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INVESTIGATION: Disturbing Tales of How Nigerian Authorities Are Shrinking Civic and Media Space

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NewsWireNGR’s Investigative journalist, Ridwan Yusuf spent 6 weeks looking into how the Nigerian government is shrinking the civic and media space.

He tracked institutions attacked by the government, individuals harassed, attacked, and jailed, then also proceeded to inquire into websites being censored via Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) – a type of Cyber Attack that attempts to overload a system and eventually shut it down.

Ridwan examines the shrinking of not only the civic space and media space but also legislation being introduced by Federal Parliamentarians.

“It was oppression at large,” those were the words of orphan, Babatunde Olusola Thomas, a Chemical Engineering student of Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH), Ogbomoso, Oyo State, Nigeria, who spent 82 days in police custody for setting up a Twitter parody account of Nigeria’s former President, Goodluck Jonathan.

Olusola, a social media influencer, on an evening of May 5 was only intent on ‘catching cruise’ online, but 18 days later, he would be whisked away by the now-defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), on the orders of Jonathan, albeit through his Chief Security Officer (CSO).

A fellow Influencer, @Irunnia_ had posted: “Who else noticed Nigeria has been boring since Buhari became President?”

Olusola (@jayythedope), a fair-complexioned man with a diamond face harmlessly made a quote reply saying “my wife” – a reference to Patience Jonathan – “was always the joke”.

The quote retweet garnered 6, 000+ likes, according to Olusola whose @jayythedope Twitter account had 46,400 followers.

He would subsequently be charged for impersonation, fraudulent acts, and defamation of character – all allegations he debunked.

The simple tweet meant he met with the country’s Inspector General of Police (IGP) at the time, Mohammed Abubakar Adamu, a University of Portsmouth graduate, who according to Olusola ‘doesn’t even understand the workings of Parody Accounts’.

Olusola, 23, explained to this reporter in a low-pitched tone: “The parody account lasted for like 16 hours because it was my personal account.

“In less than 16 hours, I saw the engagements, I saw that it was moving, but I had some promotions to make, I just had to change it straight to my personal account.

“Funnily, on the day I made the satire tweet that got me into trouble, I had earlier tweeted “Jonathan’s regime is better than Buhari’s”. That was the night before – May 4th. No one came for me then.

“Ordinarily, I don’t do parodies. I have my Twitter page. I just felt we should just catch cruise that very evening.”

“I got arrested on the 23rd of May by SARS, in Ogbomosho. Network providers gave out my personal information.

“They had to go pick up my uncle. My uncle has to call me to come around. I got arrested when I went to meet him.

“I was taken down to Ogbomosho SARS, then taken to Ibadan, where I was locked up.

“Then the next day, we traveled down to Abuja, Asokoro.

“I met with the IGP. Then I was later locked up at Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (FCID), Abuja.

“It was oppression at large.”

Although Olusola was not abused by the police, the action of the Nigerian security forces exposed him to torture.

“If there was any torture I experienced, it’s from the cellmates. There’s like this hierarchy in the cell.

“When I got to Asokoro, we could only bath once, we could only go to the toilet once also.

“It was mad torture, mental stress, and all of that.

“The food was so bad that I even got purging. I had to pay through my nose to sneak in better food into the cell.”

While Olusola’s Twitter account, @jayythedope has now been suspended, he informed me that it was due to copyright infringement in respect of another complainer – not due to the Jonathan satire matter.

Although impersonating or portraying another person in a confusing or deceptive manner is against Twitter’s terms of service, parody accounts are okay as long as the biographical profile includes a statement that distinguishes it from the account it is parodying.

Tweeting, Tope Akinyode, a human rights lawyer speaks on parody accounts in the eyes of the Nigerian law: “the requirement of the law is that ex-President Goodluck Jonathan must prove that Babatunde (Olusola)’s parody account has caused disadvantage to himself or other persons.”

Similarly, Inibehe Effiong, another legal practitioner, says “using a parody account is not impersonation except there is a fraudulent intention.”

