A Magistrate’s Court in Ilorin, Kwara state has convicted two journalists for criminal conspiracy and defamation. The court fined the convicts Gidado Shuaib and Olufemi Alfred a sum of N100,000 each or three-month imprisonment.
The police had arraigned the two journalists in November 2019 for criminal conspiracy and defamation contrary to sections 97 and 392 of the penal law. Their arraignment followed a petition written against them by Hillcrest Agro- Allied Industries Limited located over a June 2018 published article in News Digest, with the headline: ‘Inside Kwara Factory where Indian hemp is legalised.’ The petitioner alleged that the said publication portrayed the company which is into rice production as a place where Indian hemp is being smoked freely by workers .
The company told the court that the publication had caused the company and the petitioner huge financial and reputational damages, including a denial loan facility of a sum of $10 million by its funding partners.
Delivering judgment on the matter after about five years of legal battle, Magistrate A.S Muhammad said: “ I have carefully considered the evidence of PW1 (Shakirat Yusuf) on the character of the convicts as well as considered the allocutus made by learned counsel to the convicts and I have equally reflected on the provisions of sections 316 and 417 of the Kwara state Administration of Criminal Justice Law, 2018. In compliance with the provisions under S.417 (2) ( d) of the Kwara state ACJL, 2018, I shall not pass the maximum sentence on the convicts.
“Premised on the forgoing for the offence of conspiracy, I sentence the 1st and 2nd convicts to a fine of N40,000 only each or two months imprisonment in default of payment. “On defamation, the 1st and 2nd convicts are sentenced to a fine of N60,000.00 only each or 3 months imprisonment in default of payment.“For clarity, each of the convicts is to pay a fine of N100, 000.00 only for the offences of conspiracy and defamation respectively, having been convicted in default of payment, the sentence shall run concurrently.”
Meanwhile, the international media Watchdog, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), has condemned the conviction of the two journalists, describing it as “a chilling message to the Nigerian press.” The group said the sentence also highlighted the urgent need for authorities to reform the country’s laws and ensure journalism is not criminalised. According to the CPJ’s Africa programme coordinator, Angela Quintal, the duo should not have been charged, let alone convicted.
“Nigerian journalists – Gidado Yushau and Alfred Olufemi 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,” she said. Before charges were filed, CPJ disclosed that the police leveraged Yushau and Alfred’s access to call data and briefly detained a News Digest web developer and at least two other journalists in their efforts to locate Yushau and Olufemi.
CPJ added that “The telecom surveillance, along with two similar cases in 2017 and 2018, prompted an ongoing lawsuit against the Nigerian Communications Commission over regulations granting warrantless access to telecom subscribers’ information.”