In February, this year, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) enunciated a policy which empowers government security agencies to tap citizens’ phone calls, short message services (SMS) and chat messages.The NCC, in the draft regulation, said that it would allow unhindered access to communications. “These regulations shall provide the legal and regulatory framework for the lawful interception of communications in Nigeria and to put into effect the provisions of sections 146 and 147 of the Act (the Nigerian Communications Act),” it said.
There has been apprehension in certain quarters as Nigerians ponder the new policy’s implications for privacy and confidentiality, especially its susceptibility to abuse. Experts insist that such a policy, if needed, should be by legislation rather than by regulation as is presently the case. Given the security situation in the country, such a policy will not be out of place but the worry is that, going by the peculiarities of the Nigerian environment, the policy, if not backed with the appropriate legislation, could be misapplied. Network operators also voiced their own misgivings: they are not fully protected because they could be sued by subscribers for unlawful exposure of their private communications. At a one-day seminar to review the NCC’s draft policy in Lagos recently, participants agreed that “lawful interception is necessary but should be in the mould of the Electronic Privacy Act”.
Any tendency to eavesdrop on a citizen’s conversation or any other form of communication without any legal reason to do so must not be allowed. Security agencies should not be given a blank cheque to monitor citizens’ emails, phone calls and SMS without their knowledge. In other countries – including African countries – this legislation exists in one form or the other with security agencies working within the law. Nigerians have reason to be anxious because of the prevalent culture of impunity in the country whereby those placed in positions of power and authority are the worst violators of the law. What is the guarantee that, without appropriate legislation, the policy will not become a tool in the hands of these same security agencies to witch-hunt perceived enemies of the state?
The media, especially, should rise up against this so-called regulation. Their stake is high in these days of electronic journalism — almost every editorial material is generated and transmitted electronically. Any policy that will protect the citizens from real security threats should be supported by all. But the authorities must also put in place the necessary assurances to assuage the fears of the citizens that their privacy would not be violated. The security agencies must not, in the course of fighting insecurity, end up trampling on the rights of the citizens.