Parody accounts – all over the world – are often named after prominent individuals but mainly used for comic purposes relative to unfolding issues in the sociopolitical space of their subjects.

Jonathan’s Twitter account – verified – has been up since November 2015 and he has 1.5 million followers.

‘GEJ’ as the Bayelsa-born politician is fondly called, is in a good relationship with President Muhammadu Buhari. He confirmed this in July 2020.

News platform which fights unbridled corruption knocked

Buhari himself, and his administration, have been accused of being hostile to the Press in Nigeria.

Under his administration, press freedom has shrunk, plummeting to 115 out of 180 nations on the World Press Freedom Index.

On January 26, Peoples Gazette’s website (http://peoplesgazette.com) was hit by a coordinated disruption of service across all telecommunication networks in Nigeria.

According to the online newspaper’s Managing Editor, Samuel Ogundipe, despite intimidation, threats, harassment and offers of jaw-dropping financial and material inducement from powerful people in and out of government, “we have remained steadfast in our commitment to the truth, with courage and nothing else”.

“The disruption of services targeted at establishments like ours has become a weapon of choice for the Nigerian Government in recent times,” the statement published above read in parts.

NewsWireNGR understands that a vast majority of Nigerian Internet users browse with MTN, Glo Mobile and Airtel. Peoples Gazette is a news websites in Nigeria, now likened to Sahara Reporters by most young upwardly mobile in the country.

The platform has has broken several major stories, including implicating some highly placed government officials.

The plot to silence Peoples Gazette was linked to its reporting from October 2020 on the son of Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, President Buhari’s Chief of Staff (CoS) assuming the responsibilities of his father. In January, Peoples Gazette reported that a presidential advisor was fired for allegedly providing the paper with information for the October 2020 report.

Prof. Gambari was Under-Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations (UN) Department of Political Affairs (2005-2007).

According to Sweden-based Qurium Media Foundation, which supports news websites facing censorship around the world, Airtel, MTN, and Glo, used different censorship techniques to block Peoples Gazette: Airtel’s network used deep packet inspection technology, which can scan and filter traffic passing through the network; MTN used domain name system (DNS) blocking, which can filter searches for IP addresses on the network; and Glo used IP blocking, which can deny access to websites from certain IP addresses. The alleged blocking by 9mobile reported by Samuel Ogundipe, Gazette’s Managing Editor, and NewsWireNGR was not included in Qurium’s report.

Qurium said it set up alternative access to Peoples Gazette’s content via a mirror site and a second domain, gazettengr.com.

This challenge persists.

“Like every other Nigerian, we were shocked that the Federal Government decided to do what they did by restricting our domain,” Boladale Adekoya, Peoples Gazette’s Deputy Managing Editor told this reporter by phone on March 15.

“And while we understand that of course, Nigeria does not practice Democracy, what we have is a pseudo-Democracy that is based on despotic nature by the present regime.

“However, we thought that there are some red lines that should never be crossed, and Press Freedom is one of it.

“Of course, while bringing up the platform, we planned for such eventuality. So it was easy for us to spring up immediately and continue with what we’ve been doing.

“Even if you are going to restrict our domain name, it should have been done through the proper channel.

“But for the Chief of Staff to the president to have ordered such action, it showed that we have some problem with our current institution.

“Because the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) who later directed the telcos did not demand due process to be done.

“So, institutions like NCC that ought to be independent is still answerable illegally to those in power. And they will do whatever they are directed to do, even though it doesn’t conform with the law.

“Section 22 Nigerian Constitution is explicit on the Freedom of the Press.

“But for the Chief of Staff to feel we reporting on the atrocities he and his son have been committing at the Villa should not have gotten out, and he feels like because of the position he holds, he should be offered some kind of protection. But for us at People Gazette, it has always been the truth, courage, or nothing.

“So, if we cannot tell the news the way it ought to be, definitely we have no business being in journalism.

“Of course, you can see we are back, we are prepared for them.”

