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EDITORIAL

How Nigerian Authorities Use the Cybercrime Act to Stifle Free Press

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CYBERCRIME ACT

How Nigerian Authorities Use the Cybercrime Act to Stifle Free Press

Cybercrime encompasses various illegal activities conducted in cyberspace, such as hacking, identity theft, online fraud, and cyberbullying. These activities present significant threats to individuals, businesses, and governments globally, resulting in financial losses, privacy breaches, and disruptions to digital operations.

Enacted in 2015, the Cybercrime Act in Nigeria aims to combat online criminal activities and is a crucial piece of legislation for the digital age. While its primary purpose is to protect individuals and organizations from cyber threats, there are growing concerns that the Act’s provisions are being misused to target journalists.

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Originally named the Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention, etc.) Act, 2015, it was amended on February 28, 2024. According to the Act, its objectives include: “(a) providing an effective and unified legal, regulatory, and institutional framework for the prohibition, prevention, detection, prosecution, and punishment of cybercrimes in Nigeria; (b) ensuring the protection of critical national information infrastructure; and (c) promoting cybersecurity and the protection of computer systems and networks, electronic communications, data, and computer programs, intellectual property, and privacy rights.”

Despite these intentions, the Act is perceived as a controversial law that grants the Nigerian government expansive authority to regulate perceived online crimes. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have criticized the legislation for its potential to target media professionals and infringe upon freedom of speech.

Critics of the Act argue that its provisions, intended to address cyber threats, may inadvertently be used to suppress freedom of the press, particularly targeting journalists. The broad and sometimes vague language of the Act, coupled with stringent penalties for offenses related to online activities, has led to fears that it could be selectively applied to intimidate and persecute journalists who are critical of the government or powerful entities.

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Journalists in Nigeria have faced threats, arrests, and harassment connected to their online activities. Recent incidents attributed to the enforcement of the Cybercrime Act highlight the vague definitions of offenses such as “cyberstalking” and “cyberbullying,” which authorities can potentially use to target journalists engaged in legitimate journalistic activities online.

Cases of concern include findings that about 20 journalists and media outlets were attacked during the general elections in February and March 2023. According to Reporters Without Borders, Nigeria ranks 112 out of 180 countries for press freedom, indicating a low level of press freedom. The country was ranked 123 in 2023.

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Reporters Without Borders stated, “Nigeria is one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are regularly monitored, attacked, and arbitrarily arrested, as was the case during the 2023 elections. The level of governmental interference in the news media is significant. It can involve pressure, harassment of journalists and media outlets, and even censorship. This interference is even stronger during electoral campaigns. In recent years, most of West Africa’s violent attacks, arbitrary detentions, and shooting deaths of journalists have taken place in Nigeria, especially during the country’s electoral periods. Crimes committed against journalists continue to go unpunished, even when the perpetrators are known or apprehended. There is almost no state mechanism for protection. In fact, the authorities keep journalists under close surveillance and do not hesitate to threaten them.”

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On May 4, 2023, a journalist with the Foundation for Investigative Journalism, Daniel Ojukwu, was arrested by men of the Nigerian Police Force and detained at the State Criminal Investigation Department, Panti, in Lagos State. He was then moved to the Threat Response Unit of the NPF National Cybercrime Centre in Abuja before being released 10 days later. Ojukwu faced allegations of violating the Cybercrime Act following a report he authored. Before his arrest, Ojukwu had written a report on how a government official responsible for advancing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, Adejoke Orelope-Adefulire, allegedly diverted over $106,000 of public funds to a restaurant in Abuja. The founder of FIJ, Fisayo Soyombo, described the arrest as an abduction, noting that “they never invited him to address concerns about the story in question. Instead, they tracked him, picked him up, and held him.”

Similarly, on May 27, 2023, a journalist and publisher of the news platform Precious Eze, was arrested at his residence in Gbagada, Lagos, by officers of the Nigeria Police Force from the Zone 2 Command in Lagos State. The arrest was believed to have been prompted by a complaint from a well-known businessman and politician. Recently, on May 28, 2023, the Executive Director, reporter, and lawyers of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting were detained by the Nigeria Police Force National Cybercrime Centre after being invited for questioning.

