Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice has declared Section 24 of Nigeria’s Cybercrime Act as inconsistent and incompatible with freedom of expression and media freedom.
The regional court made the declaration while delivering judgment last week in Accra, Ghana, on a suit number ECW/CCJ/APP/09/19 filed before it by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP).
Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act among others criminalise sending or causing to be sent an “offensive, insulting or annoying” message via a computer system or network.” The offence is punishable including a fine of up to N7 million or imprisonment of up to three years or both.
In its judgment, the ECOWAS Court held that “section 24 of Cybercrime Act is inconsistent and incompatible with Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Nigeria is a state party.
The court, therefore, ordered the federal government to “amend section 24 of the Cybercrime Prohibition Act in accordance with Nigerian obligations under Article 1 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”
SERAP had argued before the court that the federal government of Nigeria and several state governments have used the vaguely worded provisions of the Cybercrime Act to trample on the rights to freedom of expression and information of bloggers, journalists, activists, and social media users.
In its reaction to the verdict, SERAP described the judgment as a victory for many Nigerians who continue to face harassment, intimidation and unfair prosecutions solely for peacefully exercising their human rights online.
The civil society organisation also in an open letter to the government, dated 2 April, 2022 and signed by SERAP deputy director Kolawole Oluwadare urged President Muhammadu Buhari to enforce the judgment by deleting the offence of ‘insulting or stalking public officials online’ from the Cybercrime Act.
SERAP also urged President Buhari to urgently send an executive bill to the National Assembly to repeal the unlawful provisions, and reform all laws, which are inconsistent and incompatible with freedom of expression and media freedom.
Its further urged him to direct Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice to withdraw all pending charges of ‘insulting or stalking public officials online’ against activists, critics and journalists, and immediately ensure their release from unlawful detention. SERAP also demanded that the government must ensure that those who have faced unfair prosecutions under the unlawful provisions receive adequate compensation.
The judgment read by Hon. Justice Gberi-De Quattara (Presiding Judge), Hon. Justice Dupe Atoki (member) and Hon. Justice Keikura Bangura (member), chronicled details of Nigerian government officials using the Cybercrime Act, particularly its section 24 as a pretext to harass, intimidate, detain, prosecute and imprison activists, journalists, bloggers, and social media users.
In its judgement, the ECOWAS Court held that “The court has the jurisdiction to hear and determine the suit. In a plethora of decisions, the court has upheld that the mere allegation of human rights violations is sufficient to invoke this human rights mandate pursuant to Article 9 (4) of the Supplementary Protocol.
“In view of the fact that this application is premised on human rights violations pursuant to Article 9(4) of the supplementary protocol, the court holds that it has jurisdiction to hear and determine the suit.”