that the arrests have a political motivation. On Feb. 7, Adams Salihu Mohammed, a magistrate in Ilorin, Nigeria, ordered the journalists to be held for five months in jail or pay a steep fine of N100,000—each—for the alleged crimes of “defamation and conspiracy.” They ended up paying the fines to avoid jail during the trial.
A Chilling Message to Journalists in Nigeria
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the journalists will be provided with a fair trial according to their legal counsel.
“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,” Barrister Ahmed Ibraheem Gambari, an attorney representing one of the journalists, said after they were convicted. In other words, the police deemed them guilty of the “crime” long before they were allowed to share their own side of the story. The journalists’ claims were backed by former employees of the rice factory, who said that it’s common to smoke pot during work.
“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,” Gambari said. “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, therefore, remains a conundrum of how the court found them guilty in the face of this empirical evidence among others.”
CPJ’s Africa program coordinator based in New York, Angela Quintal, said that the two should never have been charged, let alone convicted. “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,” Quintal said.
International human rights courts and UN organizations have repeatedly denounced the use of criminal sanctions for “defamation.”