Abuja, August 19, 2022—Authorities in Nigeria should immediately drop any criminal libel investigation into journalist Ifreke Nseowo or TheMail Newspaper and pay damages to the newspaper distributor whom they illegally detained to compel Nseowo to appear for questioning, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.
On Friday, August 12, police officers in the southern Akwa Ibom State detained the newspaper distributor, Chidi Ngadiuba, in lieu of Nseowo, publisher of TheMail, a privately owned local newspaper, according to another newspaper’s report, Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) regional chapter chairman, Amos Etuk, and Nseowo, who spoke to CPJ by phone. Police held Ngadiuba, who distributed TheMail and other newspapers, for nearly one day at police headquarters in Uyo, the state capital; when NUJ intervened, police declined to explain why they wanted Nseowo, according to those sources.
Ngadiuba was released without charge only after NUJ agreed in writing that it would ensure that Nseowo would present himself at police headquarters on August 16, which did not happen because Nseowo went into hiding for fear he would be arrested and detained, according to the same sources.
A politician and a former state attorney general representing him accused TheMail of criminal libel and said they wanted Nseowo to disclose the source of a July article.
“Police should immediately drop the criminal libel investigation into Ifreke Nseowo and refuse to force a journalist to disclose his confidential sources because a politician has been left red-faced. When facts are in dispute about an act of journalism, alternative dispute resolution and not the criminal justice system should be used,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in New York.
“Police bosses must also ensure that those officers who abused their power by detaining newspaper distributor Chidi Ngadiuba are held to account. At the very least, Ngadiuba should be awarded appropriate damages for this egregious deprivation of his liberty.”
On August 16, NUJ officials—without Nseowo—met the state’s police commissioner, Olatoye Durosinmi, at police headquarters and were told that a former state attorney general, Uwemedimo Nwoko (representing Umo Bassey Eno, a state gubernatorial candidate of the ruling People’s Democratic Party) had accused TheMail of criminal libel, according to Etuk. Etuk said NUJ also asked police to suspend their summons of Nseowo and allow the union to resolve the matter with Nwoko, who wrote a criminal libel complaint on Eno’s behalf.
Eno was upset about a July 11 article in TheMail that quoted a letter purportedly by the Nigeria chapter of the West Africa Examination Council, saying that the council was unable to certify the gubernatorial candidate’s secondary school certificate allegedly obtained in 1983 as it had no record of it, according to Nwoko. Nwoko told CPJ he had a letter from the council denying the newspaper’s claims.
Nwoko insisted that the complaint accusing TheMail of criminal libel would not be withdrawn until Nseowo appeared at police headquarters and reveal the sources of his reporting.
Nseowo told CPJ that he received a call in mid-July from a source, whose identity he would not reveal for fear of reprisals, who said that Nseowo had been targeted for arrest over a series of publications by TheMail, on allegations of certificate forgery involving Eno.
On August 12, Nseowo said he received a call from a woman asking to meet that day at his former office in Uyo, to place an advertisement on TheMail news site.
Nseowo was afraid for his own safety and not certain whether the proposed ad was real or a ploy to arrest him, so he said he decided to send Ngadiuba to the meeting instead. Nseowo said he later learned in a call from another journalist that Ngadiuba had been arrested in his place.
Nseowo said he immediately informed the NUJ’s state chapter and went into hiding.
On August 15, CPJ contacted the state police spokesperson, Odiko Macdon, who declined to explain the reason police had summoned Nseowo and added that the journalist would find out when he visited the station.
When contacted on August 16, Macdon told CPJ that police authorities would not proceed with their attempt to bring Nseowo to the police station pending further deliberations among Nwoko, NUJ, and Nseowo. Macdon added that NUJ was expected to bring Nseowo to police “when the time comes,” but did not elaborate further.
Nwoko told CPJ he would follow the matter until police concluded their investigations and those found culpable are charged.