Nigeria’s largest telecommunications network MTN has confirmed blocking its subscribers from accessing Peoples Gazette’s website, saying it was based on written directives from the Buhari administration.
“Please be advised that the network access restriction for https://peoplesgazette.com is pursuant to the directives of the Nigerian Communications Commission (“Commission”) dated 26 January 2021,” the company’s legal advisers said in a letter to The Gazette’s lawyers this week. “As a responsible corporate organization, MTN complied with the said directive in line with both the provisions of section 146 of the Nigeria Communications Act, 2003 and the applicable terms and conditions of MTNN’s operating licenses.”
The telecom giant expressed its sympathies and urged the digital newspaper’s management to keep pressure on the regime to issue a counter directive for the restrictions to be lifted.
“While MTNN empathizes with the owners and management of the Peoples Gazette, it would be unable to unilaterally reverse or lift the restriction except by the directives of the Commission,” the December 1 letter said. “MTNN therefore advise that the management of the Peoples Gazette should engage with the Commission for a resolution of this issue and issuance of the directives to reverse the restriction.”
The admission to The Gazette’s attorneys Inibehe Effiong Chambers in Lagos came 10 months after the paper’s website was tethered from millions of its primary audience in Nigeria. Managing Editor Samuel Ogundipe announced the restrictions on January 27, 2021, saying it began the previous evening on January 26. The MTN management’s confirmation that the directive to block The Gazette’s website came on January 26 indicates prompt compliance with the NCC; without recourse to a fair hearing to the newspaper.
It is also consistent with the conclusion of experts at the Swedish-based Qurium Foundation, whose forensic analysis had confirmed in February that The Gazette’s website was blocked by Nigerian telecom operators.
“This confirmation of NCC’s arbitrary directive to telecom firms only marks the latest of several attempts that top elements of the Buhari regime have made to shut down our organisation for simply committing no other offence but journalism,” Mr Ogundipe said while reacting to the news from The Gazette’s lawyers on Friday morning. “We have continued to keep records as different government agencies and enforcers implement devious plots, including military surveillance and smear campaigns, to rid the country of our public-interest journalism and perpetuate their corrupt and oppressive agenda.”
Mr Ogundipe said the NCC’s framework as an industry regulator prohibits it from depriving Nigerians of their fundamental rights to access information, especially when done without any backing of any court of law.
“The NCC under President Muhammadu Buhari conducted its blocking of Peoples Gazette’s website entirely in secret and in the manner consistent with cyber-hackers,” Mr Ogundipe said. “The government has just provided further validation to our journalism of exposing corruption, abuse of power and disregard of constitutional order.”
The Managing Editor welcomed MTN’s decision to own up after several months of enquiries from both The Gazette and other media outlets and rights groups across the world; while also encouraging the remaining three mobile network operators to come clean.
“We expect Airtel, 9mobile and Glo Mobile to follow MTN and admit their role in the restrictions,” he said. “But that won’t stop our lawyers from exploring all legal options of redress in this matter.”
A spokesman for the NCC did not return a request seeking comments about MTN’s disclosures.
The Gazette had earlier in the year reported that its website was blocked following 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. Our report also detailed the exit of Farouk Gumel, another Aso Rock policy adviser and an influential part of the cabal that held sway under the later chief of staff Abba Kyari.
The newspaper came under severe security pressure shortly after the story was published, as well as financial offers for the story to be pulled down. But the harassment was rebuffed in line with the policy of not engaging in any discussions about deleting an already published story.
At no time did the president’s chief of staff and other administration officials who called in to express displeasure about our report indicate any interest in rebutting any elements of it.
But 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 policy making in the Nigerian presidential system. Several government officials, including presidential spokesman Femi Adesina and information minister Lai Mohammed, have similarly expressed their displeasures with The Gazette, while security agencies wrote several letters of threats to our newsroom since we commenced operations on September 25, 2020.
“The chief of staff felt the story exposed him as lazy and his son as a political jobber,” an official said under anonymity earlier this year to avoid being victimised. “He feels that he has a serious name to protect and the report appeared to drive a check on his reputation, especially before the diplomatic and international community.”
The president initially fired a policy adviser Lai Yahaya, falsely accusing him of being the central source of our report.
Subsequently, on January 26, our website was rendered inaccessible to a majority of Internet users in Nigeria, after mobile network providers implemented the government’s directive. Only Nigerians with technical knowledge of how to deploy Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) can successfully open the website.
Until MTN’s admission this week, the networks declined for months to speak on the record as to why they complied with the government’s orders in violation of Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution.
Rights groups including Gatefield, Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have condemned the restrictions and demanded a reversal, as well as opposition leader Atiku Abubakar, who termed it as a stark throwback to the dark days of military fascism in Nigeria.