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Fear over crackdown on Free Speech as Journalists Arrested in Nigeria

Journalist Fisayo Soyombo was warned by colleagues and other sources of a government plot to arrest him while he was in Lagos. He had been investigating the corruption in Nigeria’s criminal justice system and had published his articles just hours before he learned that the government planned to arrest him. The Nigerian government had planned to prosecute him under a law that forbids specific types of communication with prisoners, so Soyombo went into hiding. After Soyombo received support on social media, the Nigerian government eventually released a statement that it had no plans to arrest Soyombo. However, at least three Nigerian journalists are still being held by the government.

Omoyele Sowore is an activist and journalist who lives in New Jersey and runs the online news agency Sahara Reporters. His news organization is aimed at bringing transparency to Nigeria. In February 2018, he announced that his intention to run for president in the 2019 Nigerian election. He founded his own political party and received the fifth-highest number of votes in the election. After he expressed his belief that the election was fraudulent, he was arrested by the Nigerian government. President Muhammadu Buhari had won the general election and had secured his second term in office. Sowore now faces seven charges, including treason and cyberstalking. The government has refused to release Sowore on bail even after he met all the conditions for bail. It is speculated that Sowore has been held in solitary confinement for the whole three months since was arrested and he went on a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment.

Another journalist, Jones Abiri, was arrested on charges of cybercrime and terrorism in May of this year. He was the publisher and the editor-in-chief of the Weekly Source, a Nigerian newspaper. The government had alleged in 2016 that he was linked to rebels in the Niger Delta. Due to these allegations, he was held without a trial for two years, until 2018. He had no access to a lawyer or to his family during this time. Abiri claimed that he was subjected to physical violence and torture by the prison officials during his two years in the detention facility. He was freed in August 2018, after protests and campaigns for his freedom by human rights organizations. His re-arrest shows the Nigerian government’s disregard for the public outrage over the treatment of journalists in the country.

Agba Jalingo, a journalist who publishes the Cross River Watch newspaper, was arrested in August 2019. This arrest was made only days after the publication of an article on corruption in the newspaper. He was charged with treason, and his request for bail has also been denied by the government.

The current President of Nigeria, Buhari, is a former army general who previously served as the head of state of Nigeria in the 1980s. He had taken power in a military coup and introduced a draconian law that severely restricted journalists’ right to free speech during his time in office. Although he portrayed himself as a reformed democrat in his 2015 and 2019 campaigns, the recent arrests show a troubling return to a dictatorial ruling style.