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Atom Lim: National security for Eggheads

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Atom Lim: National security for Eggheads

by Atom Lim

How exactly does taking photos of a public facility constitute a threat to National Security in this age?

This is a question frequently asked by Nigerians who are honestly unaware of our country’s position on photography in public places and how this relates to security in general and National Security in particular

At a time when Nigeria is dealing with serious issues of terrorism, this often overlooked piece of information is important to citizens as Seun ‘Egghead’ Odewale learnt yesterday.

The news broke on Twitter by midday that Mr. Odewale, popularly known as Egghead on Nigeria’s online social forums, had been arrested in Katsina State for taking photographs of a public facility. Reactions to the story were mixed and highlighted the public’s ignorance of laws relating to public photography in Nigeria.

To be fair, Nigerian laws are very complex and strange. They are made and stored away in the archives of some government building. Citizens and state officials pick only the ones that are relevant to them at a given time. Everything else is kept away, to be used when convenient or to be produced when there is an intellectual discourse. Indeed, most Nigerian laws are either unknown or forgotten even by those who drew them.

So, do we have laws relating to photography?

I searched Google and found a casual mention of photography in the Official Secrets Act of 1962. This law allows the President of Nigeria to, “during any period of emergency” prohibit the photography of anything designed for defence purposes without his written permission.  The law is pretty clear about the circumstances under which it is illegal to take a photograph and such circumstances include a period of emergency and the design of defence. I shall return to this point shortly.

Indeed, if there are any other Nigerian laws relating to photography, they are hidden and I am hoping the legal ones among us will help us sort the heap of laws in our archives and see if such photography laws exist. And if they don’t, now is the time to have that conversation for obvious reasons.

For years, stories of citizens being harassed for taking photographs have been reported without any proper commentary on or investigation of this abuse. There seems to be an understanding that a law is being broken when a photographer takes shots of some public places. Whether it is a road, school, hospital or office building one intends to photograph, there is palpable tension in doing so. No one is sure why.

In this ambiguity, security agents have taken the liberty to make and interpret laws on photography. You cannot take photos of any government building. You cannot take photos of Oga especially if they will embarrass him or his office. You are a threat to national security if you photograph Madam’s fleet of cars.

“Who asked you to snap that? Who are you?” are common questions security agents ask before they break the photographer’s camera.

And they are not the only ones. Go to any neighbourhood and take a photo; the youth there will show you how hot a slap can be.

Clearly, photography is a threat to security in Nigeria despite the ignorance of the legal issues surrounding it. It is in this belief that Presidential spokesperson, Reuben Abati, did a lazy job of defending Egghead’s arrest and effectively called his action a national security threat.

I am confident Mr. Abati does not know what the law says about public photography in Nigeria. Neither did the officers who arrested Egghead and his associate. What they, however, know is that the north is volatile at the moment and ANY suspicious action should be met with swift arrest even if the citizen might be well within his rights.

Sadly, this is what insecurity in Nigeria has made the lot of us become so I have no issue with “the police doing their job” as Mr. Abati said. What I find disturbing is his eagerness to tie that action in Katsina to national security. How? Why? Even the Official Secrets Act, which is perhaps our biggest body of laws on espionage, does not see the snapping of a windmill as a threat to national security.

It’s hard to tell what Mr. Abati knows about national security and what threatens it. What his body language shows is that this government is on the edge. Citizens can be branded anything in this war on terror. And if you are a photographer or photo-journalist in the north, God help you.

Atom Lim is a commentator and development worker. In his former life, Atom practiced journalism and frequently blogged for leading media organisations. He is also a recovering corrupt Nigerian, having participated in a few rackets. He regularly expresses his views on twitter with the handle: @atomlim

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