New Telegraph

Curbing Police Brutality Against Journalists

TUNDE OYESINA writes that lawyers have decried the ‘illegal’ use of the Cybercrime Act by the police to harass and detain journalists, with a call on the National Assembly to promptly begin the process of amending the legislation in order to safeguard press freedom in the country

Some senior lawyers have called on the National Assembly to promptly commence the process of amending the Cyber Crime Act 2015 in order to curb its ‘illegal’ use by the police to brutalize journalists. The lawyers described the legislation as tool being used by the police witch hunt journalists and gag the press .

The call by the lawyers was premised on the recent arrest of an investigative journalist, Daniel Ojukwu, by the police for allegedly violating the country’s cybercrime laws..Ojukwu’s arrest was just one out of the many arrests that have been carried out by the police .

Reacting to the sad development, Ojukwu’s employer, Nigeria’s Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ) said its reporter, Daniel Ojukwu, went missing on May 1, but it was only informed two days later that he had been detained by police under the cybercrime law. FIJ said Ojukwu’s arrest was related to a November story that exposed government corruption.

Justifying the journalist detention, police spokesperson, Muyiwa Adejobi, told reporters that Ojukwu was arrested by the Nigeria Police National Cybercrime Centre based on a petition filed against him. Earlier in February, four journalists from an online news site, Informant247, were arrested, detained, and charged with conspiracy, cyberstalking and defamation by the police.

According to the police, the charges levelled against the quartet of Adisa-Jaji Azeez, Salihu Ayatullahi, Salihu Shola Taofeek and Abdulrahman Taye Damilola, was sequel to a complaint lodged against them by the Rector of Kwara State Polytechnic, Engineer Abdul Jimoh Muhammed. The complaint was said to have stemmed from reports that were published by the news site on November 10, 2023 and February 1, 2024, alleging that the Rector had made false claims about the institution’s financial status and commissioned shoddy project work.

On February 6, 2024, the Kwara State police invited Adisa-Jaji Azeez and Salihu Ayatullahi for questioning, only for them to be arrested, detained overnight, and presented before the court the following day. In view of this, a Civil Society Group, IPI Africa Advocacy and Partnerships, lead by Nompilo Simanje, had then called for the charges against the journalists to be dropped, and emphasized that journalists must be free to work without fear of intimidation and legal reprisals Simanje said: “This is the latest example of cybercrime laws in Nigeria being used to target journalists.

The authorities in Nigeria should amend their legislation to align with regional and international standards. The continued use of such laws like criminal defamation and vague provisions of the cybercrimes act against journalists pose an ongoing risk to media freedom

Cybercrime Act fails to strike the right balance between national security and press freedom

and freedom of expression. “It is appalling that the Nigerian authorities continue to enforce Section 24 of the Cybercrimes Act, which was declared by the ECOWAS Court of Justice to be inconsistent and incompatible with Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights”.

Asides these four journalists, several other journalists in Nigeria have been arrested, detained, and arraigned in recent years on charges stemming from the Cybercrime Act. Notable among the lists is the 34-day detention of journalist Agba Jalingo and the jailing of Saint Mienpamo Onitsha, who was later released after four months in jail.

Cybercrime Act

It would be recalled that the Cybercrime (Prohibition and Prevention) Act was signed into law on the 15th of May, 2015 by the then-President, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, at the twilight of his administration. The law was enacted based on the understanding that threats to information and communication technology are a danger to Nigeria’s national security, affecting the country’s “economic, political, and social fabric”.

The Act also ensures the protection of critical national information infrastructure, and promotes cybersecurity, while also protecting computer systems and networks, electronic communications, data and computer programs, intellectual property and privacy rights Cybercrime is however a term for any illegal activity that uses a computer as its primary means.

It also includes any illegal activity that uses a computer for the storage of evidence. Cybercrime include crimes that have been made possible by computers, such as network intrusions and the dissemination of computer viruses, as well as computer-based variations of existing crimes, such as identity theft, stalking, bullying and terrorism.

Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act, 2015 had criminalised ‘cyberstalking’, ”insult’, ‘causing annoyance’, ‘sending offensive messages’, and ‘criminal intimidation’ ”insult’, ‘causing annoyance’, ‘sending offensive messages’, and ‘criminal intimidation’.

