Thursday, June 13, 2024

I didn’t authorise Buhari regime’s cyberattack against Peoples Gazette, AGF Malami tells court

The attorney-general accused the digital outlet of exaggerating his influence over matters concerning federal ministries, departments and agencies.

• May 3, 2023
Peoples Gazette and Abubakar Malami
Peoples Gazette and Abubakar Malami

Attorney-General Abubakar Malami has filed a motion in court to extricate himself of any involvement in the tethering of Peoples Gazette’s website by the Buhari regime.

Mr Malami said he was not carried along in the attack on the paper’s website, which began on January 26, 2021, barely four months after the paper commenced publication and rapidly grew in popularity and reach. The action elicited widespread controversy and fuelled condemnation of the regime’s ruthlessness against independent media in Nigeria. 

Mr Malami, in court filings as part of The Gazette’s lawsuit over the restrictions, said he “was not even aware of the circumstances leading” to the attack. 

The attorney-general said The Gazette was “misinformed on the powers and functions” of his office and its supervision over sprawling federal establishments, according to his January 5, 2023, affidavit seeking dismissal of the case marked FHC/ABJ/CS/572/2022 before Justice Obiora Egwuatu of the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court. 

Mr Malami urged the court to excuse him from the case because the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) was responsible for blocking The Gazette’s website and should have the power to defend itself in the matter. 

“In the light of the totality of the above submissions made up and authorities cited, we urge the Honorable Court to dismiss the suit in its entirety as it relates to” the attorney-general “or in the alternative strike out the name” of the attorney-general from the suit, Maimuna Lami Shiru, director of civil litigation and public law at the attorney-general’s office, said in the submission. 

Nonetheless, Mr Malami said the NCC has powers to take measures against a media organisation, including blocking websites. The NCC had argued that it took its action in the interest of national security, although it failed to state the story published by The Gazette that threatened national security or extant contravened national security laws. 

The Gazette’s readers suddenly inundated the paper with reports that they could not access the paper’s website between the evening of January 26 and the morning of January 27, 2021. Days later, a forensic analysis conducted by Swedish experts at Qurium confirmed the attack was coordinated by Nigerian authorities. 

Months later, telecom giants MTN and 9Mobile both confirmed in writing that they were asked to block access to The Gazette by the Buhari regime, acting under the regulator NCC. 

Shortly after the attack was first detected, The Gazette was informed by government sources that the blocking was a fallout of a story about the growing influence of the son of Ibrahim Gambari, President Muhammadu Buhari’s chief of staff. Mr Gambari had previously called The Gazette shortly after the story was published in October 2020 to demand its deletion from the website in order to protect himself and his son, Bolaji. 

After the paper declined to take down the story, since its accuracy was not challenged by the Gambaris, the chief of staff subsequently became enraged and embarked on a plot to oust the source of the story. Weeks later, the administration wrongly identified Lai Yahaya, an energy policy adviser to the president, as the source of the story and fired him.  

The Gazette’s website was blocked shortly afterwards, with two administration officials saying the action was taken because the chief of staff wanted to send a strong warning to other media outlets.

The Gazette’s lawsuit is expected to drag beyond Mr Buhari’s regime, which ends on May 29, 2023. It was not immediately clear how the incoming Bola Tinubu administration would pursue the matter, which was adjourned till June 13, 2023, for further hearing.

Mr Malami, in his argument that was later echoed by the NCC, MTN, 9Mobile and Airtel in their separate submissions before the court, falsely claimed that The Gazette did not register as an entity under Nigeria’s Corporate Affairs Commission. The paper’s lawyers have since filed evidence of its corporate status in Nigeria.  

“Our expectation was that the agencies would show the court a single story published by our organisation that drifted outside the Nigerian Constitution,” Deputy Managing Editor Boladale Adekoya said about the filings of Mr Malami and other defendants in the lawsuit. “Their failure to come forward with even an infraction plainly informed their resort to desperate tactics — and underscores how our paper has been rigorous and lawful in pursuit of its courageous journalism.”

The government and the telcos were asked to rescind the restrictions and settle damages in the lawsuit brought by The Gazette’s legal team, led by Lagos-based rights attorney Inibehe Effiong. 

Since the attack in 2021, readers have continued to express daily difficulties in opening The Gazette’s website from Nigeria, while other readers within the country have been relying on Wi-Fi connection and virtual private networks (VPNs) to access its content.

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