Seun Oloketuyi and Chris Kehinde Uwandu are not very well-known names in Nigeria by any measure. They should be now, at least among journalists who practice their profession in or outside the shores of the country.
Many, perhaps most, of such journalists probably missed the news about both men that made the rounds in the media in the past fortnight. The bloggers were arrested, detained by security agents for at least a week and subsequently hauled before Federal High Court judges in quick succession, who granted them bail under onerous conditions.
The bloggers’ alleged malfeances are even more compelling—or should be to those who practice journalism in Nigeria, or engage in the practice of journalism that mostly deploy subject-matter and people residing in Nigeria. Oloketuyi was said to have published on his blog, http://www.naijahotgist.com, a piece on the chief executive officer of Fidelity Bank, Nnamdi Okonkwo. It was the usual staple of dalliances and extra-marital affairs that have long been a fare of the Nigerian press: from the pioneering Lagos Weekend, through the entertainment segments of more staid newspapers like Thisday and the Guardian, to the emblematic weekly offerings of publications like City People, Encomium, etc.
In most cases people usually read such stories and moved on, including the subjects of the often-salacious offerings. At most there would be a press release from those subjects denying the story. Or a libel lawsuit filed in a Nigerian court of competent jurisdiction.
Then the crickets chirped.
Okonkwo would have none of this. Apparently deploying his ample connections and deep pockets, he unleashed the Police, specifically its Special Fraud Unit (SFU), on Oloketuyi. This certainly changed the game since it transformed the blogger’s alleged harm against Okonkwo from a civil wrong to a criminal act. The SFU then arraigned Oloketuyi before an Ikoyi Federal High Court on two criminal charges of malicious defamation under Section 375 of the Criminal Code and violation of the little-known Cybercrime (Prohibition) Act, 2015.
Uwandu got the same treatment for re-publishing on his blog the same materials about the Fidelity Bank MD that Oloketuyi had published earlier on his website.
From the rather tepid reactions to the bloggers’ pre-trial incarceration, arraignment and stringent bail conditions, many Nigerian journalists are clearly not aware of the provisions of the Cybercrime (Prohibition) Act of 2015, and its Section 24(1) (a)(b) under which the pair were arraigned.
That section and its sub-parts, referenced as the “Cyberstalking” provision of the Act, prescribes a fine of 7 million naira or a long term of imprisonment for anyone who “sends a message or other matter by means of computer systems or network that…is grossly offensive…or knowing to be false [causes] annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult…to another person”.
The point here is not that the bloggers, Oloketuyi in particular, have since retracted the stories published on their blogs and issued contrite apologies to the subject, Okonkwo. What should alarm is that there is a law that potentially criminalises and labels as “cyberstalking” stories published in mainstream Nigerian newspapers that thereafter make their way onto the online portals of those media, and which the subject subsequently complains is “grossly offensive”, “annoying” or “insulting”. Etc.
And there is hardly anyone who is the subject of a factually-true story that still does not believe such is offensive, annoying or insulting. Etc.
It is precisely due to this scenario that other societies have explicit provisions that protect the media from the vitriol of those who are the subject of stories in the news media that are factually unassailable, or maybe not even clearly so when such were published. It is for this reason that the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which is the constitutional guarantee of press freedom in that country and often held up as a model for other countries, states in part as follows: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”
Such a categorical affirmation of the right of journalists to ply their trade in the temple of facts or the high presumption of such, without let or hindrance is sadly missing in the present 1999 Nigerian constitution. What masquerades as “press freedom” in Nigeria today, in Chapter II, Section 39 (1) of that constitution, is simply the affirmation of freedom of expression or speech for all Nigerians citizens. This is light years away from the specific constitutional guarantee or protection any press in society, especially one in a supposed democracy, needs to carry out its duties.
Meanwhile, unlike other professions or crafts in the country, the same Nigerian constitution, in Chapter II, Section 22, specifically tasks the media with ensuring governments in Nigeria uphold their “responsibility and accountability…to the people”.
Which leads to the question: how can the media perform this onerous task if it is not really “free”?
There’s one other fact of which journalists and all who believe in press freedom in Nigeria ought to be aware: the Cybercrime (Prohibition) Act of 2015 under which the two bloggers are being tried was signed into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan on May 15 this year, barely two weeks before he exited office on May 29. The man had lost an epochal election held on March 28, a feat that occurred partly due to the active exertions of those in the media, or that part thereof that simply allowed their platforms to be used in creating and sustaining awareness about the cluelessness of that government.
What then was going through Jonathan’s mind as he signed the bill into law? How to make the Nigerian press freer, or loosen the statutory shackles under which it operates?
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