Specifically, Section 24 provided as follows: “(a) Any person who, knowingly or intentionally sends a message or other matter by means of computer systems or network that (a) is grossly offensive, pornographic or of an indecent, obscene, or menacing character or causes any such message or matter to be so sent; or “(b) He knows to be false for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another or causes such 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 for a term of not more than 3 years or to both such fine and imprisonment”.

Court’s verdict on Cybercrime Act

Meanwhile, in 2022, the ECOWAS Court of Justice ordered the Nigerian government to amend the controversial Section 24 of its cybercrime law which is widely viewed as authorities’ weapon for muzzling citizens’ rights to freedom of expression. The court gave the verdict on March 25, 2022 in Accra, Ghana.

In the decision, the court ruled that the contested Section 24 of Nigeria’s Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act, 2015 “is not in conformity with Articles 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)”.

Keikura Bangura, the presiding judge, who read the court’s decision, asked Nigerian government to amend the legal provision “in order to ensure conformity with the country’s obligations” under the ACHPR and ICCPR. The decision was delivered in a suit filed by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), one of the frontline civil society organisations in Nigeria.

SERAP, had in its suit, challenged the legality and compatibility of Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act 2015 in relation to the guaranteeing of freedom of expression and information enshrined in Article 9 of the ACHPR and Article 19 of the ICCPR, respectively.

They said Section 24 of the cybercrime law criminalises sending a message via a computer system which was “grossly offensive, pornographic or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” or to send a message or cause any such message or matter to be so sent; or to send a message, knowing it to be false for the purpose of “causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another” or to cause such a message to be sent.

It particularly alleged that Section 24 violated the rights to freedom of expression, information and other rights of human rights defenders, activists, bloggers, journalists, broadcasters and social media users through the repressive use, interpretation and by agents of the respondent, the same being vaguely worded and ambiguous.

The applicant further contended that since the passage of the Act, the Nigerian government and its agents had used its provisions to harass, intimidate, arbitrarily arrest and detain and unfairly prosecute users of the social media, human rights defenders, activists, journalists, broadcasters and bloggers who express their views perceived to be critical of the Government both at the Federal and State levels.

The applicant listed 12 high profile cases of the alleged victims of harassment, intimidation, arrest unlawful detention, prosecution and imprisonment of journalists, bloggers, broadcasters, social media users, human rights defenders and activists, by the respondent, its agents and several states of Nigeria between August 2015 and November 2018, for alleged cyberstalking and urged the court to make several declarations and orders that will underscore the incompatibility of the Act with the provisions of the two international instruments.

In its defence, the respondent (the Nigerian government) urged the court to dismiss the suit on the grounds that it was misconceived, adding that the prayers sought were not grantable in law. In particular, the respondent contended that the application was not only pending before the national court for the same reliefs but that the interpretation of Section 24 of the Act must be submitted to domestic courts and not the ECOWAS Court as this is not within its competence as it concerns the interpretation of extant laws.

Moreover, the respondent contended that the Act was not only in line with Section 45 of the Nigerian Constitution, but was subjected to the requisite constitutional and legal processes before its passage. It said the applicant was aware of the processes leading up to the passage of the Act into law but did not protest it at the time. The respondent further argued that the Act was not enacted to muzzle the freedom of expression in Nigeria, but to curtail the activities criminals carried out on the internet.

Lawyers speak

Reacting to this, human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), disclosed that it is illegal to arrest journalists for cyberstalking, insult, causing annoyance, offensive message and criminal intimidation. Falana, in a statement, reiterated that, “the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) Court declared Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act 2015 illegal and directed the federal government to amend the section to make the law conform with the fundamental right of Nigerian citizens to freedom of expression guaranteed by Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,1999 and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004.

“However, in the cases of Laws and Rights Awareness Initiative (Suit No. ECW/CCJ/APP/53/18) and Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (Suit Laws and Rights Awareness Initiative (Suit No ECW/CCJ/APP/09/19), the Ecowas Court declared Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act 2015 illegal and directed the federal government to amend the section to make the law conform with the fundamental right of Nigerian citizens to freedom of expression guaranteed by Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,1999 and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004.

