Two bloggers were recently remanded in prison custody over alleged defamatory report and infractions contained in the recently signed into Cyber Crime Prevention Act. The report has since generated controversy over the nature of the law and its overall implication for internet journalism, free press and the justice system in the country, writes NICK UWERU
Seun Oloketuyi probably thought he was doing great journalism when he decided to publish alleged details of an affair between Nnamdi Okonkwo, Chief Executive Officer, Fidelity Bank Plc, and a lady simply named Justina, also a worker at the bank on his blog. In his publication, Oloketuyi alleged that Okonkwo had an extramarital affair with one Justina who was married. The blogger also added in the publication that the affair between Okonkwo and Justina resulted in Justina’s husband, Ben, separating from her.
The blogger also alleged that Okonkwo had sent Justina abroad for further studies and had taken over responsibility for Justina’s children.
It was a sensational gist no doubt; one that did raise the number of hits on his blog site.
But that was as far as the fun went until August 25, 2015.
The blogger, in what appeared to be an unending nightmare found himself arraigned in court before Justice Mohammed Yunusa of a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos. He was charged with defamation and cybercrime. Ordinarily, going by precedence, defamation charges are bailable. But the big trouble was the cybercrime element in the list of the charges against Oloketuyi.
Before long, Oloketuyi was remanded in prison custody with no option of bail.
If this came as little surprise, the next suspect caught the public unawares. Chris Kehinde Nwandu is by no means a small fish as far as online blogging and publishing is concerned. As an ace journalist, defamatory charges could have been easily avoided by a professional of his calibre. But like Oloketuyi, Nwandu found himself arrested and arraigned before the same court allegedly for aiding Oloketuyi in the defamation and cyber crime charges. Nwandu was arraigned by the police for allegedly posting on his facebook page the story published by Oloketuyi, accompanied with some “purported” photographs of Okonkwo.
Like Oloketuyi, the police slammed two count charges on Nwandu.
One of the counts read,”That you, Chris Kehinde Nwandu, acting in concert with one Seun Oloketuyi, on or about June 2015, in Lagos within the jurisdiction of the Federal High Court did knowingly or intentionally sent a message and pictures by means of computer system on your face book page purporting to be that of one Nnamdi Okonkwo, the Managing Director /CEO of Fidelity Bank Plc, which you know to be false, for the purpose of causing him annoyance, insult and ill will and thereby committed an offence contrary to and punishable under section 24(1)(b) of the Cybercrime (Prohibition Prevention etc) Act, 2015.”
The police prosecutor, Olakanmi Omisope, added that Nwandu is liable to punishment under Section 375 of the Criminal Code Act, Cap C38, Laws of the Federation.
The offence is said to carry a maximum of three years imprisonment or a fine of N7m or both.
Nwandu, however, pleaded not guilty to the two counts, following which the prosecutor sought for a court order to remand him in prison custody.
“My Lord, in view of the plea of the accused person, we will be asking for an order remanding the accused in prison, while we also seek an adjournment for trial,” Omisope said.
Counsel for the accused, Mudasiru Arhai, said he would be applying for his bail.
The judge, however, ordered that Nwandu should be remanded in prison custody, while he adjourned till September 7, 2015 to take his application for bail.
Understandably the media industry has since been abuzz by these developments. Some say that Justice Yinusa has been rather high handed in the handling of the case by not granting bail to the journalists. Others differ, though, insisting that granting bail is a prerogative of the judge. This second group of analysts insist that there was need to sanitize the cyber space on account of what they termed irresponsible reporting and journalism going on the place. But those who knock the judge’s actions say that it appeared that there might be plan by some powerful men to muzzle the vibrant online media.
Whichever side of the divide, there is a consensus that there is need to understand the new cyber law which appeared to be the nemesis of these bloggers as it were. Commenting on the merit or demerit of the case affecting the bloggers may be prejudicial; however, limiting the scope of what the cyber law entails to just online blogging appears to be just an infinitesimal aspect of the law. As it seems, more offenders may find themselves in court on account of ignorance of the new law.
The law, known principally as the Cybercrime Prohibition and Prevention Act is not all about regulating online journalism. Signed into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan before leaving office on May 29, 2015, stipulates that crime or damage to critical national information infrastructure, sale of pre-registered sim cards, unlawful access to computer systems, cyber-terrorism, among others, would be punishable. Beyond, this, it is important to note that the law is a harmonisation of several bills submitted to the National Assembly including the Critical Infrastructure Bill, the Cybercrime Prevention Bill amongst others.
The essence of the law includes to provide an effective and unified legal, regulatory and institutional framework for the prohibition, prevention, detection, prosecution and punishment of cybercrimes in Nigeria; ensure the protection of critical national information infrastructure and promote cyber security and the protection of computer systems and networks of electronic communications, data and computer programmes, intellectual property and privacy rights.
Before now, offenders who use the computer and superhighway system to cheat the law had a field day. Following increased crime related issues such as physical attacks and stealing or vandalism of telecoms facilities and base stations, stakeholders in the ICT sector began to seek ways to secure legislation for the protection of telecoms infrastructure and to confer on them protection as critical infrastructure. There were also issues such as the rampant and random sale of pre-registered sim cards, hacking of e-mail accounts and stealing of identities of online surfers, amongst many other crimes.
Telecom facilities have since become fundamental and the most preponderant infrastructure in the country next to electricity installations. Therefore, it became worrisome that without protection from the law, operators might be compelled to slow down on investments if there are constant threats to infrastructure both from cyber criminals and vandals who cart away cables, diesel, generators and other hard ware.
The Cybercrime Act lists offenses and penalties including unlawful access to computers, unlawful operation of cyber cafes, system interference, intercepting electronic messages, emails, e-money transfer, tampering with critical infrastructure, and computer-related forgery, among others, as offenses that are punishable under the law. Theft of electronic devices, electronic signature, child pornography and related offences, racism and xenophobic offences are also punishable under the new law.
After it was signed into law, then Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Mohammed Adoke, said that the law will enhance dispensation of justice. “The Cybercrime Prohibition, Prevention Act 2015 is in fulfilment of the reform agenda and a befitting response to the yearnings of stakeholders in the justice sector.
“The enactment of this legislation is, therefore, an attempt to bring Nigeria in tandem with global best practices and modern trends in the justice sector,’’ Adoke said.
Stakeholders especially in the media province of the cyber space agree that there is need for the law because quackery seems to have invaded online journalism.