When it was widely reported last year that security agents in the country monitor journalists’ calls most people didn’t take it seriously; however, a recent report by an online medium lends credence to the earlier report and highlights risks journalists face. In this report ELEOJO IDACHABA examines the emerging trend.
Recently, it was widely reported that security agencies have devised a new means of harassing journalists through bugging of their phones. Although this is done discreetly; in recent times, however, revelations about some victims of this sheer intimidation have come to light.
Samuel Ogundipe, Azeezat Adedigba case
A recent report by Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) indicate that a number of journalists have fallen victim of this intimidation carried out in the form of under-cover operation by security agents.
According to the report, in each case police used records of conversation to identify people who have any relationship with a targeted journalist, detained them and forced them to facilitate the arrest of their target.
The committee cited the case of Samuel Ogundipe and Azeezat Adedigba, both reporters of Premium Times, who often shared information with each other on their phones and unknown to them their regular conversations about work and personal life created a record of friendship which the security agents lashed on to.
CPJ noted that on August 9, 2018, Ogundipe published an article about a communication between the former Inspector General of Police (IGP) Ibrahim Idris and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.
According to CPJ, days later, the police issued a written summon but not addressed to Ogundipe neither was there any mention of the article. This was deliberate.
As Ogundipe recounted, the police called his colleague, Adedigba, for questioning in connection with spurious allegations that evaporated after the police used her phone to summon Ogundipe to the station.
According to CPJ, Ogundipe’s experience was one of, at least, three cases since 2017 where police used phone records to lure and arrest journalists.
Investigations has also shown that the method used by the police rubbishes the value of internet-based, encrypted communications especially at a time when authorities have also targeted journalists’ phones and computers to reveal their sources.
Ogundipe and Adedigba later told CPJ that the police made no secret about their strategy as they were shown call records obtained from their network providers.
According to Ogundipe, “The police have been checking who I’ve been talking to in order to see who was close enough to me to be used as bait.”
… Gidado Yushau, Alfred Olufemi too
Also, Gidado Yushau, publisher of The News Digest, an on line medium, and Alfred Olufemi, a freelance reporter, were charged to court in November 2019 for criminal conspiracy and defamation in connection with a report by Olufemi in News Digest about a factory owned by Sarah Alade, former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) but now a special adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari.
The first journalist police used to track down Yushau and Olufemi worked for a different medium and in a different city. Recounting her experience, Lagos-based journalist Wunmi Ashafa told CPJ that the Police tricked her into a meeting and then made her summon Yushau, who in turn was used to facilitate the arrest of The News Digest web developer Adebowale Adekoya.
She said the officers claimed to know they were connected from their call records.
Fejiro Oliver case
CPJ also reported how the police used a similar tactic to arrest Tega Oghenedoro, the Uyo based publisher of Secret Reporters News on line, who writes under the pseudonym of Fejiro Oliver in 2017. He was charged for cybercrime related offence for reporting alleged corruption in a Lagos-based bank.
CPJ’s report indicated that in March 2017, an aide to the Delta state Governor, Isaac Omomedia, arrived at a hotel in Asaba after receiving a call to collect a parcel from DHL. He was, however, met by six police officers who questioned him about one Kpokpogri, who they claimed he was in touch with by reviewing his call records.
On their instructions, Omomedia said he invited Kpokpogri to a meeting and he was arrested by the police on arrival.
Kpokpogri’s accounts of the incident revealed that the police drove him over 200 kilometres to Uyo and told him to summon Oliver. The officers had identified him because they had allegedly bugged their phone.
Kpokpogri said the police subsequently arrested Oliver when he arrived and drove them over 350 kilometres to Benin City. Thereafter, he said Oliver was flown to Lagos while he was released without any charge being brought against him.
Ogundipe forced into hiding
Earlier this month, Ogundipe of Premium Times went into hiding after allegedly receiving several phone calls reportedly from the Department of State Security (DSS) threatening him.
According to him, shortly after the calls his official email was hacked in a bid to identify the source of series of reports published in his medium.
It was no different for Premium Times Editor-in-chief Musikilu Mojeed who also faced intimidation over some reports published by the medium, even as the organisation’s website was subsequently attacked by unknown persons.
The secret police were also alleged have laid siege on the organisation’s premises as well as the editor’s house.
However, spokesperson of the DSS Peter Afunanya had came out with a statement stating that any report linking the service to laying siege and hacking the phones of Premium Times staff and its website was false.
According to him, “It is needless sensationalism and there is no such operation at the moment by the service targeted at Premium Times, its editor or staff.
“If there is any need for DSS to discharge its duties, it sure has to do that with every sense of decency in accordance with laid- down procedures. Right now, the service is not anywhere near the news agency. Therefore, the report should be disregarded; it is fake news.”
Attack on Premium Times site
While the dust was yet to calm on the attack on Premium Times staff, the organisation noticed a web attack on its site.
