Authorities in Nigeria should immediately release Oga Tom Uhia, the publisher of local monthly magazine Power Steering, which covers the electrical power sector, and drop all charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On October 13, police arrested Uhia at his residence in Gwarimpa, a suburb of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, without a warrant and took him to the Force Criminal Investigation Department, according to Uhia’s lawyer, Evans Odeh, who spoke with CPJ via phone, and independent news website Forefront.
There, authorities questioned him about a complaint filed with police by Minister of State for Power Goddy Jeddy Agba, who helps oversee the electrical power sector in several states, regarding reporting on the official in Power Steering, Odeh said.
Six days later, on October 19, Odeh said police told him that Uhia had been charged with 14 counts of alleged defamation and injurious publication. He said he has not received a copy of the charges.
“The ongoing detention of journalist Oga Tom Uhia is an alarmingly familiar attack on freedom of the press in Nigeria and symptomatic of authorities’ disregard for the media’s right to work without fear,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities should drop the charges against Oga Tom Uhia and he should be released immediately. Nigeria’s government should act swiftly to decriminalize defamation.”
Agba’s complaint related to Power Steering’s July report on Agba’s alleged involvement in corruption, fraud, and theft, according to CPJ’s review of the magazine, the privately owned Premium Times news site, and Odeh.
Odeh said that the day after the arrest, officers brought Uhia back to his residence where they seized at least 22 printed copies of Power Steering magazine, Uhia’s camera, and other personal assets before taking him back to the police station.
Odeh said on October 15 Uhia met his bail conditions, which included the provision of the journalist’s passport and property documents to the police, as well as a commitment by a Nigerian civil service member to act as a surety in case the journalist jumped bail. According to another lawyer representing Uhia, Alexander Oketa, the civil service member was a friend of the journalist, though Oketa declined to provide his name out of concern for the journalist’s case.
In spite of this, police declined to release Uhia, citing a court order, Odeh said. According to Oketa, the order came from a magistrate in Nigeria’s northern Nasarawa state, which he said has no jurisdiction over the area where the journalist was arrested. He said that the magistrate’s name was not listed on the order. CPJ attempted to reach the Nasarawa State Aattorney General, Abdulkarim Kana, via phone and messaging app, but received no reply.
As of November 4, no hearing date had been set for Uhia’s case, Odeh told CPJ. He said that the journalist had applied with the court to compel prosecutors to enforce his constitutionally guaranteed rights, including the right not to be detained without a sentence. He said this application is scheduled to be heard on November 5.
CPJ has been unable to access the charge sheet and so cannot determine the exact punishment if the journalist is convicted.
According to reports, Uhia is 72 years old, and Oketa said he is in poor health. He told CPJ the journalist has heart disease and was rushed by police to a police hospital due to his high blood pressure on November 2; Oketa said that the journalist is now out of the hospital but still in police custody.
Reached by CPJ via phone, Agba confirmed that he reported the journalist’s work to the police and accused Uhia of “maligning” him. He said he is not responsible for Uhia’s continued detention, a claim that Uhia’s lawyers dispute. Agba declined to comment further because of the court case.
Uhia was previously charged with defamation in 2014, as CPJ reported at the time; Oketa told CPJ that the case was struck down by the court.
Nigeria’s police spokesperson Frank Mba did not respond to CPJ’s calls and requests for comment sent via messaging app.