WhatsApp censorship: SERAP drags FG to court

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The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has instituted a lawsuit against the Federal Government over plans to monitor WhatsApp activities of the citizenry.

It would be recalled that the proposal to monitor phone and internet activities came in the wake of the Supplementary Appropriation Act signed in July 2021, which earmarked N4.87bn for the mandate.

In a statement released by its Deputy Director, Kolawole Oluwadare, dated October 17, SERAP charged the court to “declare illegal and unconstitutional the plan by the administration to track, intercept and monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls, and text messages of Nigerians and other people, as it severely threatens and violates the right to the preservation of privacy.”

The amount was part of the N895.8bn supplementary budget approved by the National Assembly.

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Nonetheless, SERAP, in the suit number FHC/ABJ/CS/1240/2021 filed last Friday at the Federal High Court in Abuja, sought: “an order of perpetual injunction restraining President Buhari and any other authority, persons or group of persons from unlawfully monitoring the WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages of Nigerians and other people.”

The organisation also solicited “a declaration that any monitoring of WhatsApp messages, phone calls, and text messages is oppressive and draconian, as it threatens and violates sections 37 and 39 of Nigerian Constitution 1999 [as amended]; Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; and Articles 17 and 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Nigeria is a state party.

“The plan to monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls, and text messages is an arbitrary interference by the administration into respect for family and private life, the home, and correspondence. It also fails to meet the requirements of legality, necessity, and proportionality.

“Any spending of public funds should stay within the limits of constitutional responsibilities, and oath of office by public officers, as well as comply with Chapter 2 of the Nigerian Constitution relating to fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy.

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“Section 37 of the Nigerian Constitution and Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provide for the right to freedom from arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy and correspondence, communications and private data.”

“Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution and Article 19 of the Covenant also guarantee the right of everyone to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers and through any media.

“Interference with privacy through targeted surveillance is designed to repress the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Surveillance of journalists, activists, opposition figures, critics, and others simply exercising their right to freedom of expression – would lead to violations of other human rights.”

The suit further berated the Buhari administration for its “arbitrary interference and violations of human rights. Monitoring of WhatsApp messages, phone calls, and text messages would grant free rein to government agencies to conduct mass surveillance of communications of people.

“The mere threat of mass surveillance, even when secret, coupled with the lack of remedy, can constitute an interference with human rights, including the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.”

Joined in the suit as Respondents are Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation; and Mrs Zainab Ahmed, Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning.

No date has been fixed for hearing of the suit.