Salihu Ayatullahi (left) and Adisa-Jaji Azeez are two of four Nigerian journalists charged with cybercrime and defamation after reporting on a fraud investigation. (Photo: Courtesy of The Informant247)

4 Nigerian journalists charged with cybercrime, defamation over fraud investigation

Abuja, February 9, 2024—Authorities in Nigeria should immediately drop all charges against journalists Adisa-Jaji Azeez, Salihu Ayatullahi, Salihu Shola Taofeek, and Abdulrahman Taye Damilola, and allow them to work without fear of arrest, the Committee to Protect Journalists said on Friday. 

On Tuesday, police officers arrested Azeez, managing director, and Ayatullahi, editor-in-chief, of the privately owned The Informant247 news website, over reports published on November 10  and February 1 about corruption at Kwara State Polytechnic, Ayatullahi and Taofeek, the outlet’s publisher, told CPJ by phone. 

Azeez and Ayatullahi were arrested after responding to a request from the police headquarters in Ilorin, capital of western Nigeria’s Kwara State, to come in for questioning, following a complaint from the rector of the polytechnic Abdul Jimoh Mohammed about the outlet’s allegation that he was involved in fraud, those sources said.

The journalists’ lawyer, A. J. Edun, told CPJ that he filed a fundamental rights lawsuit later that same day to guard against their prolonged detention. It remains before the court, he said. 

On Wednesday, a court released the journalists on bail, despite a police request to keep them in detention for another 21 days, and they are due back in court on February 13, Ayatullahi and Edun said.

On February 7, police charged Azeez, Ayatullahi, Taofeek, and reporter Damilola with conspiracy under section 27(1)(b), and cyberstalking under section 24(1)(b), of Nigeria’s Cybercrimes Act, and defamation under section 393 of the penal code, according to a copy of the charge sheet, reviewed by CPJ, which described Taofeek, and Damilola as “at large.” 

Taofeek told CPJ that he and Damilola had gone into hiding for fear of arrest.

If found guilty, the journalists face jail terms of up to seven years for conspiracy, three years with a fine of 7 million naira (US$4,966) for cyberstalking, and two years with an unspecified fine for defamation. 

“Nigerian authorities should immediately drop all charges against journalists Adisa-Jaji Azeez, Salihu Ayatullahi, Salihu Shola Taofeek, and Abdulrahman Taye Damilola, and cease criminalizing the press,” said Angela Quintal, head of CPJ’s Africa program from New York. “The reckless detention of Nigerian journalists is totally unacceptable and emphasizes the need for reforms of the country’s laws to uphold, not violate press freedom.”

On February 3, a statement by Kwara State Polytechnic rejected The Informant247’s reporting as “false” and called on it “to desist from dragging the name of the institution into the mud, if not, the institution will not hesitate to take action.”

Ayatullahi told CPJ that he and Azeez spent the night of February 6 in a small, dark cell with over 20 inmates, who had to sleep on top of each other and use a bucket as a urinal.

Mohammed confirmed to CPJ by phone that he had filed a complaint with the police but he declined to provide further comment and referred CPJ’s questions to the police. 

CPJ’s calls and texts requesting comment from Kwara State police spokesperson Ejire-Adeyemi Adetoun did not receive any replies.