Welcome to the Digital Rights Advocates Blog Series, where we hear from lawyers litigating digital rights in sub-Saharan Africa.
Digital rights have become indispensable for people around the world to exercise and enjoy their fundamental rights. Independent media is increasingly moving online – from established newspapers and television channels to bloggers and human rights activists with large social media followings. However, this has been accompanied by an increase in states and other actors seeking to encroach on these rights. In the midst of a global pandemic, it is more important than ever that journalists and bloggers are able to carry out their work unhindered. As part of the Digital Rights Advocates Project, Media Defence works with lawyers litigating digital rights cases in sub-Saharan Africa to promote and protect freedom of expression online.
For this blog, we spoke with Solomon Okedara, from Digital Rights Lawyers Initiative (DRLI), one of our partner organisations in Nigeria.
Please tell us about DRLI’s work
In 2018, while attending the Internet Governance Forum in Paris, myself and my co-founder, Olumide Babalola, thought of a platform to better promote and protect digital rights in Nigeria, away from our individual of digital rights’ litigation. We therefore considered setting up an NGO that can protect digital rights of Nigerians, particularly, through litigation. In January 2019, Digital Rights Lawyers Initiative (DRLI) was registered in Nigeria and full-blown operations commenced immediately.
At DRLI, our focal areas are the major digital rights which include Online Expressions, Data Protection & Privacy, Digital Identity, Access to the Internet, Right to own Online Works and Right to own Digital Assets. Our operational model is what can be described with the acronym L.A.R.T which stands for Litigation, Advocacy, Research and Training.
Over the last two years, we have litigated over 50 digital rights cases, with about 30 of them centering around media freedom and right to online expressions of journalists, bloggers and citizen journalists. At DRLI, media freedom is at the core of our work as we dedicatedly work to protect media freedom in and out of the court room.
To sustainably protect and promote digital rights, we realized that expertise of lawyers needs to be developed and deepened across Nigeria. Realizing this, we set up two networks of lawyers with membership across the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory. The first network is known as Digital Rights Litigators Network (DRLN) for lawyers with interest in litigating digital rights particularly freedom of expression online and access to the Internet. The second network is known as Data Protection Litigators’ Network (DPLN) which is a network for lawyers with an interest in litigating data protection and privacy issues. In the areas of training and deepening the capacity of lawyers, we have organized litigation surgeries for lawyers in our networks in order to enhance their capacities to litigate digital rights cases. In February 2021, we organized “Cybersecurity Training for Lawyers”.
Please tell us about your project with Media Defence and how this fits in with the wider work of DRLI?
Currently, we are running a project known as Digital Rights Advancement Project (DRAP) being funded by Media Defence. This project provides legal defense to journalists, bloggers and citizen journalists. Some of the cases we have handled within the spectrum of this project bother on arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists, torture of journalists, unlawful and unjustifiable prosecution of journalists, sanctioning of media houses, censorship, interference with journalist’s source of news among others.
This project perfectly fits into the wider spectrum of DRLI’s objectives as it bothers on the core of Right to Online Expression and we are grateful to Media Defence for this partnership. While there is still so much to be done in this space, Media Defence’s partnership has aided our work tremendously.
Why is freedom of expression online important in Nigeria?
Freedom of expression online is important in Nigeria as the digital platforms and the social media platforms in particular have democratized the media. The right to freedom of expression online is not just a right that is recognized by international instruments but it is also guaranteed in the provision of Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) which protects the rights of Nigerians to express themselves without any interference using any “medium” as stated in Section 39 (2) of the Constitution. Such medium includes Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and other digital platforms.
It is therefore regrettable that the Nigerian government recently suspended the activities of Twitter which is a medium used by over 40 million Nigerians to express themselves online. The said suspension is a sweeping infringement of freedom of expression of Nigerians and it stands unconstitutional and unjustifiable.
What challenges do journalists and bloggers face in Nigeria?
Journalists and bloggers face serious challenges in Nigeria today as they have become obviously endangered. An age long ethos of journalism is “fair reporting” which empowers a journalist to report a story without fear or favor. Unfortunately, journalists and bloggers in Nigeria now live in constant fear of arrest, arbitrary detention, malicious prosecution, bodily harm, torture and threats to life when they opt to discharge their duties in line with the ethos of their profession.
What’s the environment for digital rights and freedom of expression in Nigeria? What are the main challenges your organisation faces, both practical and legal, when litigating in favor of freedom of expression online in your country?
The environment for digital rights and freedom of expression in Nigeria is largely repressive. When litigating in favor of freedom of expression in courts in Nigeria, our organization faces a number of challenges. Firstly, the pace of judicial proceedings is still largely slow in Nigeria. Sometimes, cases suffer ridiculous adjournments for the most untenable reasons. Secondly, some judges are still struggling to come to terms with the place and role of digital platforms in freedom of expression. Thirdly, when the case is against the government, some judges will rather “blow muted judicial trumpets” or openly but unjustifiably move to the side of the government, mostly for lack of courage.
What legislation affects freedom of expression online?
Section 24 of the Cybercrimes Act, 2015 affects expression online. Provisions of Criminal Defamation and Sedition in the Criminal Code Act, Penal Code Act and some states’ legislation affect freedom of expression online in Nigeria and the Nigerian Broadcasting Code have been consistently used to suppress dissent. Aside the above legislation, there are repressive policies and action of government including the recent suspension of Twitter.
Could you give us an example of any digital rights/freedom of expression cases you’ve worked on as an organisation?
There is a case of man who recorded an alleged act of police brutality with his phone and posted it on his Facebook page. The man was later arrested. Our organization went to court to challenge his arrest and detention which exceeded the constitutional limit of 48 hours for which a person can be kept in custody without trial. We filed an action at the Federal High Court to enforce his right. Interestingly, in its judgment, the court agreed with our position and declared that the man’s arrest and detention was illegal and unconstitutional. The court further went ahead to award damages in his favor against the Police.
Aside that, we have cases where we are expecting judgments in digital rights/freedom of expression cases. We are expecting judgments in two cases where protesters used their mobile phones to record protests and police officers arrested them and destroyed their phones. We have a case where a State Ministry of Education ordered prohibition of use of WhatsApp as a medium of communication by school teachers. We have cases of sanctioning of television stations for use of User Generated Contents in their broadcasts during a protest.
Please tell us about any successes DRLI has achieved?
Our organization has attained some remarkable successes as we have had secured discharge of some journalists from criminal prosecutions and some other ones released on bail to allow them to continue practicing their profession pending the criminal trials against them.
It is important to note that myself and my co-founder maintain our full-time law practices independent of DRLI. DRLI therefore has its corporate structure with its Governing Council and staff that run the organization. Having seen DRLI established its status as a notable stakeholder in the civic space and indeed in the digital rights field, the future of DRLI looks bright and indeed exciting.
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