Prominent Nigerian journalist Jones Abiri was arrested Wednesday on charges of “terrorism and economic sabotage,” in a case some rights groups claim is politically motivated.
Abiri, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Weekly Source, was held under Nigeria’s cybercrimes act, anti-sabotage act, and terrorism prevention act for crimes he allegedly carried out between June and July 2016. His lawyer, Samuel Ogala, said his client has since pleaded not guilty to charges of terrorism, economic sabotage, and fraud.
Court documents viewed by the Premium Times allege that Abiri sent text messages to Shell and Agip officials, threatening to blow their oil installations if they did not heed his demands.
The arrest has caused alarm among rights groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), who argue his arrest is an effort by President Muhammed Buhari to intimidate a journalist investigating alleged corruption within oil companies and the regional government in the Niger Delta.
“The re-arrest of Jones Abiri showcases once again the brazen willingness of the Nigerian government to intimidate and harass the press,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal. “Nigerian authorities should immediately release Jones Abiri and permit him to continue his work without fear of retaliation.”
The latest charges come nine months after Abiri was released from custody by the Nigerian State Security Service, having spent two years there without charge while being denied access to his family or a lawyer.
In their press release, the CPJ said they had contacted spokespersons for the Department of State Security, Nigeria’s Information Ministry, and the Office of Muhammadu Buhari, all of which went unanswered.
Although Nigeria has many independent media outlets, there remains ongoing concern about overall press freedom. “Africa’s most populous nation has more than 100 independent newspapers and yet covering stories involving politics, terrorism or financial embezzlement by the powerful proves problematic,” notes the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders. “Journalists are often threatened, subjected to physical violence or denied access to information by government officials, police and sometimes the public itself.”
“The all-powerful regional governors are often the most determined persecutors and act with complete impunity. In 2018, one governor had the premises of a radio station razed after a series of reports criticizing his handling of local affairs,” they continue. “Police also detained a journalist for several days in an attempt to identify his sources. Online freedom is restricted by a 2015 cyber-crime law that is widely used to arrest and prosecute journalists and bloggers in an arbitrary manner.”