Nigerian editor charged with sedition, jailed

New York, January 29, 2008—Authorities in Nigeria’s southern Akwa Ibom State sent a journalist to prison on Monday on sedition charges, according to local journalists and news reports. The move was part of a crackdown launched by the state government in response to a story alleging corruption by the state governor. The newspaper’s distributor was arrested in relation to the same article on January 24 and the paper itself has been legally banned.

A magistrate court in Akwa Ibom State’s capital Uyo denied bail to Sam Asowata, chairman of the editorial board of Fresh Facts, a current affairs weekly, after the journalist pleaded not guilty to sedition—a bailable offense with a maximum penalty of two years in prison, according to defense lawyer Ubong Offiong. Asowata was picked up by armed police in Fresh Facts’ office in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on Saturday, according to Editor-in-Chief Segun Abrams.

“Arbitrary arrests by the local Nigerian authorities when confronted by a critical story are highly repressive and are out of line with the democratic transition that brought these officials to office,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the prosecution to drop these criminal charges against Sam Asowata and release him immediately. “

This is the third time since October the administration of Gov. Godswill Akpabio has invoked Nigeria’s controversial colonial-era sedition law to punish critical coverage, according to CPJ research. Asowata’s arrest came on the heels of the one-day detention of newspaper distributor Essien Asuquo Owoh on similar sedition charges over the same story in this week’s Fresh Facts, “Akpabio in 5.5 billion Naïra housing scam,” according to local news reports. Owoh was acquitted on Monday after the state attorney general withdrew all charges against him.

However, the court issued an order on January 25 banning the publication and circulation of Fresh Facts on the grounds that the paper “planned to publish malicious and false information,” according to Offiong.

Akpabio has used intimidation, arrests, and sedition charges over the past year to punish newspapers that publish stories that allege state corruption or mismanagement, according to CPJ research. Authorities confiscated 5,000 copies of the private weekly Events in June and jailed its publisher Jerome Imeime for three weeks on charges of sedition in October.

Nigeria’s sedition law is the subject of a pending judicial review by the country’s Supreme Court, according to CPJ research. Human rights defenders have asserted that the law violates constitutional rights to freedom of expression. 

In December, CPJ wrote to President Umaru Yar’Adua asking him to end impunity for abuses against the media.