Expounding on events that led to Peoples Gazette blockage, Adekoya disclosed that Prof. Gambari offered inducements, which the website, because of its integrity, declined.

“We did a story on the Chief of Staff. Most of our stories have always been exclusives.

 “And for you to get an exclusive story of that nature in this country, you must know people in the corridors of power that are willing to be patriotic.

“So when the issue started, we were properly informed, that the Chief of Staff was not pleased.

“Initially, he made overtures to us – for the story. He offered some incentives which we rejected.

“So when he felt, we were getting too stubborn, then he decided to do something about it.

“Our anonymous sources told us they got a directive from the Presidency to do that. Specifically, the Chief of Staff.

“So, we know for sure, that it came from him. He has not denied it.

“We’ve been seeing all the tricks. But we are not bothered really.

“We’ve done what we needed to do, we just feel like for someone like him who has been on the international scene, at least he should uphold some dignity, which he has failed to do.”

NewsWireNGR’s phone calls and SMS to Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information of Nigeria, seeking his comments on the matter went unreplied.

In Nigeria, some dissenting voices of the government have a price to pay…

The number of Twitter and Facebook users that have been arrested and detained for their posts in Nigeria is difficult to ascertain, as there are no available bankable records. What is clear is that the states and the federal governments have both been accused of indiscriminate wielding of the instrumentality of public office to muffle dissenting voices.

In February, Salihu Tanko Yakasai, former media aide to Abdullahi Ganduje, governor of Kano State, was picked up by the Department of State Services (DSS) after he criticised President Buhari’s administration on Twitter.

Tanko Yakasai was arrested after calling on President Buhari to check Nigeria’s worsening insecurity or resign. He had called out the president following the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls from Government Girls Secondary School, Jangebe, Zamfara state.

“Clearly, we as APC government, at all levels, have failed Nigerians in the number 1 duty we were elected to do which is to secure lives & properties. Not a single day goes by without some sort of insecurity in this land. This is a shame! Deal with terrorists decisively or resign,” Yakasai had tweeted.

Hours after the tweet, he was picked up by the DSS and questioned, although the DSS said his interrogation centred around “issues beyond the expression of opinions in the social media”.

“This is to confirm that Salihu Tanko-Yakasai is with the Department of State Services. He is being investigated over issues beyond the expression of opinions in the social media as wrongly alleged by sections of the public,” DSS spokesman, Peter Afunanya had said in a statement.

Yakasai was released by the agency on March 1 after two days that he was picked up. Simultaneously, a Nigerian official revealed he had been sacked for “unguarded comments and utterances.”

Although a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Tanko-Yakassai had on several occasions criticised the government. He was once suspended by Ganduje (in October 2020) for two weeks for expressing solidarity with the extraordinary #EndSARS protest across Nigeria against police brutality.

Despite his experience, he has not seized to publicly disagree with the government- as seen in this tweet.

A whistleblower in trouble…

Mahdi Shehu was a self-proclaimed whistleblower who has been exposing alleged corruption by the Katsina State Government.

He was rearrested on February 16 in connection to the ongoing investigation over series of litigations filed against him by the Katsina State Government, and reportedly denied access to his family and lawyer.

Shehu was initially arrested in late 2020.

The accusation levelled against him – defaming the character of Governor Aminu Masari of Katsina State.

Shehu had in July 2020 alleged that Governor Masari took N24 billion as security vote from the state’s Escrow Account domiciled in UBA and Fidelity Bank between 2015 and 2018.

In court, he pleaded not guilty to all the charges filed against him by the Katsina State Government and alleged government plan to assassinate him.

Although the case has been adjourned to May 19, Shehu is now temporarily free and is back home with his family.

Katsina is the home state of President Buhari, Nigeria’s anti-corruption czar.

Free press under attack in Nigeria

Between January and October 2020, Article 19, a British human rights organisation, documented a huge increase in assaults, arrests and prosecution of the press in Nigeria compared to 2019, with 51 incidents in 2020 alone, affecting 60 journalists. The security forces and government officials were responsible for the majority of attacks, while eight attacks were by unknown attackers and six by political thugs.

