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W/Africa journalists are denied press freedom

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By Mercy Kelani

Weak laws and advanced technology are used to spy and harass journalists.

Digital surveillance has been discovered to be a threat to press freedom in Nigeria and several West African countries. This is done by exploiting vulnerable laws and employment of advanced Technology to monitor and harass journalists. Eti-Inyene Akpan, a photojournalist, having been a victim of police brutality during his undergraduate days, was present at the ENDSARS Protest in October 2020. He documented all the happenings at the protest through pictures and videos, admitting in his post that “Even when the peaceful protesters raised the Nigerian flag, they still shot at them.” Consequently, he was being haunted by unknown people and had to flee the country until February 2021.

There is similar situation in Benin Republic. It was discovered that the Beninese police invaded the home of Casimir Kpedjo, an editor of the  La Nouvelle Economie (an online newspaper), and arrested him after scanning the content on his computer and copying data from it. Asides Sossou, two other Beninese journalists, Patrice Gbaguidi and Hervé Alladé, were sentenced to prison in November 2021 over alleged violations of the digital code of the Republic by publishing their report of a public official’s alleged wrong act on Social Media. According to Amnesty International, the digital code of Benin is used to prevent press freedom.

Pegasus monitors private communications under national security’s guise.

Also in Ghana, federal authorities are treating journalists like criminals under the guise of Cybercrime laws. In this West African country, the military-grade cyber-surveillance system, Pegasus, has been implemented to monitor the private communications of persons. The country is also alleged to have acquired phone-hacking equipment from foreign countries in 2019. Pegasus is capable of copying sent and received messages, harvesting pictures and recording phone conversations, secretly filming an individual through his/her phone camera and activating microphones to record non-call conversations. The Pegasus software is marketed and licensed to governments across the world with the pretense of safeguarding National Security and public safety.

The President of Gambia Press Union, Muhammed Bah, asserted that journalists in the country are threatened by digital surveillance as a result of a legal and advanced technological framework that empowers Security Agencies. According to Article 138 of the Gambia Information Communications Act, national security agencies and investigative authorities have the power to spy, intercept and store communications for the purpose of surveillance with no adequate judicial oversight. The case is the same in Guinea where journalists are arrested with the seizure of their equipment; Mali where media practitioners suffer under digital surveillance tools; Senegal where new laws have been enacted to help the government monitor citizens’ communications; and Togo where journalists’ phones are targeted for spyware surveillance before arrest.

Nigeria has greatly invested in surveillance equipment since 2014.

At 2019, Nigerian military personnel forcefully collected phones and computers at Daily Trust’s offices in Abuja and Maiduguri, carrying out forensic search on them with the aim of finding out Daily Trust’s sources. In 2020, it was discovered that Nigeria’s Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) had acquired an equipment, since 2015, that helps them monitor phone conversations. Since 2014, Nigeria has massively invested in acquiring surveillance equipment for the country’s security agencies — tools which are usually targeted at journalists.

Two Nigerian journalists, Gidado Shuiab and Alfred Olufemi, were arrested by the police over a News Digest report. The police were alleged to have bugged the phone of Adebowale Adekoya, a former News Digest employee, who led them to Shuiab’s residence. After achieving the arrest of Shuiab and Olufemi, they charged them with criminal conspiracy and defamation. The same scheme was used to arrest Fejiro Oliver, publisher of Secret Reporters, in 2017. The surveillance employed by security agencies is oftentimes backed by the law. In Nigeria, the constitution assures citizens’ right to privacy and emboldens the press to hold the government accountable. However, other laws are existent to ensure possibility for the government to acquire personal information for diverse reasons.

Act permits authorities to get people’s info from service providers.

According to the Nigerian Communications Act, network service providers are mandated to cooperate with authorities for prevention of crime and protection of national security. The Cybercrime Act also gives law enforcement agents the power to acquire subscriber information from service providers. A court order also accepted interception of electronic communications for a criminal investigation. To protect journalists and Nigerians’ rights to digital privacy and internet freedoms, Civil Society groups have fruitlessly tried to pass a Digital Rights and Freedom Bill. Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, stated that “journalists and human rights defenders play an indispensable role in our societies, and when they are silenced, we all suffer.”


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