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Journalist's Trial Renews Concern About Nigeria's Cybercrime Law 

The logo of online broadcaster Naija Live TV in Nigeria, founded by journalist Saint Mienpamo Onitsha.
The logo of online broadcaster Naija Live TV in Nigeria, founded by journalist Saint Mienpamo Onitsha.

It’s been nearly a month since Nigerian authorities detained journalist Saint Mienpamo Onitsha.

On Oct. 10, Matthew Perekebuna was preparing for an outing with Mienpamo, his friend, when he heard of the arrest. Perekebuna said officers arrived at the house of a mutual friend in southern Nigeria's Bayelsa state and forced him at gunpoint to summon Mienpamo, founder of online broadcaster Naija Live TV.

The officers detained Mienpamo overnight before flying him out of his hometown to Abuja and charged him with cyberstalking and defamation. Perekebuna said he hadn't spoken to his friend since then.

"I know Saint Mienpamo very well. We all belong to the same community,” he said. “It has to do with politics."

Perekebuna said Mienpamo had spoken out against the Presidential Amnesty Program, or PAP, a government-sponsored program that offers monthly stipends to former oil militants as part of efforts to end violence in the Niger Delta.

Authorities said the journalist in September deliberately published a false and unverified report on Facebook, accusing PAP officials of beating a beneficiary to death.

Officials deny that anyone was killed. They say that when a beneficiary tried to force his way into the office, security resisted him. The person went to a hospital and was later discharged.

At Nigeria’s federal high court in Abuja, hearings in the case of the journalist are underway.

Anande Terungwa, Mienpamo's attorney, said that the journalist had pleaded not guilty, pulled down his report, published a corrected story and issued an apology.

Terungwa, who visited Mienpamo in jail this week, told VOA he suspected the case might be politically motivated.

The journalist covers the amnesty program, plus unrest in the Niger Delta region. In 2020, he faced legal action over his coronavirus coverage.

"They have been turning us around, playing politics. ... Many people have published something related to [PAP]. How many have they arrested? How many have they tried? They just singled him out," Terungwa said.

Nigeria's Justice Ministry did not respond to VOA's requests for comment.

Nigerian lawmakers enacted the cybercrime law in 2015 to protect the nation's economy and prevent fraud and cyberattacks.

But analysts say the legislation is used too often by authorities to prosecute journalists and citizens who often criticize the government or politicians.

Analysts say Nigerian media are often targeted with arrest or lawsuits over their work.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, has repeatedly documented the use of Nigeria’s Cybercrimes Act to prosecute journalists.

Jonathan Rozen, a senior researcher at CPJ, a New York-based nonprofit, said, "We're constantly keeping track of attacks on the press, jailing of journalists, killing of journalists, surveillance, laws that are going to inhibit the press, to provide evidence for our advocacy with governments."

The Cybercrime Act has been used repeatedly to arrest journalists in connection with their work in Nigeria, Rozen told VOA.

CPJ is calling for the swift release of the journalist and for reform, Rozen said. "We have repeatedly called for Nigerian lawmakers, leadership in Nigeria, to reform these laws to ensure that these tools that are used to criminalize journalism are not available in Nigeria,” he said.

Mienpamo is due back in court on December 4. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison or a fine of more than $32,000.

For now, his lawyer said, the priority is to get Mienpamo out of jail.