Cyberstalking Puts Countless Nigerians On Edge

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On May 15, 2015, President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention) Bill into law. The aim was to tackle the growing problems of cyberstalking, cybersquatting, computer-related fraud, forgery and cyber-terrorism.

The Act was a direct legislative response to the increasing rate of fraudulent activities, particularly on social media or what some experts have described as the new media. The law, for the first time in the country, provides a unified legal, regulatory and institutional framework for the prohibition, prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of cybercrimes in Nigeria.

One of the cases that triggered the enactment of the law was the 2012 gruesome murder of an undergraduate student of the Nasarawa State University, Cynthia Osokogu, who was lured to Lagos from Abuja by some criminals who stalked her on a social media platform, Facebook.

She was robbed, drugged, raped, assaulted and strangled to death in a hotel. The criminal who perpetuated the callous act has been sentenced to death by hanging by the Lagos State High Court.

Since then, incidents of stalking have multiplied and according to stakeholders, the increasing dependence on technological gadgets for communication and the cover they give to criminals has made cyberstalking a common thing in Nigeria.

The Act, which has been amended by the National Assembly following some concerns expressed by some local and international organisations on its infringement on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, was signed into law by President Bola Tinubu on Thursday, February 28, 2024.

Section 24 provides that “Any person who knowingly or intentionally sends a message or other materials through a computer system or network that is grossly offensive, pornographic or of an indecent, obscene or mincing character or causes any such message, matter to be sent or he knows to be false, to cause annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill-will or needless anxiety to another or causes such a message to be sent “is guilty of an offence and upon conviction carries a more significant penalty of N7 million or imprisonment for a term, not more than three years.”

With the world becoming increasingly digital, the threat of cyberstalking has grown exponentially, leaving authorities and legal experts scrambling to keep pace with the evolving nature of this serious violation of privacy.

The rapid increase in cyberstalking cases has raised significant legal implications, prompting stakeholders to reexamine existing laws and policies to ensure adequate protection for victims.

Cyberstalking has become rampant in Nigeria as some people for whatever reasons are making use of the internet and other technologies to harass, threaten and defame other people online.

This online harassment can be in the form of emails, text messages, social media posts and it could be persistent especially when it has to do with defamation of character and false accusation.

Usually, the content directed at the target is often inappropriate and sometimes even disturbing, which could leave the person feeling fearful, distressed, anxious and worried because it involves blackmail.

The perpetrators sometimes comment on or like everything the targeted individual posts online. They also create fake accounts to follow the target on social media, sending messages repeatedly and in extreme cases hacking into the target’s online accounts and sometimes attempting to extort sex.

According to the chief executive officer of GreyHub Therapeutic Centre, Dr Olusola Olowookere, cyberstalking, known as ‘online stalking or cyberbullying’, refers to the repeated use of electronic communication to harass or threaten an individual, causing fear or emotional distress.

Olowookere told LEADERSHIP Sunday that in Nigeria, a survey conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) found that 37 per cent of internet users have experienced some form of online harassment or cyberbullying.

Olowookere listed common types of cyberstalking in Nigeria as harassment through social media, email or messaging platforms as well as impersonation and spreading false information.

“According to a study by the Centre for Cyber Awareness and Development, approximately 20 per cent of Nigerian youths have been victims of cyberstalking or online harassment,” he revealed.

In recent times, many Nigerians have begun to explore the provisions of the Cybercrime Act to seek redress against online criminal defamation and bullying.

On August 2, 2023, Justice Nicholas Oweibo jailed a lady, Okoye Blessing Nwakaego for three years for the social media bullying of a famous Nollywood actress, Eniola Badmus.

Nwakaego was convicted for causing the transmission of a communication via Tiktok, gossip millTV, Remedy Blog and other social media networks with her mobile line number. This communication was found to be grossly offensive and false for causing injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, and needless anxiety to Eniola Badmus.

Also on November 7, 2023, Justice Nathaniel Ayo-Emmanuel of the Federal High Court sitting in Osogbo, Osun State, jailed six men for cyber-stalking and defrauding former speaker of Osun State House of Assembly, Timothy Owoeye, of the sum of N38 million.

The convicts, Kazeem Agbabiaka, Rasheed Ojonla, Babatunde Oluajo, Adebiyi Kehinde, Femi Oseni and Oyebanji Oyeniyi were arraigned before the court on October 19, 2018, on five counts bordering on conspiracy, advance-fee fraud and cyber-stalking.

In his judgment, Justice Ayo-Emmanuel said the convicts operated like a web of syndicates, subjecting their victims to hardship and deserved no leniency.

However, the police have been accused of using section 24 of the Cybercrime Act to harass and intimidate journalists. For example, on August 22, 2019, a journalist, Agba Jalingo, was arrested in Lagos by police officers over allegations that he had committed offences under the Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention, etc.) Act of 2015, the Terrorism (Prevention Amendment) Act of 2013, and the Criminal Code Act.

Also in May 2021, Sunday Odeh, a state house correspondent of People’s Daily, an Abuja-based newspaper, was arrested by officers of the Nigeria Police Force allegedly on the orders of the Benue State Government. Odeh’s offence was his Facebook criticism of ex-governor Samuel Ortom over how he handled a communal conflict in the state.

