Abuja, September 16, 2020 – Nigerian authorities should immediately release journalist Ime Sunday Silas, drop the charges against him, and reform the country’s cybercrime act to ensure it is not used against the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On August 17, police in Uyo city, the capital of Nigeria’s southern Akwa-Ibom state, arrested Silas, an editor with the privately owned Global Concord newspaper and publisher of the news website The Profile, according to Solomon Johnny, Global Concord’s editor-in-chief, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
Silas was arrested after he arrived in the Ikot Akpan Abia district of Uyo to meet a source, and officers detained him at a nearby police headquarters, Johnny told CPJ.
On August 18, a local magistrate court charged Silas under Section 24 of Nigeria’s 2015 cybercrime act, according to Johnny and a copy of the charge sheet reviewed by CPJ. The court denied Silas bail on August 18, but his lawyers filed a new bail application on August 24, which was granted on September 10, Emmanuel Isangidoho, one of Silas’ lawyers, told CPJ via phone and messaging app.
Despite being granted bail, Silas remains in the police headquarters as of today, according to Johnny.
If convicted, Silas could face up to three years in prison, a fine of up to 7 million naira ($18,153), or both, according to the cybercrime act.
“The prolonged detention of journalist Ime Sunday Silas is yet another grave reminder of the lengths to which Nigerian authorities are willing to go to silence journalism they find undesirable,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in New York. “Nigeria’s cybercrime act remains one of the laws most frequently used to prosecute journalists in the country. Authorities should swiftly act to repeal or amend Section 24 of the law, which has been repeatedly used to criminalize news distribution.”
Silas’ charge sheet alleges that he violated Section 24 of the act related to “cyberstalking” by sending a message that included the title of an August 9 report published by The Profile about Martha Udom Emmanuel, the wife of Akwa-Ibom Governor Udom Emmanuel.
That report, titled “Exposed: Okobo PDP Chapter Chair links Gov Udom’s Wife with plot to blackmail Deputy Speaker,” alleged a blackmail scheme related to upcoming local council elections.
According to the charge sheet, Silas sent a “message” containing the report’s title, which constituted a crime of spreading information ”through a computer, knowing the same to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, insult, hatred and ill will” against Martha Udom Emmanuel.
CPJ’s calls and messages to Martha Udom’s spokesperson, Amayo Umoh, went unanswered. Emmanuel Udom’s chief press secretary, Ekerete Udoh, told CPJ in a phone interview that he was unaware of the situation and could not comment.
Since Nigeria’s cybercrime act was adopted in 2015, CPJ has documented its repeated use to prosecute journalists; in one case that has been ongoing since 2017, journalist Fejiro Oliver was charged with four counts of cyberstalking under Section 24 of the act for distributing reporting.
Isangidoho said that it was illegal for any magistrate court to charge Silas with a federal crime, like cybercrime, and that only a higher court had the authority to hear such cases.
Akwa Ibom police spokesperson N-Nudam K. Frederick told CPJ in a phone interview today that he was not familiar with the case and would contact CPJ again when he had more information; he had not done so at the time of publication.
In July, the Economic Community of West African States court found that Section 24 of the cybercrime act violated the right of freedom of expression and ordered the government to “repeal or amend” the law, according to a copy of the court’s judgement, which CPJ reviewed.