Attack on journalists in Nigeria is a never-ending issue, and it spilled over to 2020, NewsWireNGR discovered.

Kufre Carter, a reporter with a local radio station, XL 106.9 FM had experienced a similar ordeal with Mahdi Shehu.

In November 2020, Carter had his defamation case thrown out by a Magistrate’s court in Akwa Ibom state, after the prosecution failed to provide a witness. Carter endured month-long detention by the DSS, for allegedly maligning a state government official in a WhatsApp audio file that went viral.

Time will tell whether Shehu – like Carter – will be vindicated too.

There are so many related cases.

An elderly Nigerian journalist, Tom Uhia was arrested on October 13 2020 for comments he made on public issues on social media.

The case involved Pa Uhia and one of President Buhari’s appointees, Goddy Jedy-Agba, the Minister of State for Power.

Jedy-Agba had accused Uhia, a septuagenarian, of defaming his character with a report he published in the June 2020 edition of his magazine, Power Steering, which accused the minister of corruption, fraud, and theft when he was a senior manager with the Nigeria Nigerian Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).

Rather than head to court to seek redress, Jedy-Agba wrote a petition to the police through his lawyer, Obi Nwakor. The Police Force Criminal Investigation Department (FCID) in Area 10, Abuja, arrested the journalist over the petition and kept him behind bars for about a month.

“Even if treated as a criminal case, Section 35 of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution demands that the police should not detain any suspect for longer than 48 hours without a court order,” the FCT Council of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUT) said, in a statement at the time, by its chairperson, Emmanuel Ogbeche, to protest Uhia’s treatment.

He was eventually released on November 10, 2020.

Identifiable Nigerian journalist severely beaten by security forces for doing his job

Benjamin Anaja was a media practitioner with Guild Press Limited. On Wednesday, February 3, 2021, he was assaulted at Meiran bus stop, along Lagos-Abeokuta expressway and consequently detained by men of the Lagos Environment Sanitation Corps (LAGESC).

They accused him of recording and taking pictures during an enforcement operation its team carried out.

At least three of the attacking officers were identified from the tags on their uniforms —Tijani Mustapha, Elegbede Samson, and Razaq Ismaila.

On February 4, the day after the attack, the Lagos state government posted a statement from State Commissioner for the Environment and Water Resources Tunji Bello condemning the attack and promising a thorough investigation. The statement said “the incident will be thoroughly investigated and punitive measures will be taken” against those who attacked Anaja.

However that vow – like many pledges by Nigerian authorities – remains empty.

‘Prisoner of conscience’ Agba Jalingo still battling charges from Nigerian officials

Agba Jalingo, the publisher of CrossRiverWatch, who is facing a treasonable felony trial, orchestrated by the government of Cross Rivers State has his court case set for April 20, 2021. Jalingo was detained for months over some reports he wrote.

He had been arrested in a Gestapo style on the orders of Governor Benedict Ayade on August 22, 2019, after he raised questions on the whereabouts of N500 million meant for the establishment of Cross River Microfinance Bank. 

Jalingo, named Prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International was detained arbitrarily for over four months with his fundamental human rights grossly violated during the period.

In the South-East region, Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi State attempted to gag the press when in April 2020, he banned two reporters “for life” from working in the state.

Umahi had on live television on the state broadcast stations pronounced the sanction against the correspondents of Vanguard, Peter Okutu, and The Sun, Chijioke Agwu.

They were arrested for two separate stories they wrote which the governor said were false and targeted at tarnishing the image of the state.

While Agwu’s report was on the Lassa fever outbreak in the state, Okutu’s report focused on the recent invasion of a community in Umuogodoakpu, Mgbo in Ohaukwu local government area.

The governor would later backpedal and plead with journalists to put the misunderstanding behind them.

Popular independent television station not enjoying media freedom

Duly accredited journalists working with the Africa Independent Television (AIT) in Abuja were on March 19, 2020, barred from covering Buhari’s unveiling of the 2020-2025 broadband plan.

