Two brothers use gaming apps on their smartphones in Lagos. Nigeria's new cybercrimes act has been used against at least five critical bloggers. (AFP/Stefan Heunis)
Two brothers use gaming apps on their smartphones in Lagos. Nigeria's new cybercrimes act has been used against at least five critical bloggers. (AFP/Stefan Heunis)

How Nigeria’s cybercrime law is being used to try to muzzle the press

Since Nigeria’s cybercrime act was voted into law in May 2015 authorities have used the accusation of cyber stalking to harass and press charges against at least five bloggers who criticized politicians and businessmen online and through social media.

Cyber stalking, which falls under Section 24 of the act, carries a fine of up to 7 million naira (USD$22,000) and a maximum three-year jail term for anyone convicted of knowingly sending an online message that “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.”

Last month, the law was cited in the August 20 arrest of Musa Babale Azare who was detained in the capital, Abuja, by police from Bauchi state. He was accused of allegedly criticising the state governor, Muhammad Abdullah Abubakar, on social media, according to news reports. Azare, who uses Facebook and Twitter as platforms to criticize the actions and policies of Abubakar and his administration, said he was denied access to his lawyer, and that police did not have authority to arrest him outside Bauchi state jurisdiction.

Azare said he was taken 450km from Abuja to a police station in Bauchi state to have his statement taken. The next day he was granted bail on his own recognizance. The Bauchi government has denied links to his arrest, news reports said. Azare said police showed him a petition written by a law firm on behalf of six people, including the chief of staff to the state governor and the state chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress party, who accused him of cyber stalking and criminal defamation against the governor.

Mahmud Mohammed, the Bauchi state police spokesman, told CPJ he was not aware of Azare’s arrest, but promised to look into the case.

In a separate case, armed operatives of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission arrested Abubakar Sidiq Usman on August 8 for allegedly posting “offensive publications” against the commission and its staff, Usman wrote in his blog, Abusidiqu. The commission said in a statement that Usman was arrested for “offences bordering on cyber stalking.”

“They didn’t even explain to me the details of the ‘cyber stalking’ allegation and what the specific crimes were and ’till this day, nobody has said anything to me in clear terms what my offence is,” Usman, who said he was detained for 36 hours, wrote in his blog. “It was only at the moment they showed me the search warrant that I was able to deduce that my arrest was in regards to some publications that I had made on my blog, Abusidiqu, particularly about the head of the anti-graft commission.”

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s action was widely condemned in news reports as a threat to free speech. Usman said he believes the commission’s chairman used the anti-graft agency to persecute him over several posts on his blog that alleged corruption and repeated complaints from staff against the past and present chairmen.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission did not immediately return CPJ’s calls and emails seeking comment about Usman’s claims. The journalist’s laptop, phones, and other personal belongings that were confiscated have not yet been returned.

CPJ found that at least three other bloggers were prosecuted under the cybercrime act in the space of four months last year after they reported or commented on critical reports.

On August 25, 2015, Seun Oloketuyi, the publisher of Naijahottestgist, was arraigned before a federal high court in Lagos on charges of cyber stalking and defamation over a story alleging that the chief executive of a bank was having an affair, according to news reports. Oloketuyi was remanded in prison and granted bail of 3 million naira on condition he has two sureties, according to news reports.

On September 1, 2015 Chris Kehinde Nwandu, publisher of Cknnigeria and president of the Guild of Professional Bloggers of Nigeria, was arrested for allegedly sharing the Naijahottestgist story on Facebook. Nwandu was arraigned two days later on cyber stalking and defamation charges, and was denied bail three times, according to reports.

Nwandu told CPJ he had only commented on the charges brought against Oloketuyi. He said he was remanded in prison for 13 days before being granted bail. The case against him and Oloketuyi was dropped on June 29, 2016, according to Nwandu and news reports.

In October 2015, Desmond Ike Chima, a blogger who posts on Myemag and E-Nigeria, was charged with cyber stalking at a lower magistrate court, over an article alleging that the managing director of a different bank was having an affair, according to news reports. The lower court granted him bail, but Chima was arraigned before a federal high court the following month, according to news reports and local bloggers. Chima spent six months in prison, four of which was spent in a maximum security prison, because he was unable to meet the stringent bail conditions, according to reports. Nwandu said bail was set at 3 million naira on the condition he has two sureties. Nwandu said that after intervention from the bloggers’ guild and other groups, charges against Chima were dropped and he was released in April.

In a separate case, a blogger called Emmanual Ojo said he had to go into hiding after being threatened and facing charges over a social media post.

Ojo was charged with criminal libel and conspiracy under the criminal code in September 2015, after a complaint from the Ogun state government over a story alleging the wife of the state governor was involved in money laundering–a claim she denies–according to news reports. The prosecution dropped the case at the magistrate court and filed a new case against Ojo at a federal high court, which has authority to issue more severe punishments and set higher bail, according to reports.

Ojo issued a public apology and withdrew a lawsuit he had filed against the police and the governor’s chief security officer over his arrest. The journalist fled Nigeria after “threats from powerful people became unbearable,” he was quoted as saying in reports.

Freedom of expression and the press is guaranteed under Section 39 of Nigeria’s constitution. But restrictive laws which allow for journalists and bloggers to be arrested for reporting critically on politicians and others, violates that right. “The Cybercrime Act has to be repealed because it is evil, dictatorial and completely violates everything that is free speech,” Azare said.

In May, the rights groups Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, Enough is Enough Nigeria, and Media Rights Agenda challenged the constitutionality of sections of the cybercrime law in a lawsuit, saying it threatens human rights online, according to news reports. The group sent a draft Digital Rights and Freedom Bill to parliament with an urgent call for a review of the law, the reports said.

Tomiwa Ilori, a lawyer and researcher at Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, said that his analysis of the cybercrime law shows it constitutes a grave danger to how private data and electronic communications are intercepted, recorded, retained, protected, and used. This is subject to abuse by law enforcement agencies and service providers, he said.

“The law gives them extensive powers to hold personal data without corresponding liability. And there is no provision in the law to seek redress,” Ilori said. “A person’s personal data can’t just be handed over to security operatives when there is no proper procedure of protecting that person’s right. This is a serious concern because [in Nigeria] justice is seldom served.”