Blueprint Weekend gathered that between February 28, and March this year, there have been series of attacks on the website of the online medium which were credited to an activity from the Federal University of Technology Akure, one of Nigerian universities noted for Cybercrime Security Studies.
Premium Times in a statement by a senior staff member chronicled the event starting from the secret police intimidation and the period the attack was noticed.
According to the statement, “Starting from February 28, 2020, Qurium has monitored and mitigated several forms of cyber-attacks against Premium Times Nigeria.
“The first attacks aimed to find vulnerabilities in the website. The attacker performed vulnerability scans using Nikto and Acunetix on February 28 and 29. Starting from March 1, the attacker launched Denial of Service attacks aimed at taking the website down.
Continuing it said, “On February 29, it was made public that the Department of State Services (DSS) had launched a manhunt for Samuel Ogundipe, an investigative journalist with the online newspaper Premium Times, over a report on the rift between Chief of Staff to the president, Abba Kyari and National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno.
“On March 1, the newspaper announced that two men suspected to be officials of the State Security Service attempted to breach the home of Premium Times’ editor-in-chief, Musikilu Mojeed, claiming they had a message to deliver to him.”
The statement further stated that, “Proxies hide the attacker’s location include: “184.108.40.206” “28/Feb/2020:17:44:19” “GET” “403” “/ApcCFTKl.j” “403” opinion.premiumtimesng.com” “80”
“220.127.116.11” “28/Feb/2020:12:37:34 +0000” “GET” “/?_test1=c:\x5Cwindows\x5Csystem32\x5Ccmd.exe&_test2=/etc/passwd&_test3=|/bin/sh&_test4=(SELECT%20*%20FROM%20nonexistent)%20–&_test5=>/no/such/file&_test6=<script>alert(1)</script> “403” “www..premiumtimesng.com
“18.104.22.168” 29/Feb/2020:16:56:52 +0000” “GET” “/acunetix-wvs-test-for-some-inexistent-file” “294” “blogs.premiumtimesng.com”
“22.214.171.124” “29/Feb/2020:17:53:47 +0000” “HEAD” “/” “403” “Mozilla/5.00 (Nikto/2.1.5) (Evasions:None) (Test: Port Check)””opinion.premiumtimesng.com” “80”.
It said, “During February 28 and 29, several scans and penetration attempts took place from the network 126.96.36.199/24 that is registered in the name of the Federal University of Technology, Akure, a top ranking university of technology in Nigeria, offering courses in Cyber Security.
It however said, “The network of FUTA is very unstable and often goes offline. This can be seen monitoring the BGP stability of the prefix during time. No public services seem to be hosted in the network.”
It further said, “In order to understand the normal office hours of the university, we graphed all the requests and their time stamps. The university seems to start its activities at 6:00 AM UTC and the traffic is reduced around 17:00-18:00 PM. During the test period, only 15 per cent of the FUTA origin traffic targeting Qurium’s infrastructure takes place between 20:00 PM and midnight. More than 95 per cent of this traffic is from mobile phones.
“The attacker also used the same tools from 9mobile/EMTS mobile network. Using the signature of the tool used by the attacker, it can be seen how the attacker continued the attacks using a mobile connection around 20:20 PM GMT. On March 1, several waves of attacks were launched against the newspapers’ website.”
The statement said the medium confronted FUTA where the attack was said to have emanated from stating, “On March 6, an e-mail was sent to Professor Boniface Kayode Alese of the Department of Computer Science. The same day, Alese confirmed that a ‘male student’ performed the Pen Testing attacks for pleasure and asked for more information about the Denial of Service Attacks.”
The university in its response said, “Our investigation so far confirms that one of our students carried out a Pen Testing but we do not have any evidence yet that he carried out DOS attack. During investigation, the boy told us that he did it just for pleasure.”
Rise up against practice
While reacting to these developments, a blogger Japhet Omojuwa said denial of press freedom is synonymous with official terrorism where the only thing government wants to hear is when their ego is massaged.
“It shows we still have a long way to go because in advance climes, government do not use intimidation against her citizens, rather, there are enabling processes. I urge all Nigerians to rise up against this practice.”
Govt not monitoring calls – Pantami insists
Meanwhile, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, has allayed fears that the government had put machineries in place to monitor calls and social media platforms.
In a statement by his spokesperson Uwa Suleiman, the minister urged Nigerians to disregard the propaganda aimed at creating fear.
“We are at a point in our nation’s history where the focus is on digitalising the economy for the greater good of all. Under the leadership of Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy is mandated to leverage on technology and not engage in acts that would sabotage its mandate.”
On his part, the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC) Director of Public Affairs, Dr Henry Nkemadu, said the commission was not aware that security agents bugged subscribers’ phones.
He, however, noted that in line with the Cyber Crime Act of 2015 if anyone publishes fake news or hate speech such person would be punished in accordance with the law.
He failed to address the issue of right of security agents to bug phones of individuals or organisations as part of investigation as against privacy laws.