Luka Binniyat, a journalist and human rights activist from southern Kaduna State in Nigeria, has been jailed since 4 November for his reporting on Fulani violence against Christians in the state. His detention has caused an outcry from defenders of freedom of the press across Nigeria, as well as outside groups like Christian Solidarity International and the Committee to Protect Journalists. But his story does not begin there.
Luka Binniyat is from a village called Zaman Dabo, in Zangon Kataf local government area of Kaduna State. He was born on 15 October 1965. A Christian, he is married with five children.
After completing obligatory schooling, he enrolled at the University of Jos, Plateau State, and graduated in 1988 with a BSc in Geography and Planning. He completed a postgraduate diploma in Mass Communication in 1998 at the International Institute of Journalism in Abuja, followed by a Master’s degree in Conflict, Peace and Strategic Studies from Kaduna State University in 2015.
Binniyat worked initially for the National Electric Power Authority as assistant technical officer before cutting his teeth in journalism. After starting out as a reporter for the Post Express publishing company in 1997, he switched to the Vanguard daily newspaper in 2003. There he rose through the ranks from energy correspondent to Kaduna State bureau chief, an office he held from 2011 to 2017.
During these years, the situation in Binniyat’s home region deteriorated rapidly. Well-armed Fulani jihadists began increasing their attacks on the indigenous Christian communities of southern Kaduna. Killings and full-scale massacres became alarmingly common, and thousands of Christians fled their lands to escape the violence.
Binniyat was determined to expose the truth about these killings. As a journalist, Luka Binniyat has always been the voice of the voiceless. He regularly informed the media about the ongoing ethnic cleansing of his people in southern Kaduna State, and berated the government at the state and federal levels for not protecting them. This stance that soon made him a target of the Kaduna State government, which was and is dominated by Muslims from northern Kaduna State.
2017 legal case
It was in his capacity as a Vanguard bureau chief that, in January 2017, Binniyat filed a report to his editors at the head office in Lagos that five students at the Kaduna State College of Education had been killed by suspected Fulani herdsmen. The tip-off had come from one of his sources.
Like any journalist, Binniyat wanted to be the first to break the story. He rushed to file his report just before the deadline for the following day’s paper. Two hours later, after making checks, he discovered the story had holes in it. He quickly reached out to his editor asking him to pull the article, but the editor was in a meeting. Binniyat then tried to contact the news editor but failed. His attempts to reach the editors continued into the evening. Despite Binniyat’s efforts to get the story pulled, it was published in the 23 January daily edition, with far-reaching consequences.
A few months later, the State Security Service of Nigeria (DSS) called Binniyat in for questioning. On arrival, he was arrested and charged with “injurious falsehood” and “breach of public peace”. Vanguard Media, Binniyat’s employer, was not named in the suit that was brought against him.
Meanwhile, it transpired that Binniyat’s source for the story had also passed it to his employer, the entrepreneur Audu Makori, who tweeted about it even before the Vanguard story came out. Makori later retracted the story when he discovered that the source had made it up. This proves that Binniyat did not fabricate the story.
Nevertheless, Binniyat was arraigned before a magistrates’ court in April 2017 and granted bail after spending a night in jail. In bringing Binniyat before the magistrates’ court - the wrong court to try the case - the government used the same delaying tactic they were to use in 2021. Binniyat was rearraigned on the same charges at the Kaduna State High Court on 12 July 2017.
Binniyat was detained for nine days before his bail application was finally heard on 21 July. At the hearing, the judge granted him bail on conditions that were almost impossible for the defendant to meet. Two sureties were required, each amounting to N10 million naira, to be reviewed every six months. The bail conditions were further complicated by the requirement that those providing the sureties had to surrender their passports for the duration of the trial. All efforts to persuade the judge to review the bail conditions failed. Binniyat remained in detention.
When a follow-up hearing took place on 31 August, it was unexpectedly adjourned to 9 October. The reason given by the court was that the Kaduna State government had changed attorneys and the senior advocate brought in to lead the prosecution needed time to study the case file. Binniyat ended up spending over 90 days in jail until his bail conditions could be met.
Activism and honours
After his legal case ended his employment at Vanguard, Binniyat was appointed spokesperson of the Southern Kaduna Peoples Union (SOKAPU), an umbrella group of ethnic associations in southern Kaduna State. He has continued to work as a journalist, including for the international press. His determination to ensure the political representation of his people and give them a voice was to lead him to vie for a seat in the Kaduna State House of Assembly in the 2019 elections.
Binniyat once served as chairman of the Southern Kaduna Forum of Journalists, whose members included the current Commissioner for Internal Security and Home Affairs Samuel Aruwan. It is Aruwan who accused Binniyat of cyberstalking and injurious falsehood in 2021, the charges under which he is presently being detained.
Binniyat’s fearless journalism, which has brought him into conflict with the government on several occasions, has earned him deserved recognition in his own country. In 2017 SOKAPU conferred the Icon of Human Rights and Voice of the Voiceless award on him. He was also the recipient of the press freedom award of the Nigerian Union of Journalists in 2018.