“Even if they shut down all the courts in Nigeria, they must not shut down the court of public opinion,” said Agba Jalingo.
The investigative journalist and founder of the news website CrossRiverWatch was speaking to VOA via phone from Lagos in Nigeria.
His commitment to media freedom is what gave Jalingo the resolve to keep going through one of the most difficult—and defining—moments of his career as a journalist.
He was imprisoned in 2019 on charges including cybercrime. His case triggered a chain of events that last month resulted in a landmark ruling.
A ruling by the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, in Accra, Ghana, ordered Nigerian authorities to amend the law. The presiding judge, Keikura Bangura, said the law flouted the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), to which Nigeria is a signatory.
Nigerian authorities have not responded to the ruling and have denied using the law to muzzle the press or citizens.
Nigeria’s Minister of Information did not respond to VOA’s calls requesting an interview.
For media and civil rights activists, the court decision backs up concerns they have raised for years. If enforced, it could prevent journalists going through the same experience as Jalingo.
Jalingo was first alerted to a possible legal issue while at a UNICEF workshop in Nigeria’s Benue state, in August 2019.
A letter from police in his home state of Cross River asked him to come in for questioning about an alleged breach of peace.
The summons related to an investigative report Jalingo published two weeks earlier alleging misuse of state funds.
Jalingo says he agreed on a date to meet with the police at the station. Before that took place, though, officers detained him.
“They came to my house in Lagos, arrested me, locked me up in their detention for one night, and the following morning they threw me in the boot [trunk] of a Toyota Highlander and we started a 26-hour journey,” he said.
Jalingo, whose publication focuses on sociopolitical issues, says it was not his first arrest for reporting, but it was the scariest.
“The journey took unnecessarily long, and I was in the trunk of a car, so I couldn’t even see what was happening outside. My hands and legs were cuffed. I defecated on my body, I thought they were going to kill me. I kept thinking about my wife,” he said.
When they arrived in Cross River state, the officers detained him for 43 days, chained him to an old cooling storage facility, and did not allow any visitors.
When Jalingo appeared before the federal high court in the state capital Calabar, authorities charged him with treason and cybercrime.
The Cross River state governor in an interview denied the allegations of mistreatment.
Nigeria’s cybercrime law was enacted in 2015 in order to provide legally backed regulations for online interactions, as well as punishments for offenders.
But activists say a portion of the law too often has been manipulated to punish journalists who report critically about authorities.
Those cases led to the non-governmental organization, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project or SERAP, contesting the law and charges against Jalingo.
“We witnessed the spate of those unlawful arraignments and charges,” said Kolawole Oluwadare, deputy director at SERAP. “So, we decided to approach the court to challenge the legality of that law.”
Jalingo’s trial lasted two and a half years, with many twists and charges dropped and added. He says there were times when officers told him he must stop criticizing the government if he wanted to be freed.
But in July last year, with help from SERAP, an ECOWAS court called for the case to be dismissed and ordered the state authorities to pay him $75,000 in compensation. He’s yet to receive the compensation.
Jalingo’s triumph was a boost to Nigeria’s press freedom testament, but SERAP wanted to make sure no other journalist went through a similar ordeal.
The group continued its 2019 suit against the Nigerian government at the ECOWAS court, calling for the law to be amended or withdrawn.
And in March, the ECOWAS ruled in their favor.
“We’re happy that the court agreed with us ultimately,” Oluwadare said.
While the ruling on the cybercrime law and Jalingo’s victory raised hopes, some media rights experts say they continue to have concerns.
Only about 30 percent of ECOWAS judgments are enforced by authorities in the region the body covers. Analysts say they fear Nigeria will be slow to actually implement the decision.
Seun Bakare, of Amnesty International, says authorities must demonstrate leadership and commitment to the regional body by complying with the ruling.
“A country that prides itself as a country where the rule of law is paramount, I think such a country should continue to show its commitment to the rule of law,” Bakare said.
Not everyone shares concerns, however, that media freedom in Nigeria is on the decline.
Ahaziah Abubakar, director of news at the state-run Voice of Nigeria, supports the authorities’ assertion that Nigeria enjoys greater press freedom compared to others in Africa.
“I think relatively compared to other African countries, Nigeria’s media has been the freest of all. I make bold to say this, I’ve visited several African countries. But there’s still room for much more improvement,” he told VOA.
SERAP and other human rights defenders say they will monitor Nigeria’s response to the ruling and press authorities to comply with it.
And for Jalingo, with the trial behind him, he has returned to investigative reporting.
“I’ll not stop doing that,” he said. “Since I left prison, I’ve continued to ask those same questions.”