Seven months after his release from jail, Nigerian journalist and human rights activist Luka Binniyat will appear in court on 6 September to answer charges of cyberstalking. Ahead of his hearing he said he was feeling “hopeful and optimistic” about the outcome.
The 57-year-old spent three months in pre-trial detention following his arrest on 4 November 2021 in connection with an article he had written for a U.S.-based newspaper, the Epoch Times, about Fulani militia attacks against Christians in his native southern Kaduna State. He was charged under Nigeria’s 2015 Cybercrime Prevention and Prohibition Act, which criminalizes ‘cyberstalking’ – including online speech that is ‘grossly offensive’ or ‘causes annoyance’.
Binniyat was finally released on 3 February, but the charges were not dropped.
No fair hearing
He is due to appear before Justice Garba Mohammed at the Federal High Court 1 in Kaduna.
“I expect Luka´s defence team to make a case for dismissal of the case. I expect the government´s side to double down on its position seeking a conviction,” commented Christian Solidarity International (CSI) Senior Research Fellow Franklyne Ogbunwezeh.
“The Nigerian judiciary has shown itself ever ready to do the bidding of the politicians in power. I wouldn´t expect Luka to get a fair hearing in Kaduna State under this government.”
Speaking to CSI, Binniyat raised doubts about whether a key witness in the case, Danjuma Laah, who represents Kaduna South in the Nigerian Senate, would show up at court having failed to put in an appearance at two earlier hearings.
“In that case, the prosecuting lawyers will close their case and my lawyers will open my defence,” he said.
Three spells in prison
The courageous journalist has been jailed three times for his award-winning reporting on Fulani Muslim violence in southern Kaduna.
In 2017 Binniyat was jailed twice, charged with ‘injurious falsehood’ and ‘breach of public peace’ for reporting on an alleged attack by Fulani militants in Vanguard newspaper. He spent over 100 days in prison.
Although he was released on bail the original charges were never dropped, and were in fact resurrected in 2022. He was summoned to appear before a magistrate in Kaduna in May of this year to answer these charges, but the hearing was cancelled when the judge failed to show up.
Violence reaches crisis proportions
The flurry of legal proceedings against Binniyat comes as violence in southern Kaduna is reaching crisis levels. Fulani militias have killed hundreds of people in attacks on Christian villages this year, in addition to attacking Kaduna State’s airport and waylaying a train running between Kaduna city and the federal capital, Abuja. Thousands of people have been displaced and dozens kidnapped.
Other journalists from southern Kaduna, including Steven Kefas, have also faced persecution for their fearless reporting of the crisis. Kefas spent 162 days in prison for his reporting, and recently had to flee Nigeria amid threats to his life.
Ogbunwezeh says he is not without hope that the charges against Binniyat will eventually be dropped as they are without foundation. But he believes the Kaduna State government’s longer-term goal is to make an example of Binniyat.
“It is clear to any observer that these are trumped-up charges meant to muzzle journalists reporting on the mass killings and displacement of Christians going on in Kaduna.
“From the look of things, the government is delaying and stretching this case for as long as it can. This is indicative of the fact that they have no case against him.”
By dragging out legal proceedings Kaduna State is able to inflict physical, mental and financial hardship on Binniyat, says Ogbunwezeh.
“Luka Binniyat has been visited untold harm. His health, source of livelihood and family life have been adversely affected by his detention and trial. That is the primary goal of such frivolous suits, namely to destroy the victim and make an example of him, so that no other person dares challenge the government´s narrative ever again.”
Binniyat admitted that the ongoing legal proceedings were making his life difficult but said he trusted in God. “With a family of nine and no steady job and with lawyers to pay, I have been surviving by His grace and the small restaurant that my wife runs,” he said.
“But my spirits are high and I am very hopeful and optimistic because I know that the Lord is in control.”