The President of the Nigeria Guild of Editors, Eze Anaba, called on the police authorities to desist from weaponizing the Cybercrime Act. Anaba stated, “Journalists are now being terrorized by law enforcement agents using the Cybercrime Act. That is unconstitutional. The constitution says nobody should be detained for more than 24 hours. The police are increasingly violating this provision of the constitution. There are bigger issues for law enforcement agents to deal with in this country; they should leave journalists alone. For instance, in the Premium Times story, because the reporter called one of the persons involved to get his reaction, the individual quickly called the police, and the police in turn called the reporter. What sort of nonsense is that? The police are now using this Cybercrime Act to terrorize people and keep weaponizing it to detain their enemies. That is not what democracy is all about. It is unacceptable.”

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Experts agree that anti-press freedom is an enabler for corruption, impunity, and incompetence in governance. According to them, it is a gang-up against the collective will, interest, welfare, and security of the people, and therefore anti-democratic.

In an interview with Sunday PUNCH, human rights lawyer Kunle Edun stated that the provisions of the amended Cybercrime Act, despite being against electronic fraud and other crimes, are a monster to every Nigerian who wishes to express their right to freedom of speech on social media. He said, “While I applaud some of the provisions, I do have strong reservations regarding a few of them that tend to curtail free press. It is instructive that the previous Section 24(1)(B) of the 2015 Act has been deleted. It provides that, ‘Any person that knowingly or intentionally sends a message or other matter employing computer systems or networks that he knows to be false, to cause annoyance, inconvenience, danger, instruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another person or causes a message to be sent, commits an offence under this Act and shall be liable on conviction to a fine of not more than N7,000,000.00 or imprisonment of a term not more than 3 years or to both such fine and imprisonment.’ Section 24(2)(a) prohibited cyberbullying, threats, and harassment. The ECOWAS Court of Justice in 2018 decided on the constitutionality of sections 24 and 38 of the 2015 Act in Suit No. ECW/CCJ/APP/53/18 and on the 10th of July, 2020, held that section 24 of the 2021 Act violates Articles 9(2) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and 19(3) of the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and consequently ordered the defendant state (Nigeria) to repeal and amend section 24 of the Cybercrime Act, 2015.”

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Edun, a former National Publicity Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association, noted that Sections 13, 14, and 15 of the Act are threats to free speech without interference guaranteed by section 39 of the Constitution. He said, “The media which is the Fourth Estate of the realm would not be able to effectively perform its Constitutional responsibilities of making government and their officials accountable and responsible with the constant threats of prosecution under the Act, just for reporting the truth. Telling the truth about the high and mighty in society, including government officials, is now a criminal offence. The Act has now been weaponized against free speech and responsible journalism. Responsible journalism accommodates rejoinders if what is published is not the truth or is slanted. Rejoinders are akin to the right of a fair hearing if published by the same author or the publishing outfit. Sadly, evidence abounds that it is only the high and mighty in society that resort to the use of the Act to go after their perceived enemies. This way, the security agencies become ready tools for oppression and prosecution against those speaking truth to power. In the event of prosecution, the complainant never shows up in Court to testify.”

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Responding to questions on how media professionals can be protected against the arbitrary use of the Act, Edun said it must be amended by either removing sections 13, 14, and 15, or by qualifying the provisions such that cyberstalking, cyberbullying, and cybersquatting can only be punishable offences if the victims are a group or a community. “Essentially, cyberstalking, cyberbullying, etc., are actually within the class of defamation. The Civil Law has already made ample provisions and remedies for them. So, if any individual is offended by the publication of a story which he perceives to be false, he should file an action in libel or defamation against the maker of the alleged defamatory publication. It will be unfair to use taxpayers’ funds and facilities to pursue what is a private action,” the lawyer added.

Edun further argued that the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal High Court to try offences under the Act is questionable, adding that the National Assembly cannot confer jurisdiction on the Federal High Court when it lacks the power to do so,

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Okereke Gabriel is a sports reporter and analyst with years of experience in the industry. He is a graduate of Anatomy. He likes surfing the Internet, researching for new things about sports and education.

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