The Lesson from London

After 168 years of publication, the highest selling newspaper in English language, ‘News of The World’, wrote its own obituary last Sunday with a ‘Thank You & Goodbye’ edition that happened to be its last. The painful lesson from the events that led to that tragic end for the newspaper is that journalism and journalists cannot live by a code of ethics different from the ones they demand of others. And the profession is not, and should never be, a licence to break the law.

Hacking into the telephone lines of people definitely crosses the line of decency and is both criminal and unconscionable. While Andy Coulson, former editor of the newspaper who was recently forced to resign as spokesman to Prime Minister David Cameron, is likely to face prosecution along with others over the issue, there may also be political consequences given the way Labour Party has latched on to the scandal to reposition itself. Just yesterday, Cameron appointed a judge to open a judicial inquiry aside the police investigation that is currently going on. Mr Rupert Mudorch, the most powerful media owner in the world, has also been forced to withdraw his bid for BSKYB which was already a done deal. There is a lesson that Nigeria must learn from what is going on in the UK.

In the course of the April 2007 gubernatorial election tribunal case between Rauf Aregbesola of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and Olagunsoye Oyinlola of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the petitioner came out with phone logs containing conversation allegedly held between the defendant’s lawyer and a judge. And just recently, in the case between Segun Oni of PDP and Kayode Fayemi of ACN, also on the 2007 election fiasco, the former came out with phone logs of alleged conversation between ACN strongman, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and Court of Appeal President, Justice Ayo Salami. Unfortunately, perhaps for political reasons, nobody saw any danger in all that shenanigans.

Now the pertinent questions: if we assume (and this is just an assumption) that the logs were indeed genuine, how did the petitioners come about them when in law phone companies can only release such to security agencies and only in exceptional circumstances? Could we then assume that in the two instances, the mobile lines of the affected persons were hacked into? Or did someone simply pay some corrupt staff of the affected mobile networks to get those logs? Whatever happened, if phone logs could be easily secured (or more appropriately, procured) by any unscrupulous politician, what kind of security system are we then operating in our country?

I feel sad to read that the office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) which should ordinarily investigate how Justice Salami’s alleged phone logs were obtained, is giving evidence on their validity. I feel more worried to learn during the week that our mobile networks are so unprofessional that even governors now demand call logs, and perhaps also voice and text data, apparently of their political opponents!

Whatever the political motivation for the nonsense going on, there is a bigger issue of national security which is being obscured here: the moment we open ourselves to a situation in which phone logs and other data which should ordinarily be confidential could easily fall into wrong hands, then we are no better than a banana republic. It also means that serious potential investors will be wary of operating on our shores. The sense of outrage that we have seen in the United Kingdom in the last one week shows quite clearly how serious issues of intrusion into privacy of this nature are.

Without prejudice to whatever investigation the National Judicial Council (NJC) may be conducting into the allegations against Justice Salami, I believe it is much more important for us to get to the root of how politicians now have access to the call logs of their opponents. In a nation where virtually all the citizens, from the president to the neighbourhood vulcanizer, now depend on mobile telephone operators (mostly foreign owned), this is not an issue we can afford to take lightly. The office of the NSA should investigate not only whether some call logs are genuine but also how they were obtained. And culprits should be made to face criminal prosecution if only to serve as deterrence to others that such infraction is not an acceptable behaviour in our country.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 14th July, 2011

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