One of the biggest news websites in Nigeria went offline late October and has remained unavailable since. Here I refer to naij.com, a website that has repeatedly ranked among the top ten most visited websites in Nigeria for years. I hate to be the harbinger of bad news but I must inform you that many internet service providers in Nigeria have knocked Naij and dozens of other websites off the Nigerian online space for weeks now.
According to available evidence, the blockade of domain names of Naij and others was at the behest of the federal government. President Muhammadu Buhari, born-again democrat and lover of free speech, scored his biggest coup against the media and the country is quiet. Shutting down naij.com in Nigeria is on the same level as stopping Punch from distributing its newspapers in the country. By now, the whole country would be drowning in a media-induced frenzy on the issue. How exactly has a democratic government managed to shut down one of the biggest media houses without setting off the media’s advocacy machine?
This is what we know so far. On November 3, 2017, ITRealms, an online news site, reported that the Federal Government through the Nigerian Communications Commission ordered a company (name withheld) to block the domain names of some websites that are deemed inimical to the Nigeria’s national security. According to the memo dated October 20, 2017, and signed by Haru Al-Hassan and Yetunde Akinoloye, the Office of the National Security Adviser prepared the list of twenty-one erring news sites. The list is a who-is-who of “pro-Biafran” websites. However, the NSA apparently considers Naij as pro-Biafra, hence the addition of the online media juggernaut to the list.
On November 5, 2017, Nigerian Tribune released a report on the development, essentially corroborating the report of ITRealms. Tribune went a step further and quoted copiously from the NCC memo. In Tribune report, we learnt that the NCC issued the directive to telecommunication companies relying on Section 146 of the Nigerian Communications Commission Act 2003 to have the websites blocked.
Immediately Paradigm Initiative learnt of this development on November 6, we went to work and ran copious tests on the domain names of the listed websites. We reached out to a source at Naij and asked why their website was redirecting us to a new domain name naija.ng. The source, who is not authorized to speak publicly on the subject, said, “The website was shut down by the Federal government. We are currently running on our backup platform- naija.ng”.
It is important to note here that the implementation of the blockade directive has not been uniform. Testing Naij.com on November 6 in Lagos via MTN and Swift, we were redirected to naija.ng. However, since yesterday, November 15, the naija.ng has itself been unavailable when using Swift in Lagos. As for the other websites on the list, sixteen of the websites are still available in Abuja via Spectranet as at November 16, while only three of them are available in Lagos via any of Swift, MTN and Smile. Others using other service providers in Lagos, Kano and Port Harcourt also have similar observations. Outside this country, all but two of the 21 websites are online. This means that while internet users are having issues using these Nigerian websites, others outside the country are able to use them seamlessly. We encourage readers to also test the websites and communicate their findings to us via firstname.lastname@example.org (mailto:email@example.com).
We have issued two press statements on this issue and have since written a Freedom of Information Act request to the Nigerian Communications Commission. In the request, we asked the Commission the following questions: Is the Nigeria Communications Commission or any of its agents in the process of taking steps to block or restrict the domain names of certain websites? If yes, what websites would be affected? What criteria were employed in selecting these websites? Under what legal provision is this being carried out? As at the press time, the Commission has not responded to our request.
On his part, however, the Honourable Minister of Communications, Adebayo Shittu categorically denied any attempt by the federal government to block the domain names of news sites in Nigeria. This is what he told Tribune: “I am sure NCC will never ever write such a memo. I am sure it never happened. President Muhammadu Buhari or any of the people working for him will never do or encourage anything that will amount to gagging of the press.” Is it that the Commission is engaging in this censorship activity without carrying along its supervising ministry? This would not be the first time a ministry would not be aware of what an agency under it is doing.
It is also possible that the minister was not being truthful to Tribune. What really matters to us at this point is the precedent that the Buhari administration is setting by arbitrarily blocking Nigerians from accessing newssites of their choice. As we have said before, blocking the domain names of websites is a brazen violation of the right to Freedom of Expression as guaranteed not only by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria but also by international instruments to which Nigeria is a signatory. The Federal government has a duty to protect free speech and not curtail it.
Unfortunately, the Buhari administration has not been shy about its ambition to “regulate” free speech. It has repeatedly pontificated about the danger of hate speech and why online speech especially must be regulated. President Buhari himself is no stranger to censorship and media clampdown. When he was Nigeria’s military dictator in the 80s, he promulgated the infamous Decree 4 that saw to the jailing of journalists and closing down of media houses. Has Buhari changed since 1984 or does he still see critical speech as dangerous speech that must be fought to a standstill? The next few days or weeks would tell us.
What does this development mean for digital rights in Nigeria? If the government can just wake up one day and restrict access to a website, what does that mean for the digital economy? What does that mean for democracy and Nigerians’ ability to criticize the government and mobilise against an administration they do not like?
Does that mean that a website of an opposition party can be blocked in 2019? Nigerians should ask their government why they cannot access Nigerian websites that are available for access outside these shores.
Sodiq Alabi is the communications lead at Paradigm Initiative, a pan-African digital right and inclusion advocacy organisation.