The situation has degenerated to the level where social media critics and journalists are arrested and detained anytime they publish anything considered offensive to top government officials and public figures.

Just like every law, the Cybercrime Act has its positive and negative sides. Lawyers, journalists and civil society groups have called on the federal government to either drop or repeal the law or amend it to erase the fears and concerns expressed by the public.

In a recent statement he issued in Lagos, human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN) called for the discontinuance of all pending cases filed on Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act 2015, adding that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court, had declared Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act 2015 illegal.

Falana also said that the ECOWAS Court had also directed the federal government to amend the section to conform with the rights of Nigerians to freedom of expression.

The lawyer also insisted that it has become illegal to arrest journalists for cyberstalking, insulting, causing annoyance, offensive messages and criminal intimidation.

Speaking to our correspondent on the implications of cyberstalking and the remedies to them, a renowned ICT expert, Hanniel Jafaru said “Cyberstalking is a serious matter and should be so treated according to the Cybercrime Act.”

Reacting to the low level of awareness of the Cybercrime Act as it relates to cyberstalking, the expert said “the truth is that most persons are not aware that cyberstalking has been criminalised by the act, so there is need for enlightenment.”

He noted that the police have the duty to enforce the law which falls under the National Cybercrime Centre, an agency under the Police, which is headed by a commissioner of police, Henry Uche.

According to the expert, the government should develop programmes that resonate with the youth for them to be aware that cyberstalking is a criminal act.

A consultant in the cybercrime sector, Sadiq Nasir, told LEADERSHIP Sunday that cyberstalking is a contemporary problem that requires dynamic and modern solutions even as he called on the Nigerian government to set up precise regulatory instruments to tackle this issue.

He added that cyberstalking is a very complex and dynamic problem, stressing that there should be more awareness about it.

“If more people are aware of it, it will lead to a decline in the act. I feel some people who commit this crime have no idea what they are doing; it’s essential to bring this to their attention and let them understand the consequences of such behaviour.

“We also need to have the same conversation with our indigenous movie industries. The more movies this and its effect, the more awareness is created.

“The awareness must be spread on multiple platforms such as social media, radio, TV and posters. It should not be done in English alone; it should be done in the most popular languages in Nigeria such as broken English, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba,” he said.

 

 Impact on Victims

Meanwhile, Olowookere, who is also a consultant psychiatrist posited that victims of cyberstalking in Nigeria often experience psychological distress, including anxiety, depression, and feelings of helpless states.

Research conducted by the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA) revealed that cyberstalking could lead to social isolation and hinder victims’ ability to participate in online activities.

“Victims often experience heightened anxiety and fear due to the constant surveillance and invasion of privacy. The persistent harassment and feeling of being constantly watched can lead to feelings of helplessness and depression. They may become paranoid and lose trust in others, including friends and family, as they may not know who the stalker is or who they can confide in.

 

“Also, victims may withdraw from social activities and isolate themselves to avoid further harassment. The ongoing trauma of cyberstalking can lead to symptoms similar to PTSD, including flashbacks, nightmares, and hypervigilance. Victims may experience physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, and gastrointestinal problems due to the stress of being cyberstalked.

 

“Cyberstalking can strain relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners, as victims may feel ashamed or embarrassed to discuss their experiences or may inadvertently involve loved ones in the harassment. Victims may have difficulty focusing on work or school due to the constant distraction and stress caused by cyberstalking, leading to decreased productivity and performance. Overall, cyberstalking can have profound and long-lasting psychological effects on its victims, often requiring professional support and intervention to cope and recover,” he stated.

 

 

 

Prevention And Protection

 

While Nigeria’s Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act, 2015, criminalises cyberstalking and provides penalties for offenders, including fines and imprisonment, Olowookere lamented that enforcement of these laws remains a challenge due to limited awareness and resources.

 

Olowookere therefore called on Nigerians to protect themselves online by being cautious about sharing personal information, using privacy settings on social media platforms and reporting cyberstalking incidents to relevant authorities.

 

He maintained that organisations like the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) provide resources and support for victims of cyberstalking, including helplines and legal assistance and urged victims to utilise those platforms when bullied.

 

The psychiatrist averred that societal factors such as gender inequality and lack of digital literacy contribute to the prevalence of cyberstalking in Nigeria, while advocating for initiatives aimed at promoting gender equality and providing access to digital skills training to mitigate the risk of cyberstalking.

 

“No doubt, cyberstalking poses a significant threat to individuals’ safety and well-being in Nigeria. By raising awareness, strengthening enforcement of cybercrime laws, and empowering individuals with digital literacy skills, we can create a safer online environment for all Nigerians.

 

“Nigerians should educate themselves about cyberstalking, support victims, and advocate for policies that address online harassment in Nigeria,” he added.

 

A cybersecurity expert and lecturer at the University of Lagos, Dr Ifeoma Adibe-Chukwuka, emphasised the importance of digital literacy in preventing cyberstalking, adding that “Education and awareness are key to empowering individuals to recognise and respond to cyberstalking threats.”

 

 

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