Six students and a lecturer at the privately-owned Madonna University in Okija, Anambra State, who were arrested and detained since February 2019 for alleged cybercrimes, were on July 3, 2019 released on bail by a Federal High Court sitting in Awka, the State capital, and presided over by Justice Babatunde Quadri.
The students and lecturer were arrest and detained following a petition by the management of the university to the Inspector-General of Police complaining that they tarnished the reputation of the institution on the Internet.
One of the Facebook posts for which they were arrested and detained read: “Good lecturers are scarce. Madonna University administration should be nice to our lecturers, or a good number of them will resign.”
They were slammed with an 11-count charge with the Prosecutor, Mr. A.N. Obo, saying the false publications on social media were injurious to the image of the proprietor and the institution. He added that the alleged offences were punishable under Sections 24 (1) (b) and 27 (1) (b) of the Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act, 2015.
Section 24 (1)(b) says: “Any person who knowingly or intentionally sends a message or other matter by means of computer systems or network that he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing 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 commits an offence under this Act and shall be liable on conviction to a fine of not more than N7,000,000.00 or imprisonment for a term of not more than 3 years or to both such fine and imprisonment.”
Section 27 (1)(b) says “Any person who aids, abets, conspires, counsels or procures another person(s) to commit any offence under this Act commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to the punishment provided for the principal offence under this Act.”
When the counsel to the students and lecturer, C. O. Igwe, applied for them to be granted bail, the prosecution counsel, J. N. Oboh did not object but agreed, he however insisted that they should sign an undertaking to be of good behavior.
The judge thereafter gave the lawyers to the students and lecturer two months to perfect their bail conditions in view of the fact that the courts would go on vacation from July 8, 2019. The matter was adjourned to October 7, 2019 for hearing.
Reacting to the development, the Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Mr. Edetaen Ojo, said: “While we are pleased that the students and lecturer have now been granted bail by the court after four months of unjustifiable detention, we are astounded that the resources and powers of the State have been so blatantly misused to abuse the internationally and constitutionally protected right of citizens to freedom of expression in a supposedly democratic society like ours in order to advance a patently illegitimate purpose. It is clear from the actions of the University and its management that their aim in instigating the arrest, detention and prosecution of the students and the lecturer was to suppress any criticism of the institution and its management and to punish the students and lecturer for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression.”
He argued that it should not be the responsibility of the State or the Police to use criminal law to protect the image of a privately owned university or its proprietor.
According to him, “This is a matter in which the police should never have been involved, if indeed all the management of the institution was concerned about was to vindicate its reputation which was alleged to have been tarnished. Its remedy lies in a civil action for defamation. Detaining and possibly ultimately jailing the students and lecturer cannot in anyway preserve the reputation of the institution, if it actually has any reputation to protect.
Such highhandedness from the management of a university which claims that its principal objective is to remain in the front-line of centers of learning, teaching and research, and yet, is unable to engage its staff and students in a discussion, should raise serious questions.”
Urging the Police and the government to step back from the matter, Mr. Ojo stressed that: “The principle that the criminalization of defamation is unjustified and constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of expression is now well established by various human rights bodies and affirmed by several regional and international courts and mechanisms, including the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”
He advised the Federal Government that it may ultimately bear responsibility and liability for the actions of the Police, prosecutors and the courts in the matter, as decided by the African Court in the matter of Lohe Issa Konate v. Burkina Faso, in its judgment delivered in Application No. 004/2013, which was delivered on December 5, 2014.