There is need to strike a balance between combating cybercrime and protecting press freedom, writes Iyobosa Uwugiaren

Recent events in the media sector concerning the application of the Nigeria Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act 2015, call for urgent measures by all stakeholders in order to ensure they strike a balance between combating cybercrimes and protecting press freedom and access to information.

No doubt, there are global growing concerns about cybercrimes. Some of these apprehensions include, that cybercrime is an increasing threat with an estimate of 2,220 attacks per day, and it is estimated to cost about $23.84 trillion by 2027.

There is also a concern that cybercrimes are becoming more and more sophisticated, especially with the use of innovative technologies – such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. In other words, the increasing dependence on technology and the internet now makes it easier for cybercriminals to target their victims.

As a matter of fact, the America’s Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) has estimated that the global cost of cybercrimes will reach $10.5 trillion annually by next year (2025). The agency argues that cybercrime is not only a threat to individuals and businesses, but also to national security. The FBI is the lead US federal agency for investigating cyber-attack and intrusions. It collects and share intelligence and engage with victims while working to unveil those committing malicious cyber activities, wherever they are.

Perhaps, until recently, the lack of international rules and regulations forced many countries around the world to start initiating and adopting laws/rules to combat the growing cybercrimes that is often committed across borders.

According to the United Nation Trade and Development (UNCTAD), a global cyberlaw tracker, over 156 countries – including Nigeria (about 80 per cent) have now enacted cybercrime legislations. Europe is said to be having the highest adoption rate (91 per cent); while Africa has the lowest of 72 per cent.

The concept of cybercrime – which has been argued by many academics and international institutions, has to do with the use of computers, the internet, or other forms of digital technology to commit crimes. 

These crimes include, hacking and unauthorized access, identity theft and fraud, online child exploitation; cyber stalking and harassment, online financial crimes (phishing, money laundering) and ‘’any crime that can be committed by individual, groups or organized criminal networks and can have serious consequences, including: financial loss identity theft, reputation damage, emotional and compromised national security.’’

Experts and many institutions like FBI and EFCC, have also argued that the concept of cybercrime is continually developing, as new technologies and forms of digital communication emerge, and as criminals adapt and innovate their methods. 

For sure, Nigeria is not insusceptible from growing cost of cybercrimes around the world. According to a report by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), which was recently stamped by the Executive Chairman, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Ola Olukayode, Nigeria is said to be losing $500 million dollars annually to all forms of cybercrime, including hacking, identity theft, cyber terrorism, harassment and internet fraud. 

However, like every concerned country, while the EFCC appears to be diligently and forcefully responding to the challenges of cybercrimes in Nigeria, the Nigeria Police Force under the leadership of the Inspector-General of Police, Kayode Egbetokun, is seen by concerned pro-media rights groups to be hiding under some sections of the Act to ”persecute” journalists. And expectedly, the action of the police is attracting global attention. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported recently that since the enactment of the cybercrime Act in Nigeria, at least 25 journalists had faced prosecution under the law. While the recent arrest of a Nigerian journalist, Daniel Ojukwu has swelled and prompted widespread criticisms of deteriorating press freedoms in Nigeria.

Ojukwu, a journalist with the Foundation for Investigative Journalism, went missing on May 1, 2024 in Lagos. His family and employer later discovered that he was abducted, detained and held in a police facility in Lagos – for allegedly violating the country’s Cybercrime Act, often criticized as a tool for censorship. Ojukwu has since be moved to the Federal Criminal Investigation Department, Abuja. 

Although many players in the media industry entertained fear over this law at its adoption stage, but they were assured and reassured by the parliament that the intention of the Act was not to target journalists and media houses. But the Nigeria Police Force is confirming that fear day after day – by capitalizing on the overly broad legislation to target journalists and media outlets, exposing corruption and holding public officers to account. 

The terrifying effects of the abuse of the legislation by the police, are violation of press freedom, free speech and access to information. Indeed, there is over-criminalization of journalism practice by Egbetokun-led Nigeria police – using the cybercrimes law. 

This abuse of power is not healthy for our democracy, not under the watch of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who has consistently promised to promote the rule of law and democratic norms/ values. The President needs to be reminded that a core value of democracy is freedom of the press.

For sure, every lover of press freedom, and by extension democracy, should be worried by the utilization of Cybercrimes Act by the Nigeria police. And stakeholders in the media industry, including the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria, Broadcast Organizations of Nigeria, Nigeria International Press Institute and others, must act swiftly to ensure the amendment of the Act – in order to strike a balance between applying the cybercrime law and protecting press freedom. 

Like many cybercrime laws around the world, our law must be clear and unambiguous – avoiding nebulous expressions that could be misused to target journalists and the media houses. 

The law should include protections for journalist and media houses, recognizing their constitutional role in holding power accountable. The law should allow for a public interest defence, enabling journalists and media houses to expose information that serves the general public and greater good. 

The law enforcement agents, especially the police, should be transparent about their investigations and actions, with instruments for accountability to prevent abuse of their power. 

More so, our courts should review cases involving journalists and media outlets to ensure laws are applied consistently and with respect for press freedom and access to information. 

More   importantly, professional body like the NGE must continue to collaborate with the civil society organizations in monitoring the application of cybercrime law and ensuring that the legislation is not misused to silence journalists.

By implementing these measures, we can strike a balance between combating cybercrime and protecting press freedom, and ensure that free and independent press continue to hold power accountable.

Uwugiaren, Ph.D, is the Editor Nation’s Capital, THISDAY and General Secretary, Nigerian Guild of Editors

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