The Ebonyi State Cybercrimes Law: Matters Arising 

By Jerry Uhuo
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The ongoing ordeal of the State Publicity Secretary of the opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) in the hands of the Engr. Dave Umahi led state administration has brought into sharp focus, the Ebonyi State Cybercrimes Law.

Chapter IV of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) provides for the fundamental human rights of all citizens of Nigeria. The provision covers: the Right to Life, the Right to Dignity of Human Person, the Right to Personal Liberty, the Right to Fair Hearing, the Right to Private and Family Life, the Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion, the Right to Freedom of Expression.

Fundamentally, every Nigerian has a right of expression of thought as a free citizen like in other climes where Nigeria borrowed its democratic system. In making laws for the federation or any part thereof by the legislature, the people are given consideration on the impact of such law (s). It is for this reason that one of the key elements in lawmaking process is public hearing during which members of the legislature invite their constituents to make input in proposals/bills that could become law for which the people are expected to be obligated to. The legislature is the only institution in a democracy that is owned wholly by the people and members cannot act on their own without the people.

Like the fundamental human rights of citizens, the media all over the world is respected by all governments especially in a democracy as the watchdog of the people. The media has responsibility to inform and educate the people on the activities of government and provoke thoughts and reactions to policies and programmes of government. The Media is the bridge between government and the people and any leader who does not appreciate the work of the media cannot be a good public office holder.

The importance of the media is the reason why the United Nations educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proposed a special day to ‘’support and reflect on the work of media organizations and professionals’’ to be known as World Press Freedom Day, ostensibly to hold government to account over their commitment to press freedom and allow the press to reflect on professional ethics. The proposal was formally adopted on May 3, 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly as World Press Freedom Day.

As one of the American Founding Fathers James Madison, had stated, if men were angels, no government would be necessary and if angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal control on government would be necessary. Since men are not angels and angels are not governing men, it has become imperative for oversight of government and part of the oversight is the monitoring of governments activities and reporting to the people whose mandate the government hold. The main responsibility of the press is to inform the public about government activities, criticize those activities/actors where necessary and stimulate debate by the people to help the government. In fact, the real stimulus of any democratic government is criticism especially from the opposing group. It ceases to be a democracy when freedom of expression is no longer tolerated. It is only a military government that does not allow press freedom.

Nigerians are still conversant with challenges the Nigerian press faced in 1984 when General Muhammadu Buhari was a military President. Then came Decree No 4 of 1984. The decree was to punish authors of alleged false statements against the military administration of the day. Section 1, sub-sections (i), (ii) and (iii) of the law provided that: ‘’Any person who publishes in any form, whether written or otherwise, any message, rumour, report or statement, being a message, rumour, statement or report, which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offence under this Decree…’’

There is no need to recount the agony many Nigerian Journalists passed through under this decree. That was why when recently the National Assembly attempted to amend the Press Council Act of 1953 and introduced some new clauses whereby Journalists and Media houses could be fined N250,000 and N10m respectively by the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) under the control of the executive, for infractions, the media practitioners and many Nigerians rose up against such proposed clauses in the amendment. Chief Olusegun Osoba a veteran Journalist and former Governor of Ogun State described the proposal as “a terrible draconian law’’. As he puts it, ‘’It is a terrible draconian law. It has never happened in the history of Nigeria that a law as sweeping as this will be proposed. Not even under the military was this done’’.

Recently, a member of the National Assembly proposed a bill on the regulation of the social media. The Bill titled “’The Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2020’ got to a second reading before it was suspended because of the outcry and many opposing arguments by the Nigerian public. The first attempt to regulate the social media was in 2015 when a bill to that effect was introduced in the House of Representatives but it failed due to similar outcry of Nigerians. However, the Cybercrime law was enacted. A Hate Speech bill was later introduced again in the Senate which originally stipulated a death penalty for anyone convicted of a hate speech. Following myriads of outcry and agitations by human rights groups the death penalty clause was removed.

The main reason why many Nigerians had opportunity to rise in opposition against some of the proposed bills in the National Assembly perceived to infringe on the freedom of the people was because the National legislature made the bills public. They recognized that the Legislature is the People’s House and the occupants are tenants with Nigerans as landlords. It is a normal legislative procedure in the consideration of any bill to subject such bill to public hearing to elicit feedback from the people. In that case when the bill eventually becomes law, the people will be subject to its obligations.

In the case of Ebonyi State Cybercrimes Law, it would appear that many Ebonyians woke up one day to the implementation of the said law. The first time one heard of the law was when one Godfrey Chikwere was arrested for an opinion, he expressed in his Facebook handle. A Commissioner of Information in the administration of Governor David Umahi was invited to one of the Good Morning Nigeria, a Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) programme, and a question was thrown to him about the arrest of the young man. The Commissioner claimed on national television that there was a Cybercrimes Law and it was passed by the State House of Assembly.

Recently, an alleged copy of the law surfaced online with details. The law titled ‘’Ebonyi State Cybercrimes (Prohibition) Law 2021 was purportedly signed by Governor David Umahi on 27th September, 2021. Section 5 of the Law provides that;

‘’Any person who knowingly or intentionally sends or circulates a message or other matter by any means of computer systems or networks or social media that (a) is grossly offensive, pornographic or of an indeed, obscene, or menacing character or causes any such message or matter to be so sent (b) knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, il-will or needless anxiety to another or general public commits an offence… and shall be liable on conviction to a fine of Three Million Naira (N3, 000, 000) or imprisonment of not less than 5 years or both…’’

While many Ebonyians and Nigerians would not wish to return or be reminded of decree no 4 of 1984 in a democracy, the question remains as to how does the Ebonyi State House of Assembly process bills. If Ebonyians were privy to the cybercrimes bill whether introduced by the executive or private member, many would have known the sponsor of the bill and rationale for it or at the minimum participate in the public hearing (if there was any one). Any legislature that can process and pass a bill that impact in the life of its citizens without recourse to the people cannot be a legislature representing the people whose mandate they carry.

Press freedom and/or freedom of expression of the people are basic contents and critical to the development of democracy. Yes, there is no absolute freedom because man himself is constantly in chains, but there are constitutional guarantees and regulations and this should be respected. It ceases to be a democratic system when citizens and watchdogs of the society are kept in chains and hounded for holding opposing views especially when the agents of the political actors hold similar views and walk free. A seeming draconian piece of legislation to suppress opposing views in legislative cover cannot promote democracy. It ceases to be a democracy when it becomes: “If you think you have the pen, we have koboko…’

Uhuo is a Journalist and Political Scientist.