Media Rights Agenda (MRA) today called for the immediate release of Mr. Agba Jalingo, a journalist with the Cross River Watch, describing his arrest and detention since August 22, 2019 as unlawful and the charges of treason preferred against him on August 30 for criticising Cross Rivers State Governor Ben Ayade on social media as a “shameful and ridiculous trivialization of our criminal laws”.
In a statement issued in Lagos, MRA’s Programme Director, Mr. Ayode Longe said: “It is rather unfortunate that in the face of such massive and widespread insecurity of lives and property in Nigeria, rather than gear up to perform its primary duty of ensuring the security of the people, the Police has chosen to make itself a willing tool of oppression in the hands of politicians against innocent citizens that it has failed to protect and who are victims of the bad governance of the same politicians.”
He described the arrest and detention of Mr. Jalingo for over a week simply for writing a story that displeased Governor Ayade as a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the Nigerian Constitution as well as regional and international human rights instruments to which Nigeria is a signatory.
Mr. Longe noted that having held Mr. Jalingo without charge for over a week in violation of the Constitution, the police decided to charged him with “acts of treason, treasonable felony, and threatening through various publications on crossriverwatch.com and social media, using malicious publications, instigating the people of Nigeria to stage protest for the removal of the Governor of Cross River State of Nigeria from office without due process of law” under Section 41 of the Criminal Code Act.
He said: “These charges make a mockery of our legal system. They amount to a shameful and ridiculous trivialization of our criminal laws. They have the effect of undermining the integrity of the Nigeria Police and will ultimately result in robbing the State of the ability of using these legal provisions in deserving cases as both the State and the laws would have lost credibility in the eyes of the people.”
Mr. Longe argued that if anyone is on the wrong path at all, it is not Mr. Jalingo but Governor Ayade and the Nigeria Police in Cross Rivers State who are violating an injunction long established by the Court of Appeal in Nwankwo v. The State (1985) NCLR 247, where the Court held that any public officer who feels defamed by any publication should sue for libel, as it is illegal to use the machinery of the State to harass political opponents.
He called on Governor Ayade, as a public figure, to learn to withstand criticisms, saying “if he the Governor cannot stand the heat, he should get out of the kitchen”.
According to him, the mere fact that Governor Ayade considers an expression of opinion insulting to him or even damaging to his reputation, cannot justify abusing his powers and misusing the Police and criminal Law for his personal aggrandizement.
Mr. Longe therefore called on the Inspector-General of Police to prevail on the Commissioner of Police in Cross River State to withdraw the unjustifiable criminal charges against Mr. Jalingo and ensure his immediate and unconditional release.
He also advised Governor Ayade against using the Police and public resources to suppress and punish critical voices, urging him instead to thread the path of constitutionality by bringing a civil suit for libel against him if he truly feels that he has a reputation to protect.