Olumide Babalola, lawyer, Nigeria

Olumide Babalola

Olumide Babalola at the Internet Governance Forum, Paris

Building Nigeria’s legal digital rights community

Olumide Babalola is a Nigerian lawyer with ten years’ post call experience. He works in private practice and takes cases across a range of issues including digital rights, consumer rights and freedom of expression litigation. In September 2018, Mr Babalola attended Media Defence’s West Africa digital rights and freedom of expression surgery, held in Lagos.

Our specialist litigation surgeries focus on enhancing lawyers’ practical skills and knowledge to litigate freedom of expression cases at domestic and regional courts. Olumide Babalola found the training opened up his practice to see beyond each individual case. “Now I see things from a different perspective. You have to bring in experts in the field, even if they are not lawyers, to give you their opinions, to give you materials, with which you can put together and file a formidable case. The training has really helped me to see things from a broader spectrum and as well as to litigate strategically.”

The current state of freedom of expression in Nigeria is variable: “It depends on who is affected at any point in time,” Mr Babalola explains. “If freedom of expression is negatively affecting the government: freedom of expression is then mostly violated, restricted or limited. But where the expression favours the government – even where it violates standards – the government allows it to flow.”

While the more traditional forms of media such as newspapers and television are heavily censored, digital platforms are less censored – mostly because it is harder for authorities to find the source or author. “Unlike broadcast or print media where the government can either withdraw license or ban further broadcast of such programmes.”

There have been a number of attempts by the government to bring digital spaces in-line with the heavily censored print and broadcast media, including people being charged in relation to conversations on the social media, telephone, in text or WhatsApp messages, as well as more public forums such as Twitter or Facebook. “The government has constantly used section 24 of the Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention etc) Act 2015 to clamp down on not just journalists but users of social media. It’s been very, very rampant.”

In the months immediately after the digital rights litigation training, Mr Babalola filed his first case at the regional ECOWAS court – challenging part of Nigeria’s controversial Cybercrimes Act 2015. Regional mechanisms can spur action in cases where domestic progress is slow. “Why are we still trying to fight the law locally? You can take it up notch and take it to the regional court. We can even use the judgment to mount pressure for policy change and legislation review.”

As well as increasing knowledge and awareness or how to use these international mechanisms, Media Defence’s legal capacity building aims to create and strengthen networks among human rights lawyers. Mr Babalola says: “It created an avenue for collaboration, and for partnership as well.” One of those partnerships is already in the works, with another lawyer from the surgery: Solomon Okedara. “I’m so excited about it,” he says. “I have known Solomon for a long time, but professionally we never came together on digital rights. The surgery brought us together and we have formed a partnership for a local network of digital rights lawyers, called the Digital Rights Lawyers Initiative.” They aim to build a database of all the digital rights lawyers in Nigeria, to aid further collaboration. “It’s going to be a formidable body – the go-to body – for anything that has to do with digital rights litigation.”

The two lawyers got the registration for the new organisation approved just two months after attending the training, and their vision is bold: “It’s going to be online platform where lawyers can share ideas. Then periodically we are going to arrange trainings for them on how to litigate digital rights in Nigeria, how to draft processes, to share materials – both locally and internationally – materials on digital rights in various forms … We can all share ideas and experience within ourselves so if there is any case on digital rights we can all come together.”

With the right support and collaboration, the potential impact is huge. Mr Babalola and Mr Okedara’s new initiative aims to promote digital rights throughout Nigeria “because it’s not quite popular yet.” There are a number of lawyers working on individual digital rights cases, but after the litigation training Mr Babalola is keen to share his expanded horizons with the wider legal community. “It’s for us to further create awareness and forge partnership and collaboration between them.”

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