The past few weeks have been quite interesting ones with respect to the number of court cases that have emerged as a result of postings on social media that generated controversies.
First, it was Sahara Reporters, the controversial citizen-journalism site tweeted allegations that Senator Dino Melaye (Kogi West – APC) never graduated from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria as he claims. Although Senator Melaye has been cleared by the Senate Committee on Public Petitions, Ethics and Privileges, he has nonetheless petitioned the Inspector-General of Police, accusing Sahara Reporters and its founder, Omoyele Sowore of cyberstalking him.
Next was Apostle Johnson Suleiman, the Auchi, Edo State-based General Overseer of Omega Fire Ministries who was accused by a Canadian-based stripper, Stephanie Otobo who accused him of being involved in an adulterous affair with her and abandoning her after getting her pregnant, and claiming to sue him for N500 million damages. Suleiman denied the story and sued Otobo and Sahara Reporters, which first broke the story for N1billion damages, claiming defamation of character.
The most recent one is that of controversial blogger, Kemi Omololu-Olunloyo who published a letter from a member of popular Port-Harcourt pastor, David Ibieyomie alleging that he is an affair with actress, Iyabo Ojo. For that, she has found herself enmeshed in serious legal mess which was analyzed here.
The democratization of freedom of expression through the use of blogs and social media has on one hand been good for Nigeria, but on the other hand been abused by many people and bloggers who publish stories that seek to malign people. There have been many complaints of such and people have asked for examples to be made of those who engage in this, to serve as a warning to others.
As such, these cases by those affected by these stories ought to gladden the hearts of Nigerians who want bloggers and social media users to be more responsible for what they publish.
However, careful examinations of these cases show one common factor: the aggrieved are not suing the publishers and bloggers for libel and slander; rather, they are suing them for defamation of character and cyberstalking.
What is the difference?
Libel and slander are civil offences in Nigeria – as such, if found guilty, the convicted person(s) only compensate for the consequences of their actions. However, defamation of character is a criminal offence under the Criminal Code Act 2004 (pdf) and might get a convict jail time of up to seven years. Cyberstalking, on the other hand, is a crime under the Cybercrime Act 2015 (pdf) gets a guilty person a year in prison or N2million fine or even both.
Both laws have been heavily criticized in the past: the existence of the defamation of character in Nigeria’s criminal code is seen as a holdover from the colonial period with the intention of clamping down on dissent. It has managed to survive to this day and many amendments to the Act.
The Cybercrime Act is still a law that many wonder how it managed to pass in the National Assembly without Nigerians knowing. While it has numerous sections that are necessary in order to define and properly prosecute cybercrimes in Nigeria, the section on cyberstalking (Section 15) is vaguely worded and can be used to clamp down on online freedom of speech.
It is no secret that the Nigerian political class has continuously made attempts to control or ‘regulate’ social media. It has sought to do those through entire bills or through sneaking it via section into another bill, like in its last attempt last year. While each time, the vigilance of Nigerians made sure that the bill did not pass, somehow, the Cybercrime Act with the vagueness of the section on cyberstalking managed to pass and was signed into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan.
These cases are very important as they will likely set a precedent for future ones. If those dragged before the courts lose their cases and spend jail time or pay fines, then the plaintiffs would have provided others with a template to seek redress. In some cases, it will be very likely that the law will be turned on someone out of the need to silence him. This will portend a very dangerous situation and will rob social media of its vibrancy and its use a medium for expressing our thoughts, particularly on our governments.
It is important that social media users and bloggers learn to use social media responsibility in order to avoid legal troubles. On the other hand, we must not throw the baby and bathwater away.
Online freedom of expression is far too necessary for our society for us to stay silent and watch it be threatened.