Nigerian publisher charged with sedition over story critical of governor

New York, October 17, 2007— The publisher of a private newspaper in southern Nigeria, arrested last week by men suspected by local journalists to be agents of the State Security Service, was charged with sedition on Tuesday over a story critical of a local state governor, according to news reports.

Jerome Imeime of southern Akwa Ibom state’s private weekly Events is the first Nigerian journalist since June 2006 to be charged with sedition in connection with coverage critical of political leadership, according to CPJ research. Nigeria’s colonial-era sedition law was abrogated in 1983, according to legal expert Femi Falana, but authorities have continued to invoke the charge to silence the press on sensitive subjects.

The journalist was taken to prison shortly after his arraignment on one count of sedition by a magistrate’s court in the state capital city of Uyo, local journalist Aniefiok Udonquak told CPJ. The trial date was set for November 16, according to local journalists.

The arrest was linked to a front-page story published last week alleging state treasury funds could be—hypothetically—used by Gov. Godswill Akpabio to pay off personal debt incurred during his electoral campaign, according to Effiong Usoro, a media consultant for the newspaper. The story also alleged corruption in the awarding of contracts for road construction. Akwa Ibom State Commissioner of Information Census Ekpu denied the allegations, according to private daily Leadership in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.

“Resurrecting sedition charges against Jerome Imeime for his work is outright censorship and is unacceptable in a country engaged in a historic democratic transition,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the prosecution to drop these criminal charges and release our colleague immediately.”

Imeime was arrested by unknown men on October 10 at the scene of a public ceremony, according to Udonquak. The paper has remained closed since the arrest.

Local authorities denied any government involvement. Leadership quoted Ekpu as saying that the governor was “media friendly and as such, will never order the arrest or detention of any newsman or publisher in the state.”

Yet, it was the second time this year Events was targeted by suspected government agents or supporters over its critical coverage of Akapabio, according to CPJ research. In June, 15 armed men stormed the paper’s printing plant and seized about 5,000 copies of an edition alleging a criminal indictment against the governor. Authorities denied involvement in the raid.

In June 2006, director Imo Eze and editor Oluwole Elenyinmi of the bimonthly Ebonyi Voice were jailed for two months on sedition charges over a story criticizing the governor of southeastern Ebonyi, according to CPJ research. The same month, African Independent Television presenter Mike Gbenga Aruleba and senior Daily Independent correspondent Rotimi Durojaiye were also arrested and charged with six counts of sedition over a story about the presidential jet. The charges are the subject of a pending appeal by the defense before Nigeria’s federal Court of Appeals, on the grounds that they are unconstitutional, according to Falana.

The arrest came on the heels of an official statement issued by the Nigerian presidency to the media last week asserting the commitment  “in both words and deeds” of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s administration to “reject arbitrariness in any form,” and “end the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of Nigeria’s abuses,” according to news reports.