The conviction of Nigerian journalists Gidado Yushau and Alfred Olufemi on conspiracy and defamation charges sends a chilling message to the Nigerian press and highlights the urgent need for authorities to reform the country’s laws and ensure journalism is not criminalized, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday. 

On February 7, a magistrate court in Nigeria’s southern Kwara State convicted Yushau, publisher of the privately owned website News Digest, and freelance reporter Olufemi of criminal defamation and conspiracy, according to a copy of the judgment reviewed by CPJ and phone interviews with the journalists and their lawyer, Ahamad Sa’eed Ibrahim-Gambari. CPJ became aware of the conviction after an April 9 report by the privately owned news website Premium Times. 

The court ordered the journalists to be jailed for five months or pay 100,000 nairas (US$219) each, which they paid in February to avoid jail. Ibrahim-Gambari said the journalists plan to appeal the ruling.

The pair were arrested and charged in 2019 over a report about alleged cannabis use at a rice processing facility following a complaint by a representative of the company, Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industries. Before charges were filed, police leveraged their access to call data and briefly detained a News Digest web developer and at least two other journalists in their efforts to locate Yushau and Olufemi.

“Nigerian journalists Gidado Yushau and Alfred Olufemi should never have been charged, let alone convicted, for publishing an investigative report about a factory,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, from New York. “The telecom surveillance used to bring the journalists into custody, followed by a more than three-year-long trial, demonstrates the lengths Nigerian authorities will go to arrest and prosecute the press.”

The telecom surveillance, along with two similar cases in 2017 and 2018, prompted an ongoing lawsuit against the Nigerian Communications Commission over regulations granting warrantless access to telecom subscribers’ information.

CPJ’s calls and text messages to the prosecutor, Samuel Mayowa, received no response.