New York, March 7, 2019 -- Nigerian authorities should immediately drop charges against journalist Obinna Don Norman, release him from prison, and reform the 2015 cybercrime act to ensure it is not used to prosecute journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Norman, owner and editor-in-chief of online news outlet The Realm News, was arrested on March 1 by police in Umuahia, the capital of Nigeria's southeastern Abia state, while he was at local radio station Flo FM to discuss politics on air, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ from Afara prison in Umuahia.
The day he was arrested, Norman was charged in an Abia state magistrate court under Nigeria's 2015 cybercrime act, he told CPJ. During a second court appearance today, he was charged under an Abia state anti-terrorism and kidnapping law from 2009, he said. Norman is alleged to have defamed and harassed Abia state senator Theodore Orji of the People's Democratic Party, according to the journalist and two charge sheets reviewed by CPJ.
"Abia state authorities should drop the charges against journalist Obinna Don Norman, ensure his release, and cease efforts to intimidate him," said Angela Quintal, CPJ's Africa program coordinator. "Nigeria's cybercrime act has too often been used to silence journalists in the country and the additional charge against Norman indicates that authorities are intent on harassing the press."
The charge sheets allege that the offenses were committed on or before March 21, 2018, but do not specify any articles or comments related to the charges. Norman and Realm News editor Rotimi Akinola told CPJ they believe the charges are reprisal for Norman's reporting and criticism of the Abia state government, and are an attempt to silence the press ahead of the gubernatorial election scheduled for March 9, in which Okezie Ikpeazu, a People's Democratic Party member, is running for re-election.
Norman's March 1 charge sheet, which CPJ reviewed, listed four alleged offenses from sections 24 and 27 of Nigeria's 2015 cybercrime act: cyberstalking, sending defamatory messages using a computer, using a computer to send messages "for the purpose of causing public hatred," and using a computer to "bully, threaten and harass."
The March 7 charge sheet alleged that Norman threatened Orji's life with "messages through [the] internet and phone calls," which is punishable under Abia state's 2009 anti-terrorism and kidnapping law.
CPJ's repeated calls to Orji went unanswered, and a recorded message on Ikpeazu's line indicated that his phone was turned off.
Norman said he was told during the March 7 court appearance that he would be held in detention until April 24; his lawyer has filed a bail application with a federal high court petitioning for an earlier release. Those convicted under Nigeria's cybercrime act can face fines into the tens of thousands of dollars and years in prison, CPJ has reported.
Abia Police Commissioner Ene Okun told CPJ that Norman was arrested because the journalist was listed as "wanted" in an official bulletin; Okun said he had no involvement in the case after Norman was transferred to the court.
In December 2018, the previous police commissioner had declared Norman "wanted" in an unrelated cybercrime case, The Realm News reported at the time. Norman counter-sued and the bulletin was nullified by a federal court, and Norman was not arrested, according to The Realm News.