Nigerian authorities should immediately drop their investigation into the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ) and its founder, the award-winning undercover reporter, Fisayo Soyombo, and stop intimidating the chairperson of FIJ’s board of trustees, Bukky Shonibare, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday.

On February 21, Soyombo published an investigation detailing how he had smuggled rice into Nigeria with the collusion of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) officials and accused local businessman Ibrahim Dende Egungbohun of being a smuggler. FIJ’s accompanying documentary was also broadcast by Arise News.

On February 26, Egungbohun’s lawyer, David Olaoluwa Folalu, petitioned the police, Arise News, and the regulatory National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) over FIJ’s investigation, which it described as “defamatory, false and malicious” and “contrary to Section 24 of the cybercrimes (prohibition, prevention) Act, 2015,” according to multiple news reports, including by FIJ. Folalu demanded retractions, apologies, and 500 million naira (US$403,159) in damages, those sources said.

Separately, on March 15, another lawyer for Egungbohun, Bolarinwa Elijah Aidi, wrote to Soyombo, similarly demanding damages and retraction of the story, according to a copy of the letter posted on FIJ’s website.

Allegation of cybercrime

On March 26, FIJ board chairperson Shonibare was questioned by police at the National Cybercrime Center in the capital, Abuja, following their written request to interview her, reviewed by CPJ.

Shonibare told CPJ that the police said they were investigating an allegation of cybercrime in connection with one of FIJ’s articles, which they did not name, and asked about FIJ’s journalistic standards. The police also said they knew that Soyombo was not in Nigeria and instructed Shonibare to return with him, she told CPJ and said in a report on FIJ’s website.

Shonibare said that one official threatened her by saying that the police could access her personal and financial information via records associated with her phone number.

“Nigerian authorities must cease their efforts to intimidate the Foundation for Investigative Journalism, including its founder, the renowned investigative reporter Fisayo Soyombo, and the chairperson of its board of trustees, Bukky Shonibare, and allow them to continue reporting on issues of public interest,” said Angela Quintal, head of CPJ’s Africa program. “The Nigerian police’s investigation into such a reputable media outlet demonstrates the alarming extent to which they are willing to go to silence journalists seeking to expose crime.”

Death threat on social media

Soyombo said that he received a death threat on social media, reviewed by CPJ, telling him to stay away from Egungbohun, whose nickname is IBD Dende. It said, “step back from this called IBD DENDE … does [those] whom are paying you doesn’t [don’t] want you to live long.”

Soyombo said that two friends also warned him to be careful as they feared for his life after speaking with associates of Egungbohun and the Nigeria Customs Service who made threats against him.

On February 24, an opinion piece defending Egungbohun and criticizing Soyombo’s investigation was published in multiple localnews outlets.

Soyombo is a winner of the Kurk Schork and Fetisov journalism awards and wrote about the coordinated discrediting of journalists in Nigeria while he was a fellow of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Folalu confirmed to CPJ by phone that he was seeking to press charges for cyberstalking under Section 24 of the law and described the FIJ’s story as “deliberately targeted at the character and reputation of our client” and “purely criminal in nature.”

Folalu said his office had sent a pre-action letter to Arise News, notifying the outlet that they planned to file a civil suit against it demanding 500 million naira (US$403,159) in damages but put the matter on hold after the regulatory NBC wrote to Arise News on the same issue.

A senior member of staff at Arise News confirmed to CPJ, on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal, that the outlet had received written communication from Egungbohun’s lawyers, which had been forwarded to their lawyers, but declined to provide further details.

Possible criminal case

Egungbohun’s second lawyer, Aidi, told CPJ on April 5, that his office had sent pre- action letters to Soyombo and Arise News, notifying them about the possible civil suit and that their plans did not preclude a possible criminal case against the FIJ.

NCS spokesperson Abdullahi Aliyu Maiwada told CPJ via text message that the customs service remained “resolute in addressing genuine, evidence-based observations” but it was “not formally aware” of FIJ’s investigation.

He rejected the claim by Soyombo’s friends that NCS officials made threats against the journalist.

“Constructive, fact-based criticism channelled through appropriate means are always welcomed,” he said.

NBC spokesperson Ekanem Antia told CPJ on April 15 that the regulator did not receive any petition against Arise News about FIJ’s documentary.

Reached by phone and messaging app, Uche Ifeanyi Henry, director of the police’s National Cybercrime Center, told CPJ that requests for comment on the case should be send via the police’s “official channel,” but he did not specify a contact.

CPJ’s emails to the National Cybercrime Center and the police in Abuja requesting comment did not receive any response.