Agba Jalingo, one of several journalists and prisoners of conscience, was released on bail on Cross River State yesterday after spending five months in detention on charges of treason, treasonable felony and threatening through various publications on his media platform Cross River Watch and using malicious publications to instigate Nigerians to stage protests for the removal of the Governor of Cross River, Governor Benedict Ayade, from office without due process.
This comes after another blogger and lecturer, Joseph Odok, was arrested and detained on the order of the Cross River State government. The terms set for Odok’s bail, after spending a few days in prison, included bond valued at N10m with two sureties. Just like Agba Jalingo, Odok was charged with terrorism and cyber-crime for publishing a post on Facebook. Governor Ayade’s spokesperson, Christian Ita, denied the governor’s involvement.
There are two other pending cases against journalists in Cross River, either instituted by the Nigerian Police or the state government (although denied). Two other journalists, Jonathan Ugbal and Jeremiah, are also standing trial on treason charges after criticising the state governor, Ben Ayade. Both are news editor and managing editor respectively for CrossRiverWatch, the same online newspaper owned by Mr. Jalingo. If found guilty, these journalists could be sentenced to death.
While the state government charged Jalingo with terrorism and conspiracy to remove an elected governor through nefarious activities, a copy of the police invitation letter subsequently revealed that he was summoned because he was mentioned in an investigation of “Conspiracy to cause Unrest and Conduct likely to Cause Breach of Peace, which was reported by the Cross River Microfinance Bank”.
Before his arrest, Cross RiverWatch had published a story alleging that the governor had diverted N500million from the state funds, a claim refuted by the government. Paul Ifere, another critic of Mr. Ayade’s administration, was similarly arrested and detained last year for criticising Mr. Ayade.
Nigeria is currently ranked 120th among countries with the highest level of Press Freedom by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), on the list with 180 countries. However, Cape Verde tops the list of African countries with the 25th position, as it is said to have one of the freest media environments in both Africa. Since the 1990s, Cape Verde, with a population of almost 500,000 people, a literacy rate of 71.6 percent, and with 30 percent of its citizens below the poverty line, has been one of the most developed and democratic African countries with a stable representative democracy.
On the other hand, Nigeria has over 100 independent newspapers, and issues continue to arise when journalists report on politics, terrorism, or financial embezzlement by the powerful. Section 39 (1) of the Nigerian Constitution protects the freedom of expression, but the supposed democratic leaders continue to operate as a military junta, continually devising ways to limit every form of rights as recognised in any democracy.
Speaking during an interview in January, Governor Ayade explained that the Jalingo, a man standing trial for treason, and could be sent to death for allegedly criticising his government, “acted out of youthful exuberance.” The level of disregard for human life, rights, and justice captured in the statement says a lot about state government led by one of the most educated governors in Nigeria.
Denying that he ordered the journalist’s arrest, the governor said, “If you ask Agba Jalingo today, I am the one working with his lawyers for his freedom, I am the one sustaining him and sending upkeeps.” But somehow, popular critics of the governor are arrested for treason and kept in detention.
Although these journalists are currently on bail, these court cases are not over. On 7 February 2019, the state’s Attorney General, Tanko Ashang, confirmed that the state government would take over the prosecution of Jalingo and that a letter to that effect had been filed in the Federal High Court in Calabar. The government could drag these cases as long as it wants, all in the urge to bankrupt, embarrass and punish these journalists, all because they criticised their state government. What else determines a healthy democracy, but by how free citizens can share their opinions without being attacked?
Governments, either at the federal or state level, have adopted treason charges and its promise of death or life imprisonment as a means to stifle criticism and civic engagement. No voter or any Nigerian can afford to let that happen. Citizens have the right to hold any government accountable, and it is absurd for any leader to assume that it will always be right on every point.
From the Social Media Bill and the Hate Speech Bill, to rampant killings by security agents, it appears the urge by political leaders to trample on their citizens is never-ending. We do not operate an ideal democratic government in Nigeria, where the abuse of power and human right is clearly rampant.
Our justice system is fundamentally flawed, with the judgments and pronouncements clearly favouring those in seats of power or wealth. If Nigerians can learn any lesson from their detention, it is the assurance that the trial will not be the fairest ever seen in the country. With the threats hanging over their heads for basically exercising their civil rights, they deserve support in every form.