A need for caution on the issue of internet monitoring

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Recently, the Director of Defence Information, Maj-Gen John Enenche, was on Channels TV to discuss what the military has embarked upon as part of its national security duties.

Gen Enenche set off a storm that could come back to hurt the present administration when he said the military was now monitoring social media and the internet for what he called “anti-government” and “anti-security” activities.

That governments, especially on the African continent, are very paranoid and less disturbed by the optics of censoring or attempted censoring of citizens, is lost on just a few people.

In a bid to protect their regimes, they go to absurd, and really embarrassing extents. Take Cameroon earlier this year, and more recently, Togo, as examples.

In these places, access to information was cut at various times when citizens decided to vent their disapproval of their leaders.

For ninety-three days, Cameroon cut access to the internet from its Anglophone regions. The government’s claim was that the internet was being used to spread fake news during protests against discrimination against the English-speaking citizens of the country.

There are current reports of throttling down of the internet in Togo as citizens continue to protest and ask for political reforms.

Many African governments have at one time or the other, curtailed or tried to curtail what their citizens do online.

They either monitor what people are saying on social media, or totally take away their access to the media.

In 2013 Nigeria was widely reported to have awarded a contract of about $40m USD to Israeli elements to provide technology for peeping at what Nigerians were doing on the internet.

Now it is 2017, and the government that ushered that government out of the State House, on a promise of changing how things are done, has been caught up in a controversy of official voyeurism.

But is there indeed a justification behind security agencies listening in on the chatter of individuals on social media and the internet in the name of national security?

If so, how can it be separated from an effort by the government to gag free speech? Therein lies the issues.

The internet and social media have become like a two headed snake, with each having a different brain.

Social media for example has proven itself as a platform for robust discourse and for speaking truth to power.

It has become a platform via which the voice of the electorate is projected without any filter. But we have also seen how social media and the internet have become fertile grounds for radicalisation and advancing Jihadist ideologies.

Many accessories of terror, from Raqqa, down to Maiduguri, were reached, and converted, via the internet and social media.

This reality has led countries like the Israel, the UK and US, neck deep in fighting terror at home and overseas, to setting up units that monitor social media and the internet activities for a long, long time now.

As recently as April 26, The Express in the UK reported that Twitter blocked the UK government from monitoring security related activities on Twitter.

In the US, police and the FBI regularly use activities on social media to intercept crimes, and to investigate.

Nigeria, with Boko Haram, IPOB, and numerous other security challenges, cannot be left out. Nigeria cannot afford to leave its social media and internet flanks open for security exploits.

Criminals have been using the Nigerian internet space to advance their nefarious activities, be it terrorism, kidnapping, or economic sabotage.

So I do not have any issues against the military authorities monitoring security related activities on social media and the internet. The police should follow suit, they need it more.

Where I have an issue is the “anti-government activities” part. This is an inappropriate terminology in a democracy.

What passes as anti-government activity? Members of the opposition using propaganda to try to get ahead? Or citizens speaking out against what they sense to be government inaction?

Those obviously can’t pass for “anti-government activities”. If it is the issue of rumours, misinformation, and fake news which are capable of disturbing public peace, then those are crimes that are already covered by extant laws and can either be handled by the police.

The government’s information apparatus can also get up and do its job by flooding the polity with what it believes is the truth.

Using the military or security agencies to hound and try to change civil narratives will always backfire. It will always hurt such a government.

The freedom of speech of every citizen is protected by the Constitution. Gagging anyone because you don’t like what they say or put on social media is wrong and should be resisted.

The government needs to be careful not to be seen as anti-people. It should address dissent and divergent opinions pragmatically with superior reasoning and argument.

It should not make the mistake of being seen as a coward using jackboots and horsewhips to get ahead.

Henry writes from Abuja and you can follow him on Twitter at @4eyedmonk

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