Nigerian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release blogger Kemi Omololu-Olunloyo and newspaper publisher Samuel Welson, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The two have been held in a maximum security prison for more than a week as they await trial on charges of defamation and publishing false news.
Police on March 13 arrested Omololu-Olunloyo, who runs the blog HNN Africa, at her house in the southwestern city of Ibadan, for publishing on Instagram a letterpurportedly from a churchgoer accusing a woman of using juju to convince a pastor and other men to sleep with her and to give her gifts, according to media reports. The post has since been removed from Instagram, but a legal document CPJ has reviewed indicates it was published first “on or about” February 17. When she published the letter, Omololu-Olunloyo wrote that neither the pastor nor the woman had responded to her request for comment.
Police on March 15 arrested Welson, the publisher of the Port Harcourt tabloid newspaper Rivers Today, after the newspaper republished the letter, according to Phoebe Fawehinmi, who is representing both journalists. The legal document lists the date Rivers Today published the document as “on or about” February 20.
On March 15, police drove Omololu-Olunloyo more than 600 kilometers (373 miles) across the country, from Ibadan to Port Harcourt, where a court ordered her and Welson jailed in a maximum security prison, pending trial on charges of criminal defamation and false news, according to news reports and the legal document.
“Defamation allegations should never be a criminal matter,” CPJ West Africa representative Peter Nkanga said. “We call on Nigerian authorities to release Kemi Omololu-Olunloyo and Samuel Welson without condition or charge, and to cease prosecuting journalists on charges of defamation or publishing false news.”
Fawehinmi, the journalists’ lawyer, told CPJ that a bail hearing yesterday was postponed until March 30. “The court did not seat because we were told the magistrate was sick. So now they will have to remain in prison for another week,” she said.
Nnamdi Omoni, a police spokesman in Rivers State, where Port Harcourt is located, referred CPJ to the Inspector General of Police Monitoring Unit, where an officer declined to comment.