Mobile network providers currently operating in the country are believed to be assisting the Police to arrest journalists over alleged offences, IFE OGUNFUWA reports

Conversations and messages on mobile devices are no longer confidential. They have become tools in the hands of law enforcement agents in Nigeria for the purpose of apprehending journalists.

Investigation by the Committee To Protect Journalists, a non-profit organisation that promotes press freedom globally, shows that the growing trend of arrest, detention and prosecution of journalists across the country is being facilitated by information shared by telecommunications operators.

According to a report by Amnesty International titled, Indiscriminate Detention of Endangered Voices: Attack on Freedom of Expression in Nigeria, about 19 journalists, bloggers and media practitioners were attacked between January and September 2019. They were reportedly subjected to physical and verbal assault, unlawfully detained, threatened and put under pressure to reveal their sources of information by security agencies.

These are some of the many tactics deployed by agents of the Federal Government to stifle dissenting voices and the freedom of expression in the country.

The Senate had also made several attempts to pass legislations that regulate online conversations on social media through a ‘Protection from Internet Falsehoods and Manipulations and Other related Matters Bill 2019’, which recommended three years imprisonment and a maximum fine of N10 million for offenders.

Investigation also showed that while some of the targeted media practitioners were arrested and physically abused in the course of their work, others were hunted down, using their friends and family members as baits.

The CPJ report highlighted more than three cases since 2017, in which the police used call records obtained from telecoms operators to arrest innocent friends and relatives of their targets before luring the journalists out of hiding and arresting them. Some of the journalists are currently facing criminal charges for their published stories.

CPJ said the arrest of the publisher of online news magazine, Secret Reporters, Tega Oghenedoro, who writes under the pseudonym, Fejiro Oliver; Yushau, publisher of the News Digest; and Olufemi, who is a freelance reporter, were facilitated by call records obtained from some major telecoms companies in the country.

In a publication on the arrest of Oliver in late 2019, the Premium Times quoted Nigeria’s Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami, as saying, “I will give you the number used to commit the crime and you have only 60 minutes to produce the details.”

The government has reportedly threatened to sanction telecoms operators who fail to release data for the purpose of investigation.

Omoyele Sowore, Olawale Bakare and Agba Jalingo are other well-known media practitioners who were arrested and kept in detention for more than three months at a stretch for criticising the government.

The Nigerian Communications Act 2003 fully backs the use of call records during investigation as the Act mandates network providers to provide support to law enforcement agents in matters of national interest.

Section 146, subsection 2 of the Act states, “A licensee shall, upon written request by the Commission or any other authority, assist the Commission or other authority as far as reasonably necessary in preventing the commission or attempted commission of an offence under any written law in operation in Nigeria or otherwise in enforcing the laws of Nigeria, including the protection of the public revenue and preservation of national security.”

However, digital rights activists and telecom subscribers have condemned the practice of sharing the call records of users of telecoms services without following due process.

The Executive Director, Paradigm Initiative, Gbenga Sesan, said the act of obtaining call records of subscribers without consent was an infringement on their fundamental human rights.

Sesan argued that a warrant for collecting the call records must first be obtained from a court of law after presenting substantial evidence against the subscriber to the judge.

He said, “There is already a process that requires security agencies to get an order from a court of competent jurisdiction so that this loophole is not abused, but, as usual, the security agencies ignore this.

“A fundamental requirement in a democracy is the rule of law, which is blatantly disregarded by security agencies, who probably get away with it because the fish rots from the head. If the President disobeys court orders at will, why should those who report to him behave differently? This fish is rotten, from the head to its tail.”

Sesan lamented that the fundamental rights of Nigerians to privacy was trampled upon by those who shared an innocent person’s call information without providing convincing evidence.

He argued that the sanctity of journalism and the duty of journalists to hold people in public offices accountable were not being accorded the right respect.

“Nigeria’s constitution and other human rights instruments that Nigeria is a signatory to speak clearly about the right to privacy. It is even worse that the records being shared violate the sanctity of the fourth estate of the realm, that is accorded this right and respect because of their duty to hold society accountable,” the digital rights activist said.

He added, “Unfortunately, this tendency of the security agencies, such as the Nigeria Police Force and the Department of State Services, to muscle their way through people’s private information will end up haunting even today’s powerful men and women.”

“Dasuki once held such powers that are now being used against him. So everyone who holds the trust of the citizens in a position of power must know that the evil they spread will haunt them soon.”

The Chairman, National Association of Telecoms Subscribers, Adeolu Ogunbanjo, affirmed that a court warrant was a basic requirement for obtaining call records.

He said, “That is an infringement on privacy. They (law enforcement agents) need to go through a competent court of law and ensure they get a warrant, if there is evidence that this person has committed an offence. They must explain why they have to arrest the friend through the court process.

“They can’t take the law into their hands because they are not the law. They must approach the court and the court can grant them the leave to contact the telecom operator involved.”

He called on those who had been affected by such injustice to approach the court and defend their rights.

According to him, the victims have the locus standi because their privacy has been infringed upon.

Sesan also echoed Ogunbanjo’s views, warning that allowing the matter to be laid to rest would only embolden the security agencies to continue to trample on human rights.

“The best form of defence is attack. So I urge all citizens whose rights have been violated to see redress in a court of law. Yes, they may not get favourable judgment, but keeping quiet will only lead to impunity and embolden these uniformed law breakers more,” the rights activists added.

Sesan said his organisation would investigate the matter further, write a Freedom of Information letter and institute a lawsuit when the FoI response window expires.

Also, the Chairman, Association of Telephone, Cable TV and Internet Subscribers, Shina Bilesanmi, urged subscribers to know their rights. He pledged to protect the interests of all subscribers under the association.

“Service providers don’t need to release subscribers’ information without receiving evidence that due process had been followed,” Bilesanmi added.

He noted it was the duty of the security agencies to track suspected criminals, but they should do their due diligence without arresting the members of the suspect’s family.

Copyright PUNCH.