Now the problem has occurred in a high-profile political case in Nigeria. Just this week the Nigerian government formally filed “cyberstalking” charges against Omoyele Sowore, a longtime political activist and publisher of the respected Sahara Reporters online news agency. Sowore had organized political protests in Nigeria under the hashtag #RevolutionNow and conducted media interviews in support of his protest. He was detained along with another organizer between early August and late September before being granted bail. He reports that he has been beaten and denied access to his family and, for a while, denied access to an attorney.
The charges make clear that this prosecution is a misuse of the overbroad cyberstalking statute, passed in 2015. They state that Sowore committed cyberstalking by: “knowingly sent messages by means of press interview granted on 'arise Television' network which you knew to be false for the purpose of causing insult, enmity, hatred and ill-will on the person of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
That’s it. The prosecution claims that you can “cyberstalk” the President by going on TV and saying allegedly false things about him with a goal of causing “insult” or “ill-will.” This is obviously a misuse of the law and flatly inconsistent with freedom of expression under both Nigerian and international law. The President of Nigeria is a public figure and criticisms of his policies should be strongly protected. Instead, this prosecution appears to be a textbook case of a poorly drafted law being misused for political purposes.
Similar problems exist with the claim of “treason,” which is also based solely on Sowore’s protest activities and the use of the “#RevolutionNow” slogan. There appear to be a similar political agenda behind the final charges for “financial crimes,” based on Sowore allegedly moving funds between his organization's own bank accounts.
Freedom of expression is a cherished, internationally recognized human right. Nigeria is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and additionally recognizes the right to free expression in its 1999 Constitution under section 39(1). Yet on its face, Nigeria’s constitution (section 45.1) also allows many exceptions to freedom of expression that can essentially eviscerate the right, unless carefully interpreted. It’s up to the courts and the prosecutors to protect freedom of expression and interpret any exceptions narrowly and carefully, and up to the legislature not to pass laws that can be so easily misused.
We hope that the judges and prosecutors of Nigeria recognize the problem in applying this cyberstalking law to prosecute a political activist. Nigeria has a long and proud tradition of peaceful but powerful political protest. Such protests are key to a functioning democracy. Protecting core and longstanding human rights such as freedom of expression, especially when that expression is aimed at convincing the public on a political matter, is the obligation of a modern government. If Nigeria is to uphold its international human rights obligations as well as its own traditions, these charges against Sowore and his co-defendant should be dropped immediately.