AIT is not so fancied among high-ranking officials in the Buhari administration.

Narrating their ordeal, an AIT reporter, Roluke Ogundele, said at the time according to Vanguard, ‘We arrived the digital economy complex, venue of the event in Jabi district of Abuja early to set up in line with standard protocols ahead of the arrival of President Muhammad Buhari, but while we were awaiting the arrival of the president, a deputy director in the Nigerian communications commission, NCC, approached me to notify that AIT has been restricted from covering the event and the crew should pack their equipment and leave the venue immediately.’’

The order to leave “came from above” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

‘‘The deputy director said the instruction applies to AIT and one of the national newspapers, stating that no media representative of the two organisations should be seen at the venue.’’

Growing fears in Nigeria and across the world over federal agencies using spyware to monitor calls, messages of journalists, activists

Local media, The Will, broke the news on March 1, saying sophisticated spyware products have been approved by President Buhari that will grant the DSS access to everything one says or transmit via the encrypted WhatsApp mobile application.

The newspaper said that a budget of about N3 billion has been approved by President Buhari to purchase the technology known as Big Brother (alias BB).

“The technology has been paid for and should be on our shores and operational in another 6-8 weeks,” one of the sources said according to The Will.

A report later that month by the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) corroborated The Will’s story.

CPJ said the spyware products were “designed to monitor a target’s activity without their knowledge.”

“Once on a victim’s device, it can provide an attacker with access to passwords, accounts, calls, emails, and encrypted communications; some versions can activate a cellphone’s camera and microphone to conduct surveillance.”

Journalists and activists are believed to be the prime targets of governments in various continents, with CPJ worried that “secret surveillance of journalists and their sources poses a severe threat to press freedom globally”.

Normally, spyware is marketed for law enforcement, but researchers have found journalists and commentators among its targets.

A report by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab titled Running in Circles: Uncovering the Clients of Cyberespionage Firm Circles in December 2020, pointed at how governments in Africa, including Nigeria, were also using an Israeli surveillance tool to snoop at private citizens, activists and journalists. 

The report listed Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Equatorial Guinea, Morocco, and Zambia as the African countries that have been employing Circles’ surveillance platforms to exploit flaws in telecoms systems and to access telephone calls, SMS messages and location services.

Legislation introduced to shrink Nigeria’s media space

Dr. Francis Ottah Agbo, a member of Nigeria’s House of Representatives representing the Ado/Ogbadigbo/Okpokwu constituency of Benue State is spearheading the amendment of a bill that seeks to bar journalists who don’t possess media degrees from practicing.

The bill, titled ‘The Nigerian Press Council Amendment Bill, 2019’ will update key provisions in Nigeria’s Press Act.

The new law will provide that “only a person who has a first degree, Higher National Diploma (HND) in Journalism, Media Art or Communication, or postgraduate certificate shall practice as a journalist.”

It is worthy of note that some of the best brains in Nigerian journalism today do not hold journalism degrees. Fisayo Soyombo, a multiple award-winning journalist known for exposing corruption and other ills in the society readily comes to mind. Soyombo studied Animal Science at the University of Ibadan (UI). He has no journalism degree to date.

After Soyombo exposed the rots in the police and the country’s prisons service in a 2019 Undercover Investigation titled: ‘Drug abuse, sodomy, bribery, pimping… The cash-and-carry operations of Ikoyi Prisons’, threats forced him to vacate his home and go into hiding.

“He was told while in prison that if his story was published, he could be assassinated because some of those implicated officials had spent over 25 years in service and they could not watch him destroy their career because they collected N500 or N1,000 as bribe.

“One of those implicated has just two to three years remaining in service,” a close friend of the journalist had said according to Punch.

The same lawmakers trying to disqualify some journalists for not having a media-related degree do not hold a degree in Political Science themselves.

Media practitioners need to keep their eyes open on this bill which has now been slated for second reading.

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