The authorities in Benin should release journalist Damilola Ayeni, drop the “jihadist” accusation against him and ensure his safe return to Nigeria without any further violation of his rights.
Ayeni was gathering information at the Pendjari, one of Benin’s famous national parks for a report on Nigeria-Benin environmental journalism when the authorities arrested him.
His media organisation, Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ), reported that it received a distress text message from Ayeni on August 31, 2023, which read: “I have just been arrested.”
The journalist told his colleagues in a subsequent telephone call that he was being held because the authorities stated that the area had security concerns.
The FIJ said after keeping the journalist incommunicado for five days, the police in Parakou, northern Benin, reached out to them with the following message:
“Hello sir, I am the Commissioner of the Central Police Station of Parakou in Benin. Do you know Mr. Damilola of Nigerian nationality? He is arrested in Penjari [sic] Park in northern Benin for jihadist [sic]. He would [sic] be presented to the prosecutor and sent to prison. He risks 10 to 20 years in prison. What do you think of his situation, sir?”
Later that same day, the police put the journalist in a vehicle for an overnight travel to Cotonou, according to the Commissioner of Police for Parakou who responded to the MFWA’s enquiries in WhatsApp text.
“He has been put on the road to Cotonou since yesterday [Tuesday, September 5],” the police officer who refused to mention his name said.
“If you have representatives in Cotonou, they can follow up on your colleague who has been handed over to the police criminal investigation brigade for further interrogation before being presented before the prosecutor at the CRIET in Porto Novo,” the Commissioner added.
CRIET is an acronym for the Court for the Repression of Economic Offenses and Terrorism. It is a supreme court jurisdiction established in 2018 to handle cases involving economic crimes, cybercrime and terrorism, and is largely seen as a pliant tool used by the government to silence its critics and opponents.
Ayeni has committed no crime. He was simply reporting from a national park the authorities consider to be a security zone. It is distressing and incredible that the editor of a reputable media organisation, known for his reports and activism on environmental issues, has had to endure several days’ detention, with the risk of being jailed for up to 20 years on accusation of engaging in jihadist activities.
The MFWA urges the Beninois authorities to withdraw the grotesque accusation and cease all criminal interrogations or proceedings against Ayeni.