Police officers stand in Lagos in October 2022. On October 15, 2022, police officers in Ilorin detained journalists Abdulrasheed Akogun and Dare Akogun on criminal charges for comments they posted in a popular WhatsApp group.(Photo Credit: AFP/Pius Utomi Ekpei)

Nigerian police detain, charge two journalists for WhatsApp messages

On October 13, 2022, police officers at Ilorin, the capital of the southern Kwara State, detained Abdulrasheed Akogun with his brother Dare Akogun on criminal charges for comments they posted in a popular WhatsApp group titled “Kwara Commission,” according to a copy of the charge sheet reviewed by CPJ and Ibrahim Sheriff Gold, a Fresh Insight editor who spoke to CPJ by phone. Both journalists told CPJ by phone that a local court released them on bail without conditions on October 19.

Abdulrasheed works as publisher of the privately owned Fresh Insight online news site, and Dare is a senior reporter with the private broadcaster Sobi 101.9FM, according to those sources. “Kwara Commission” is a group where members from the government, community, and media who discuss local civic issues, Gold told CPJ.

The journalists were accused of criminal conspiracy, defamation, inciting disturbance, injurious falsehood, and cyberstalking for their September 30 comments in the WhatsApp group chat that alleged Rafiyu Ajakaye, the chief press secretary to the Kwara state governor, financially influenced the outcomes of a recent election for leadership for the local chapter of Nigeria Union of Journalists, a local trade group, according to those same sources. Dare told CPJ he was a candidate in the NUJ election.

The arrests followed an October 4 complaint Ajakaye filed to police hours after Fresh Insight published a report alleging that the Kwara State government misused public funds.

Dare told CPJ that the journalists believed Ajakaye’s complaint was a reprisal for the journalists and the outlet’s repeated critical publications about the Kwara government.

Ajakaye declined to speak on the details of the allegations with CPJ by phone, but denied that his complaint had any connection with Fresh Insight’s reporting. “I cherish press freedom. I fight for it,” Ajakaye said.

The charge sheet alleged that the journalists violated several sections of Nigeria’s penal code, including section 97 for criminal conspiracy, 114 for inciting disturbance, 392 for defamation, and 393 for injurious falsehood. The charge sheet also said that the journalists violated sections 24 1(A), 24 1(B), and 24 2(C) for cyberstalking.

If found guilty, the journalists risk a maximum term of three years in prison and an unspecified fine for the alleged penal code violations, and seven years in prison with a fine of 7 million nairas (US$16,032) for the cybercrime.

On October 11, Sobi FM’s office received a letter from the police summoning Dare for questioning on October 13 regarding the complaint. Abdulrasheed received a text message from the police on October 13 with the same request.

Gold said that after Abdulrasheed and Dare arrived at the station on October 13, police questioned them about their WhatsApp allegations and told them to apologize, or they would face criminal charges for making the statements. According to Gold and a report by the privately owned Daily Post news site, the journalists refused to apologize and insisted they could defend their comments in court. Police detained the journalists and charged them the next day, October 14.

Also, on October 14, Gold said he joined a group of protesters at the police headquarters to demand that police either release the journalists or file charges so that a bail application could be made.

Police fired tear gas at the protesters, hit them with sticks, and arrested Gold and another journalist, Adisa Ridwan Ajadi, Gold told CPJ. The same day, police brought Gold and Ajadi to court and charged them with public disturbance and inciting the public against the police commissioner, Gold told CPJ.

On October 14, a magistrate court in Kwara state tried all four journalists in two separate trials. During the trial, Ajadi fainted and was rushed to the hospital, according to Gold and Ajadi, who spoke to CPJ by phone. Ajadi was diagnosed with blood clotting in his stomach from the beating, received medication, and was released on October 15. Ajadi told CPJ he paid for the treatment and continued to feel pain in various parts of his body.

Gold and Ajadi are expected back in court on November 14, and Dare and Abdulrasheed are scheduled to return to court on November 23, according to Gold.

CPJ’s calls and text messages to the Kwara State Police spokesperson Ajayi Okasanmi went unanswered.

[Editors’ Note: The dates in the first and 10th paragraphs were updated.]