Abia State govt arrests journalist, jails him for ‘defaming’ Theodore Orji

THE Abia State government has arrested and arraigned a journalist, Obinna Norman, at a magistrate court in Umuahia, the state capital, for allegedly harassing and defaming the former governor of the state, Theodore Orji.

Norman is the owner and editor-in-chief of an online news outlet ‘The Realm News’. He is author of a book titled ‘Raped and Enslaved: Abia’s era of kleptocracy’.

He was arrested on March 1 by the police in Umuahia, while he was at a local radio station ‘Flo FM‘ to discuss politics on air, taken to a magistrate court where he was charged for offences bordering on cybercrime and terrorism and was remanded at the Afara prison in Umuahia, from where he spoke to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Speaking with the CPJ on Thursday, Norman said he was first charged under the Cybercrime Act of 2015, but during his second court appearance, he was charged under the Abia State Anti-Terrorism and Kidnapping Act of 2009.

The charge sheets seen by the CPJ showed that Norman is being accused of defaming and harassing Theodore Orji, who is now a Senator representing Abia Central Senatorial District, having served for eight years as governor.

Obinna Don Norman

The offences were alleged to have been committed on or before March 21, 2018, but the charge sheets did not specify any articles or comments related to the charges. However, Norman and Realm News editor Rotimi Akinola told CPJ that they believe the charges are reprisal for Norman’s reporting and criticism of the Abia state government, and are an attempt to silence the press ahead of the gubernatorial election scheduled for March 9, in which the sitting governor, Okezie Ikpeazu,  is running for a second term in office.

The four offences allegedly committed by Norman, according to the March 1 charge sheet, include: cyberstalking, sending defamatory messages using a computer, using a computer to send messages “for the purpose of causing public hatred,” and using a computer to “bully, threaten and harass”. The offences were said to be contrary to sections 24 and 27 of the Cybersecurity Act 2015.

But on Thursday, the charges were changed and Norman was accused of threatening Theodore Orji’s life with “messages through (the) internet and phone calls,” which is punishable under Abia state’s 2009 anti-terrorism and kidnapping law.

    “Abia state authorities should drop the charges against journalist Obinna Don Norman, ensure his release, and cease efforts to intimidate him,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator.

    “Nigeria’s cybercrime act has too often been used to silence journalists in the country and the additional charge against Norman indicates that authorities are intent on harassing the press.”

    The Commissioner of Police in Abia State, Ene Okun, told CPJ that Norman was arrested because he was listed as “wanted” in an official bulletin by the former police commissioner. But Norman said that shortly after the bulletin was issued, he went to court and the bulletin was nullified by a federal judge.

    But the police boss said the matter was no longer in his hands as it had been transferred to court.

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