“From the foregoing, it is crystal clear that the police and other security agencies lack the power to arrest, detain and prosecute Nigerian citizens for the so- called offences of ‘cyberstalking’, ”insult’, ‘causing annoyance’, ‘sending offensive messages’, and ‘criminal intimidation’. “Consequently, all pending cases filed on the basis of the repealed aspects of Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act 2015 should be discontinued without any further delay”.

In his comments, Onesimus Ruya, argued that the Nigerian cybercrime law seems to be designed to cripple freedom of expression and hinder journalists from performing their duties. “Whoever sponsored the law has so many things in mind at the

Cybercrime law was designed to cripple freedom of expression and hinder journalists from performing their duties

point of conception. But definitely, it is targeted at Nigerian journalists and infringes on Section 39 of the Constitution. “Sections 24 and 25 of the Act were specifically targeted at journalists, with government, politicians and other influential members of the society using these sections to harass and arrest journalists through the police. “Part of Sections 24 of the Act says, “A person who knowingly or intentionally sends a message or other matter by means of computer or network that – is grossly offensive, pornographic, or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character or causes any such damage or matter to be so sent etc.

“These are the most potent aspects of the law that the government and politicians use against journalists and bloggers. These sections say anyone who writes anything considered offensive or abusive by anyone. “This law has no definition, it is nebulous, barbaric and should not operate in the 21st century. That is our submission at the court of law, Our cybercrime law is still the way it is because it has not been tested in the court”, Ruya said.

Speaking in the same vein, a senior lawyer, Emmanuel Ekwe, noted that, “Nigeria’s Cybercrime Act is coming under criticism for not striking the right balance between national security and press freedom. “Provisions within the Act have been exploited to stifle freedom of expression, leading to concerns about the potential suppression of dissenting voices and investigative journalism

“In the suit filed by the SocioEconomic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), the ECOWAS Court ruled that Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act is arbitrary, unlawful, and requires amendment. The section contains terms like “grossly offensive,” “menacing,” and “obscene,” which are not clearly defined and can be exploited to target journalists or individuals expressing dissenting opinions.

“The National Assembly, should prioritize amending the broadly and vaguely worded provisions of the Cybercrimes Act, particularly Sections 16, 24, 26, and 38. This would require collaboration between the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Information, Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy, as well as agencies like the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), media organizations, and media policy experts”.

A law teacher, Dr. Basil Onyewe, while reacting, called for the urgent amendment of the Cybercrimes Act 2015. Onyewe said: “It is, therefore, crucial to submit and caution that the imperative of enacting the Cybercrime Act was not to regulate the activities of journalists. Journalism is a renowned and decent profession with high ethical standards. “However, no one who indulges in the activities criminalised by the Cybercrime act can be rightly referred to as a journalist.

“That said, it is sad to note that Government and the political class in Nigeria have deliberately manipulated the provisions of the Cybercrime Act to police journalists and suppress freedom of expression and thoughts, while abandoning the primary objective of the law.

“Authorities in government have attempted to silence opposition views in the online media through arbitrary interpretation and abuse of the Cybercrimes (Prohibition and Prevention) Act, 2015, particularly Section 24 of the Act which addresses offensive and annoying statements on the internet otherwise known as cyberstalking, and several journalists, bloggers and individuals have been arrested in this regard.

“Stories, articles and expressions published online have been deemed offensive, insulting or annoying with actionable consequences under the said section even when the stories are factual. While some stories published through traditional media outlets (print and electronic) that were never sanctioned by the government have been attacked by the same government upon being rebroadcast or republished through online platforms.

“The government considers these repost offensive and libelous because of the rising influence of online platforms in Nigeria as major sources of information dissemination. “Clearly, the government have used the accusation of cyberstalking to harass and press charges against online and traditional journalists for expressing views that are considered unfavourable to the government as some examples will illustrate.

“In order to create a fair and egalitarian society , the law should be looked into as not to infringe on the rights to information. “It is only the synergy of such demonstrable acts in good faith by government and the media that a proper and rewarding balance can be found in the media space”

Read Previous

Bandits Still Occupying Over 151 Communities In Plateau – Indigenous Communities

Read Next

$8.4m Fraud: Group Kicks Against AGF’s Takeover Of Defendants’ Prosecution