Alfred Olufemi (left) and Gidado Yushau (right) at court on January 13, 2020. (Photo: Adejumo Kabir/Premium Times)
Alfred Olufemi (left) and Gidado Yushau (right) at court on January 13, 2020. (Photo: Adejumo Kabir/Premium Times)

Nigerian police detain News Digest web developer, charge journalists

Nigerian police charged Gidado Yushau, the publisher of the privately owned News Digest news website, and freelance journalist Alfred Olufemi with criminal conspiracy and defamation on November 12, 2019, according to a copy of the charge sheet seen by CPJ. The next court date is scheduled for March 4, 2020, Olufemi told CPJ. If convicted, they face fines and prison terms of up to six months for criminal conspiracy and up to two years for defamation, according to CPJ’s review of Nigeria’s penal code.

The charge sheet said a representative of the Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industries company reported the journalists to police in September 2019 in relation to a report Olufemi wrote for News Digest in May 2018. The report alleged that employees at a rice processing facility operated by the company in Kwara State were permitted to smoke cannabis at work in violation of Nigerian law.

CPJ called Chiyem Egwuelu, Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industries’ general manager, and a lawyer for the company who a colleague identified as Mrs Iwalola, to ask about that report and related legal action in November 2019. Egwuelu declined to comment, and Iwalola said the line was bad before disconnecting the call; CPJ’s follow up calls rang unanswered.

Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industries filed a civil suit against Yushau and Olufemi in relation to the same report on January 13, 2020, according to privately owned Premium Times and copies of the legal documents seen by CPJ. The claim seeks 500 million Naira (US$1.37 million) in damages, to have copies of the report taken offline, and an injunction to restrict how the two journalists, News Digest, and the paper’s parent company, Image Merchants Promotions Limited, can report on Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industries. The civil case will be heard in a Kwara State high court on March 3, Olufemi told CPJ.

Sarah Alade, who News Digest identified as the owner of Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industries, was appointed special adviser on finance and the economy to Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, in November 2019, according to the local Punch newspaper. Calls CPJ made to Alade in mid-January 2020 went unanswered.

Yushau and a former colleague were detained during the investigation; police attempting to locate them also briefly held two journalists with no connection to News Digest, according to CPJ interviews.

Yushau told CPJ that police in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, detained him overnight on October 29, 2019. Adebowale Adekoya, a web developer who had worked for News Digest in the past, separately told CPJ that police detained him in Lagos on October 25 and held him for five nights after he was mistaken for the publisher because the website’s domain was registered in his name. He has also received emails asking him to take the May 2018 report offline, he told CPJ.

Yusuf Yunus and Wunmi Ashafa, two Lagos-based journalists with the government-run News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), both told CPJ that police tricked them into setting up meetings that facilitated Adekoya’s arrest that day. Yunus told CPJ that he had spoken with Adekoya by phone in the past regarding a professional matter. He and Ashafa had no knowledge of the News Digest report that police eventually revealed was under investigation, both journalists told CPJ in separate interviews.

Ashafa told CPJ that police pretended to represent the private delivery company DHL when they first approached her at work. After they identified themselves, they told her they were investigating Yunus for fraud, and instructed her to set up a meeting with him, she said. They told her they knew the two colleagues spoke regularly because they had reviewed her call records, she told CPJ.

Telecommunications providers are legally required to assist criminal investigations in Nigeria, according to CPJ’s review of the Nigerian Communications Act. SIM card registration is legally required in Nigeria under a 2011 communications regulation, and there is limited oversight for law enforcement requests about subscribers and their communications records under related regulations, according to CPJ reporting.

Yunus told CPJ that when he arrived to meet Ashafa, police officers in plainclothes told him to arrange a meeting with Adekoya, a contact they had identified via his call records, he said. Police released Ashafa and Yunus without charge once Adekoya was in custody, they told CPJ.

Ashafa and Yunus told CPJ they were using the India-based Airtel company for their network service. CPJ emailed requests for comment about law enforcement requests for call records to a press address for Airtel Africa and to Michael Okwiri, Airtel Africa’s vice president of communications and corporate social responsibility, in January 2020 but received no answer prior to publication.

Adekoya, who is also based in Lagos, told CPJ that police refused to release him unless he brought them to News Digest’s publisher, he said, though he told them that they were not legally allowed to hold him for more than 48 hours without charge. Police drove him 300 kilometers away to Ilorin, the capital of Kwara State, then over 450 kilometers to Abuja where he was present for Yushau’s arrest on October 29, he told CPJ.

Police told Adekoya they had been “tracking” his calls and SMS messages after trying unsuccessfully to lure him to a meeting by posing as a potential client, Adekoya told CPJ. Adekoya uses Glo, a mobile provider owned by Nigeria-based Globacom, he said. In January 2020, CPJ reached Olabode Opeseitan, Glo mobile’s director of external communications, by phone and at his request emailed him for an interview appointment, but did not hear back before publication.

Yushau and Adekoya told CPJ that police drove them both to Kwara State on October 30, and only released them after they promised to help them reach Alfred Olufemi.

Olufemi told CPJ that Yushau called him on October 30, but he declined to turn himself in until November 4. Olufemi is a student at Oshun State University, where authorities are not permitted to make arrests on campus without permission, he said. It is not clear why police approached his colleagues rather than the university when they were investigating him. Police questioned Olufemi about the News Digest report before releasing him the same day, he told CPJ.

CPJ requested comment on the investigation into Yushau and Olufemi from Peter Okasanmi, the Kwara State police spokesperson. On January 28, he said by phone that he was unable to comment on the specifics of the case because the trial was ongoing. However, he said that police were able to track and arrest people using technology and by accessing telecommunications information, CPJ reported in February 2020.