Nigerian newspaper distributor arrested, charged

New York, January 25, 2008—A court in Nigeria’s southern Akwa Ibom State today lodged criminal charges against a newspaper distributor over a story not-yet published. The article was critical of the state governor, according to local journalists. The court in Uyo sent the distributor, Essien Asuquo Owoh, to prison.

Owoh, the owner of Ezedom Enterprise, a local distributor of major newspapers and magazines, pleaded not guilty today to charges of sedition and “conspiracy to distribute copies of Fresh Facts newspaper with the intent to bring hatred or contempt to the governor of the state,” but was taken to prison, defense lawyer Ubong Offiong told CPJ. The charges constitute a misdemeanor under Nigerian law and carry a maximum penalty of two years in prison or a fine of 2,000 Naïra (US$17), according to him.

Owoh was arrested Thursday because of a front-page headline in Monday’s edition of the investigative weekly Fresh Facts that announced next week’s publication of a story titled “Corruption, [Gov. Godswill] Akpabio: in 5 billion Naïra housing scam,” according to local journalists. The paper has offices in the capital Abuja and the commercial city of Lagos.

“The arrest of Essien Asuquo Owoh 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 Owoh immediately.”

Since taking office last year, the administration of Gov. Akpabio has used intimidation, arrests and sedition charges to silence stories alleging 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.

A hearing for Owoh’s release on bail was expected Monday and he told CPJ his trial was expected to resume next month.

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