On May 12, 2019, Nigerians were bombarded with a sensational headline and audio recording from Sahara Reporters purporting that the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, and some Senior Management were discussing how to cover up purported N500 billion they stole from the Bank.
Yet, since this “news” broke, the internet has been lit with commentaries from every part of the world. The Central Bank quickly issued a press release explaining the conversation as nothing more than an attempt to resolve a misunderstanding with external auditors on the classification of a particular asset on the CBN’s Balance Sheet. My verdict at this moment is that any unbiased and objective person who listens carefully to the audio would come away agreeing largely with the CBN’s explanation, rather than the malicious innuendos and vicious half-truths characterised by Sahara Reporters. Besides the fact that the audio recording does not present any evidence of any illegal act being conducted by senior officials of the CBN, it raises serious legal and ethical implications on the use of wiretaps in Nigeria. Do we have rules under which phones of not just senior government officials, but other Nigerian citizens can be wiretapped? How are the rules defined? Who determines when a phone line of a Nigerian citizen has met the threshold under which their phone can be wiretapped? And can wiretaps be applied at discretion by security agencies without any recourse to the law? Is there a log to show who utilized the wiretap system at a particular point in time in order to identify illegal users of the system? Finally if wiretaps are illegally obtained, shouldn’t journalists or media outlets have an ethical responsibility to avoid using such tools considering the means by which they were acquired? Could such tools be used to blackmail senior government officials and citizens? Because by their very own act in publishing illegal materials, a journalist may be aiding and abetting the conduct of illegal activities.
Wiretaps may be justified when there is an imminent threat to national security or when sufficient evidence is presented to show that a wiretap is required in order to prevent or to investigate particular criminal activities. In the case of the conversations involving senior officials of the CBN, if the wiretaps were obtained legally and a case was to be made against officials of the CBN, the audio should have been presented to the security agencies, rather than to a media outlet. The transfer of the audio conversation to an outside party is clearly a violation of the law and the perpetrators of this act should be brought to book. If such acts go unpunished, it will undermine the confidence of Nigerians in relying on the telecommunication infrastructure in the country, if their conversations can be shared for no justified reason with media outlets. In the new age of advanced technology, it will encourage the use of other mediums of communication such as Skype and WhatsApp, which will ultimately lead to a drop in voice revenue for telecom firms.
These questions are critical because every Nigerian deserves the right to privacy of their conversations. Privacy is even more important for those who hold sensitive government positions. What other conversations of senior government officials do they have? How long ago have they been listening to the conversations? What could they have done with other sensitive conversations the Governor may have had with Senior Management of the Bank, International Organisations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund or with the global managers of Nigeria’s Foreign Exchange Reserves? How about conversations with the National Security of Adviser, the Minister of Finance, the Vice-President, or even the President himself? Nigerians deserve to know how Sahara Reporters got this audio tape, how they confirmed it before going public with it. And in this, the security operatives who must be charged with investigating this leak should not take “we got it from an anonymous source” for an answer. They need to dig deep and ensure that they get to the truth of this matter. It appears that the release of the audio was only done to embarrass the Governor in light of his recent nomination by President Buhari for a second five-year term. And in this, the perpetrators of this leak may have succeeded in causing anxiety and embarrassment to the Governor and his Senior Management. Yet, one of the dangers of such leaks is that it deflects the attention of the Governor from focusing on his mandate of price and exchange rate stability and growing the economy for the benefit of ordinary Nigerians. To the extent that the conversations of the Governor revealed nothing illegal, though embarrassing as many private conversations are prone to do, all that the leak has done is to shortchange Nigerians and their economic problems from getting the full attention of the Governor and his team for some days. It therefore seems to me that Sahara Reporters have once again engaged in irresponsible journalism. Judging from the reactions on the internet, the Governor seems to have quite a handful of powerful enemies. It appears they are all trying to milk this story to the fullest possible extent. Yet, one wonder what they themselves say in private or what could be revealed when their own private conversations are leaked. As deduced from a well-known story in one of our Holy Books, a much wiser man challenged the accusers of another with these words: “he who has no sin, let him cast the first stone”! We all remember how many stones were cast, afterwards.
Olayemi writes from Ondo in Ondo State.