Tinubu, Egbetokun and Cybercrime Act

The Cybercrime Act should recognise the rights and freedom of Nigerians and the media

Iyobosa Uwugiaren 

The Inspector General of Police (IG), Mr. Kayode Egbetokun’s human rights record as Nigeria’s police chief competes in low ranking with the country’s darkest moments under military rule – in the estimation of both local and international human rights organisations.

Egbetokun’s recent validation of the arrest of journalists and deliberate attempt by the police under his watch to criminalise journalism practice, under the guise of enforcing the Cyber Security Act, has compounded his record. And it is a dangerous signal to Nigeria’s democratic space.

In the past few weeks there have been public uproar and international outcry against how journalists have been abducted and persecuted by the Nigeria Police Force, using Cybercrime Act as cover.

The Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), the professional body of media executives and editors, recently warned the Nigeria Police against press freedom violation. The body also called for a proper understanding of the intention of the Cyber Security Act, declaring that the law was enacted as a legal framework for combating cybercrimes, and not for ‘’persecuting’’ journalists, who are performing their legitimate assignments in a democracy.

But in spite of the wide condemnations of the police’s actions, Egbetokun does not see anything wrong with what some human rights activists had described as ‘’criminal action and lawlessness’’ of his men.

To be sure, reacting to the issue in a public outing recently, the IG argued that unless journalists were asking to be treated as a special breed different from how ‘’other criminals’’ are being treated, there shouldn’t be any criticism of cases of official abductions and humiliations of journalists. 

To the number one law enforcement officer in Nigeria, it was a standard practice and he couldn’t just understand the hullabaloo as everyone is equal before the law.

The consequence of IG’s reasoning is that his boys are now emboldened to commit more crimes against journalists and the media in the country.

Since the Cybercrime Act was enacted in 2015, several reports by the media rights groups indicated that at least 25 journalists have been arrested, detained and prosecuted under the law. Some of the journalists who have been prosecuted under the Act include: Aiyelabegan Babatunde AbdulRazaq, Oluwatoyin Luqman Bolakale, Saint Mienpamo Onitsha, Matthew Perekebuna, Daniel Ojukwu, Dayo Aiyetan, Nurudeen Akewushola and Segun Olatunji.

Sadly, the action of the police against these victims were predicated on groundless petitions by some political and business elites. For many Nigerians, especially human rights activists, it is a very sad narrative in the country’s democracy, under the leadership of President Bola Tinubu, whom many people believe fought so hard, along with other pro-democracy activists, for the restoration of democracy in 1999.  

From records available, the Nigerian government has joined authoritarian regimes and infamous governments using legislations to criminalise journalism and silence free speech. These laws often have vague or overly broad definitions of cybercrime, allowing authoritarian governments to prosecute journalists and whistleblowers for exposing corruption, bad behaviours, sensitive information or criticising governments for not acting in the best interest of the people.

For example, Egypt’s Cybercrime Law (2018) has been used to prosecute journalists for allegedly publishing false news or propaganda; Singapore’s Computer Misuse Act (1993) has been used to prosecute journalists and bloggers for unauthorised access or computer misuse; Malaysia’s Computer Crimes Act (1997) has been used to prosecute journalists and whistleblowers for unauthorised access or data theft, and Russia’s Cybercrime Law (2013) has been used to prosecute journalists and activists for “extremism” or “treason”.

However, the difference between Nigeria’s legislation/enforcement of the Act and others, is the method of abduction of journalists, the long detention and inhuman treatment they are subjected to.

From the media publications, especially online in the last few weeks, the Act is already having chilling effects on press freedom and investigative journalism, as journalists now avoid reporting on sensitive topics or criticising governments for fear of being prosecuted under cybercrime laws.

Online platforms are now being forced by security agencies to remove content deemed offensive, possibly limiting the capacity of journalists to publish critical reporting relating to good governance, corruption and abuse of public office.

More so, going by the experience of Segun Olatunji, a journalist who was recently tortured to disclose his source of information, the Cybercrime laws are making it difficult for journalists to protect their sources.

In other words, cybercrime law in Nigeria has become a weapon in the hands of powerful Nigerians to harass and intimidate journalists, limiting their ability to hold governments accountable, and creating a culture of fear.

In a country where general election are held every four years, the law will surely undermine the ability of democracy to promote transparency and accountability, and empower governments to silence political opponents and dissenting voices. 

There is already huge fear in the land that the federal government is testing the law – with the purpose of using it to silence oppositions towards the 2027 general election. 

With over 133 countries having cybercrime legislation, the main features of UK Act, the first country in the world to introduce the law, require minimum-security standards for consumer smart devices – manufacturers of consumer smart devices are required to implement minimum-security standards; default passwords must be changed, and manufacturers must publish contact details for security issues; retailers must be transparent about security updates and support, and the National Crime Agency (NCA) must work to improve the UK’s resilience to cyber-attacks.

In the law, the NCA encourages individuals to make informed choices in their use of technology; and the cybercrime legislation aims to secure computer material against unauthorised access and to tackle cyber-crime threats. There is nowhere in the section of the Act that targets journalists or the media.

Contrary to the misuse of the law by the Nigeria police, the spirit and intention of cybercrime legislation is to protect society from the harm caused by cybercrime, promote cyber-security, and ensure the integrity of digital technologies.

The intention and purpose of the law by those who initiated it, is to prevent and combat cybercrime, such as hacking, identity theft, and online fraud; protect security in the digital environment; promote international cooperation and information sharing in combating cybercrime, among others.

While the Nigeria police may be working very hard to undermine democracy and create a bad image for President Tinubu-led government, it is necessary and urgent for the President and all stakeholders in Nigeria’s democracy to ensure that cybercrime legislation aligns with human rights and democratic values. Its implementation must prioritise the protection of citizens’ rights and freedoms.

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