Nigeria’s hydra-headed Cybercrime Act retains its venom despite amendment

The line between online journalism and cybercrime remains blurred, even after amendments to Nigeria’s Cybercrime Act intended to bring clarity to the law in respect of online journalistic publications.

Segun Olatunji, editor of FirstNews – an online newspaper based in Lagos, South West Nigeria, would certainly not disagree, as he is yet to recover from the torture and trauma he suffered after being arrested by the military and detained for 14 days under the amended law.

Olatunji was arrested from his home by some soldiers, who blindfolded and flew him to Abuja on a military aircraft on March 15, 2024.

“Though I asked an officer for the reasons for my arrest, he said they were from the military and he seized my phones immediately. I said okay, let me go in and dress up since I was only in my boxer shorts; some of them (soldiers) even followed me to my room as I took my shirt and trousers,” he narrated.

“They handcuffed me and put me into the vehicle. At first, I thought they were taking me to the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) in Apapa (Lagos), but then we made a detour to the Air Force Base and straight to the office of the National Air Defence Corps (NADC) where we waited for about three hours. I didn’t know we were waiting for a military aircraft to come pick me up. After a while, when the aircraft came, someone came to me and asked me to hand over my glasses and then put a blindfold on me,” he added.

The journalist was kept incommunicado for several days until the Nigerian National Committee of the International Press Institute (IPI Nigeria) traced him to the custody of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). He later regained his freedom on March 27, 2024.

Olatunji was arrested following a series of accountability stories published by FirstNews, an online journal. He was accused of violating provisions of the Cybercrime Act of 2015 in connection with these stories.

The 2015 Cybercrime Act

The Cybercrime Act 2015 has been hanging over the media like the Sword of Damocles. Lending itself to a wide range of interpretations, section 24 in particular has been often weaponised against critical online publications with several journalists falling victim.

The infamous previous Section 24, criminalised the use of a computer to knowingly send false messages “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.”

On many occasions, the police and powerful people who are uncomfortable with online media reports decide that a particular publication meets the above description, and several arrests have been effected on the basis of this provision.

On February 5, 2024, two journalists from Informant247 were arrested and charged with conspiracy, cyberstalking, and defamation. The charges were based on a complaint by the rector of Kwara State Polytechnic due to a series of reports that the news site published, alleging that the rector had made false claims about the institution’s financial status and commissioned shoddy project work.

Chinonso Uba, a journalist in Imo State, was detained for allegedly defaming the state governor. Other instances include the detention of journalist Agba Jalingo and the jailing of Saint Mienpamo Onitsha.

The wanton abuse of the law naturally provoked protests and calls for a review.

In 2022, the ECOWAS Court of Justice ruled that the notorious Section 24 of the Cybercrime Law does not align with the principles of the African Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Court, accordingly ordered Nigeria to amend the law, as demanded by the civil society petitioners.

On February 28, 2024, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu signed amendments to the act, including revisions to a section criminalising expression online.

The revised edition upholds the severe punishment, but specifies the offence as computer messages that are pornographic or knowingly false, and published “for the purpose of causing a breakdown of law and order, posing a threat to life, or causing such messages to be sent.”

Years of advocacy efforts to prevent the misuse of the Act as tool for censorship and intimidation seemed to have achieved a measure of success.

Security agents circumvent amendments

Unfortunately, despite the amendments, journalists and critical voices remain at risk of arbitrary arrests. There are still provisions that are being exploited particularly by those in power. Digital rights experts argue that while the amended section improved by requiring a higher burden of proof for charges, it still has room for malicious repression of online publications.

In a recent development, the Nigerian Police arrested Daniel Ojukwu, an investigative journalist with the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ).

Accused of violating the 2015 Cybercrime Act, Ojukwu was picked up in Lagos by the Intelligence Response Team of Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police on May 1, 2024. Two days later, Ojukwu’s family traced the reporter to Lagos State Criminal Investigation Department in Panti. The journalist’s arrest followed a controversial report exposing an alleged procurement fraud reportedly orchestrated by an aide to former President Muhammadu Buhari.

Ojukwu’s case, like that of Segun Olatunji, illustrate how far Nigeria is from banishing the nightmare associated with the Cybercrime Law, even after the amendments. When instructed by influential persons to go after journalists who have published critical articles online, the security agents seem to comply instinctively, without recourse to due process.

The arrest of critical journalists under the Cybercrime law is even more problematic as it violates Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution. In particular, Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution as amended empowers journalists to hold public officers to account. The session states that the press, radio, television, and other mass media agencies are free to hold the government accountable to the people.

Also, Section 39(1) of the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions, receive and impart ideas, and information without interference.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) is saddened by the continuing arrests of journalists on the basis of the cybercrime law. Media publications exposing abuse of power, even if not thoroughly accurate, cannot be a cybercrime simply on the basis that they were published or shared online.

In the two cases cited above, the victims were arrested on the orders of public officials and detained beyond statutory period for pre-trial detentions. No court warrants were secured to remand the journalists who were treated as common criminals under the cybercrime law and on the same pedestal as people who use digital tools to commit economic crimes.

In view of the above, we urge the authorities in Nigeria to call the police and public officials to order.

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