By Olasunkanmi Akoni
Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, has sued the Federal Government and Cross River State Government of Governor Ben Ayade before the ECOWAS Court of Justice in Abuja over what it called, “the prolonged, arbitrary detention; unfair prosecution; persecution, and sham trial of journalist,” Mr. Agba Jalingo.
Jalingo, who is the publisher of CrossRiverWatch, was arrested on August 22 over a report alleging that Mr. Ayade diverted N500 million belonging to the Cross-River Micro Finance Bank.
On August 23, 2019, Jalingo was transferred to a detention facility run by the anti-cult and anti-kidnapping police in Calabar, the capital of Nigeria’s southern Cross River State and was held there for days before his arraignment on August 31st, 2019.”
According to the Deputy Director of SERAP, Mr. Kolawole Oluwadare in a statement, on Sunday, “the suit number ECW/CCJ/APP/10/2020, filed last week at the ECOWAS Court, stressed that the sole objective of the government of Nigeria and the Cross River State Government under the leadership of governor Ben Ayade is to perpetually keep Jalingo in arbitrary detention and to silence him simply for expressing critical views and carrying out his legitimate job as journalist.”
According to the suit: “This is not the first time the government of Nigeria and the Cross River state government of governor Ben Ayade have taken actions to intimidate, harass and suppress journalists through the instrumentality of trumped-up charges and use of overly broad and unjust laws, including section 24 of Nigeria’s Cybercrime Act, 2015, which provides for the offence of cyber-stalking.
“The government of Nigeria and Cross-River State Government are using vague laws that give officials massive discretion to undermine human rights. They are punishing Jalingo and other journalists and silencing them for their reporting, thereby, undermining Nigerians’ right to information, to public participation, to open and democratic governance in the country.”
The suit read, in part: “If freedom of expression and media freedom are to have true meaning in a democracy, these rights necessarily must include the freedom to criticize the government and its functionaries. Indeed, the idea of a democracy is that the people are encouraged to express their criticisms, even their wrong-headed criticisms, of elected government institutions, in the expectation that this process will improve the process of government.”
“The harassment, intimidation, unfair prosecution and arbitrary detention of Agba Jalingo simply for exercising his human rights violate Nigeria’s international human rights obligations, including under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to which the country is a state party.”
“Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and full enjoyment of this right is central to achieving individual freedom and to developing democracy. It is not only the cornerstone of democracy but indispensable to a thriving civil society”
“In circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by human rights treaties upon uninhibited expression is particularly high.”
“The government of Nigeria and the Cross-River state government of governor Ben Ayade have via the charges of terrorism and treason and denial of bail to Jalingo, violated and continued to breach his human rights.”
SERAP, therefore, sought the following reliefs, among others; A declaration that the actions by the government of Nigeria and the Cross River state government of governor Ben Ayade to continue to arbitrarily detain and unfairly prosecute Agba Jalingo using the Cybercrimes Act, sections 41 and 59 of Nigeria’s Criminal Code Act and sections 1 and 17 (2)(a) and (b) of the Terrorism (Prevention, Amendment) Act, violate his human rights, as guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, a declaration that the arbitrary detention and unfair prosecution of Agba Jalingo is illegal and unlawful, as it amounts to breaches of Nigerian international obligations to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the rights to freedom of expression and information and media freedom, guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Also sought an order, directing the government of Nigeria and the Cross-River state government to immediately and unconditionally release Jalingo and drop all charges against him, consistent with Nigeria’s international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
However, no date has been fixed for the hearing of the suit.