Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Forensic analysis confirms Nigerian govt, telcos attacked Peoples Gazette website

Qurium’s conclusions said mobile operators deliberately implemented the restriction of access to the website of the Abuja-based digital outlet.

• February 2, 2021
Peoples Gazette Logo and Buhari
PG Logo and Buhari

A forensic analysis by Qurium has confirmed the blocking of the Peoples Gazette’s website by mobile network operators in Nigeria.

The Sweden-based foundation began its findings after reports on January 26 that the online newspaper’s website was inaccessible via the Internet service providers within Nigeria.

The team of cybersecurity experts began gathering information and collating records of traffic inflow from network providers, including MTN and Airtel.

Qurium’s conclusions said mobile operators deliberately implemented the restriction of access to the website of the Abuja-based digital outlet.

“Some operators have blocked the DNS resolution of the website while others such as Airtel, are using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to stop the traffic to the website once the website name is sent in the SSL negotiation (Hello Client),” Tord Lundström, Technical Director of Qurium, and head of the forensics team, said.

The analysis revealed that, starting on January 26, communication ceased after the website’s name popped up in the “Client Hello” message when mobile browsers swapped information with the IP address in Cloudflare’s distribution network.

According to the forensic report, the provider would exchange the first set of data that establishes the session with the webserver but no other information was exchanged beyond that point.

Readers trying to access the paper’s content would then receive different error messages depending on the web browser used and the form of blocking employed.

MTN office used to illustrate the story.
MTN office used to illustrate the story.

The Gazette’s readers complained of receiving error messages such as “ERR_CONNECTION_CLOSED, ERR_NAME_NOT_RESOLVED, and DNS_PROBE_FINISHED_NXDOMAIN.”

To confirm that peoplesgazette.com was deliberately restricted, the newspaper moved its contents to a separate domain, gazettengr.com, where the website went live and became accessible again to readers, Qurium found.

Qurium also deployed a mirror website to prevent future disruption of access to the Gazette’s journalism.

“The forensic audit has now fully confirmed what has been apparent from the night of the restriction: the Nigerian government, coercing pliant telecom firms, blocked our website to prevent citizens from accessing our factual, courageous journalism,” the Gazette’s Managing Editor Samuel Ogundipe said shortly after the report was published. “We appreciate the tremendous sacrifice of the Qurium team that came up with a detailed, evidence-based report in such a short time.”

The report was released as widespread condemnations intensified over the President Muhammadu Buhari regime-sponsored restrictions on the Gazette’s website.

Several rights group, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Global Rights, Amnesty International, Paradigm Initiatives and the Reporters without Borders, strongly condemned the restriction as repressive and undemocratic. Gatefield and the Nigerian Union of Journalists also condemned the attack, as well as former Nigerian Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, who called for the restriction to be lifted and for Mr. Buhari to respect press freedom as a critical pillar of a democratic society.

At issue was an October 2020 story that cast a spotlight on Bolaji Gambari as the new head of a budding cabal of administration associates inside the Presidential Villa. The newspaper also detailed the exit of Farouk Gumel, another Aso Rock policy adviser and an influential part of the cabal that held sway under Abba Kyari.

The Gazette, which launched in September 2020, came under severe security pressure shortly after the story was published and received financial offers to pull down the story. But the harassments were rebuffed since the Gazette does not entertain discussion about deleting an already published story.

At no time did the president’s chief of staff Ibrahim Gambari and other officials who called in to express displeasure about the report indicate any interest in refuting any elements of the story.

Although our story was about his son, Bolaji, Mr. Gambari, a retired diplomat with steep imprints at the United Nations, felt that our report exposed him as being too fragile and lacking the necessary rigour to function as the chief of staff, a role that is central to administrative exertions and policymaking in the Nigerian presidential system.

MTN, Airtel and other telecom firms declined comments to the Gazette on the record over the restriction, but some of their officials confirmed to the Gazette on the background that the restriction was ordered by the Nigerian government and no court order was produced to justify the action.

Presidential spokesman Femi Adesina denied the government targeted the Gazette’s website during a television appearance on Monday, claiming without evidence that the investigative newspaper published lies against him and other administration officials.

Despite his repeated claims to stay loyal to democratic tenets, Mr. Buhari has remained moored to his crude disregard for fundamental rights of Nigerians. In the 1980s when he first deposed a democratically-elected administration in a military coup, Mr. Buhari implemented multiple policies to targeted journalists and rights activists.

Still desperate to shield himself from accountability even as a democratically-elected president since 2015, Mr. Buhari has wantonly detained journalists and activists for exposing corruption and abuse of power that have characterised his government.

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