Detained Nigerian environmental journalist, Damilola Ayeni, of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ), regained freedom Friday night in Cotonou, Republic of Benin, after one week of incarceration at Benin’s northwestern Pendjari National Park.
Police authorities initially detained Mr Ayeni at the Commissariat Central, Parakou Police Station, in Parakou, and later moved him to Cotonou, on grounds of alleged terrorism and espionage for taking pictures at the park, claiming he had no authorization to be at the spot.
Charges were subsequently dropped following intense clamour for his release and a concert of civil society and diplomatic intervention led by Olukayode Aluko, Nigeria’s ambassador to Benin, and support from Debo Adesina, the ambassador to Togo, who was a former editor of the Guardian newspapers in Lagos.
The Coalition for Whistleblowers Protection and Press Freedom (CWPPF), home to 15 Nigerian newspapers and human rights organisations, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the West African investigative journalism group, CENOZO, based in Burkina Faso, and the local Benin office of Amnesty International all called on Beninois police and prosecutor authorities for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr Ayeni, and that all charges against him be dropped and he should be allowed to work safely.
Fisayo Soyombo, FIJ publisher who spoke to the CPJ, denied the allegations against Mr Ayeni and said the reporter was at the park to report on an environmental conservation story. Since an incident of terrorism was spotted at its northern borders, Beninois authorities have been edgy on media reporting around the park. Last year, police at the Pendjari park arrested three journalists, Flore Nobime of the local AFP office, Dutch journalist Oliver van Beemen, and a French TV 5 reporter, for similar reasons, according to Rachida Houssou, the BBC Africa correspondent in Benin.
President of the Union of Media Professionals of Benin, Zakiath Latoundji, told CENOZO that efforts to reach Mr Ayeni were hindered for most of Friday in an apparent effort to quickly charge him. However, the union helped secure the services of an attorney, Elie Dovonou, to announce representation for the journalist before the Special Prosecutor at the Court for the Repression of Economic Offenses and Terrorism, CRIET, the Beninois body that tries terrorism cases.
Receiving Mr Ayeni later at the Nigerian embassy, Mr Aluko joked about the prestige and value of being a journalist such that “the whole world stood up” for the reporter to secure his freedom. “I cannot recall the number of calls I got on this one case, from local and international organisations to our ambassador to Togo, to his employers and even from the Villa,” a reference to the Nigerian presidency.
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