Barr Pelumi Olajengbesi, Managing Partner, Law Corridor has made a case for the urgent amendment of the Cybercrimes Act 2015, stressing that the law was manipulated to suppress press freedom.
Barr Olajengbesi made the disclosure in Abuja on Saturday at the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) Correspondents’ Chapel end-of-year symposium, themed, ‘Understanding the Cybercrime Act2015, The Media ethics perspective’.
Recall that the Cybercrimes (Prohibition and Prevention) Act was signed into law on the 15th of May 2015 by 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 and the protection of computer systems and networks, electronic communications, data and computer programs, intellectual property and privacy rights
However, Olajengbesi maintained that the political class deliberately manipulated the provisions of the law to police journalists and suppress freedom of expression and thoughts, while abandoning its primary objectives.
While harping on the need for journalists to be vigilant to the ethical standard of the profession, he stressed that free media is crucial to a true democracy.
“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. It is one of the noblest and oldest since the days Rome circa 59 Before Christ.
“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 libellous 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,” Olajengbesi said.
Meanwhile, he called on the government to apply the law properly to suit the sensibility for which it was enacted for while also stressing the need for media houses, firms and practitioners to operate by the superintending ethics of the media profession.
“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,” Olajengbesi said.
Meanwhile, in their separate goodwill messages, representatives of Global Rights and the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID), who attended the event, commended journalists for the job they are doing.
The Executive Director of Global Rights, Abiodun Baiyewu, represented by Edosa Oviawe, Program Manager, Global Rights, especially maintained the same position as Barr Olajengbesi, stressing that “only free press can hold government accountable to the people”.
“If you look at the history of journalism in Nigeria, it is one story I will call resilience in the face of restrictions and attacks. That is so because we all know how much sacrifice journalists have made in Nigeria to get us to where we are at this time.
“Successive governments have tried in every way, and still do, to restrict or gag the media to see that they dont perform their constitutional duties. But Nigerian journalists have weathered the odd.
“In the midst of intimidation, attacks and restrictions, they have kept the government on its toes. Who would have thought that in the year 2022, we will still be leading a campaign to say #FreeAminu just for expressing an opinion and he is arrested and maltreated.
“If one person could have to face that, you can imagine how much some of our journalists have passed through,” he said.
In her goodwill message, Busola Ajibola, Deputy Director, Journalism Programme, CJID disclosed that the Centre this year alone has tracked 52 verified attacks meted out on journalists across the country.
“We have a dedicated civic tool that we use in tracking attacks against journalists. This year alone, the verified attacks that we have tracked across the country are 52. These do not include attacks that we have not been able to document or the ones that did not even make it to the news.
“That is a red flag that something is going on. It is not getting better, even though we are in a democracy. We tried to zoom in on the individuals responsible for these attacks. We find out that we have state security and institutions. We have instances where it is governors that are being alleged. In some cases, it is even citizens. That brings to all of us the question of whether we really want our journalists to be activated. With the kind of accountability structures that we have now and we still have a democracy that is near dysfunctional, how worse will it then get when the freedom of the press is suppressed? Where are we going to be?
“We have leaders who despise accountability, who despise transparency and it very important that we send that signal that when you see journalists doing their jobs trying to ask basic questions it is because the constitution has obligated them to do so. It is because the people have handed over the church of investigating how the society is being run to journalists and they are expected to report back to the people and the people alone.
“Journalists are not anybody’s enemies. They are just people doing their jobs and this is a job that is essential to survival of democracy. If we do no have a vibrant media that courageous and bold enough to ask the right questions, then the rights of the people would be trampled,” Ajibola said.
She equally emphasized that freedom of expression is not just a constitutional right but an inalienable right. She, however, advised journalists not to use the freedom to constitute a nuisance.
“But, where it concerns accountability, journalists must act. Accountability does not constitute a nuisance,” she stressed.
Earlier in his opening remarks, Chairman of the Correspondents’ Chapel, Comrade Jide Oyekunle, said the NUJ would do everything within its power to ensure that journalists adhere to the rules of reporting.
“I want to assure you once again from this side that we will do everything within our power to ensure that our members adhere strictly to the ethics of the profession and also observe the extant laws regulating and guiding the operation of the media in Nigeria.
“We have continued to emphasize that journalism is not a crime, journalism is not an opposition, journalism is the oxygen of democracy and for the positive change and development of any democratic society.
“Nigeria Union of Journalists will be firm and resist any measure or action capable of threatening press freedom or infringing on the rights of any journalist in Nigeria, particularly Federal Capital Territory.
“We will continue to uphold and protect the fundamental objectives of the directive principles of the state policy as set out in Chapter 2 of the Constitution irrespective of the intimidation, harassment, persecution, and arrest,” Oyekunle said.