By Emmanuel Udom
With agency reports
It was a bad outing for the social media bill on Monday, March 9 in Abuja, as the media reported that representatives of civil society groups, government and private institutions, and the media, asked the Senate to drop further consideration of the anti-social media bill, in the interest of Nigerians.
Only three out of the 62 individuals, institutions and groups, who submitted memorandum, spoke at the public hearing organised by the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, supported the proposed legislation.
Those who opposed the bill argued that it violated the fundamental human rights of Nigerians and contravenes the existing international statutes to which Nigeria was a signatory.
They also insisted that there were sufficient legislation which had already taken care of protection from falsehood and manipulations.
The antagonists of the proposed legislation, sponsored by Senator Sani Musa, said the ambiguity of the bill would result to lack of citizen’s trust and confidence in governance.
They also noted with great concern that the similar law in Singapore where the bill was plagiarized, was being used by the government there to target critics and political enemies.
They were unanimous in their submissions that the emergence of social media had contributed greatly in expanding frontiers for good governance.
They said citizens reporting on government abuses had embolden citizens to hold government and their agencies accountable.
Those against the anti-social media legislation further argued that the bill would stifle the rights of freedom of expression as citizens would be too scared to speak up and hold the government accountable for their actions.
Shortly after the public hearing was declared open by the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, Nigerians, who spoke at the hearing, kicked against the bill, on the grounds that it did not represent the interest of Nigerians.
Those who spoke against the bill included: the head of Civil Society Organisation Situation Room, Clement Nwankwo, the National President of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Christopher Isiguzo and the Executive Vice-Chairman of the Nigerian Communication Commission, Umar Dambata.
They also included the Chairman of the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria, Saad Ibrahim and the Chairman of DAAR Communication, Raymond Dokpesi Jr.
Publisher of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, the Amnesty International and the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre and the Socio-Economics Rights and Accountability Project, among others, also called for its rejection.
The Executive Director, YIAGA Africa, Samson Itodo, said, “The 9th Senate is therefore urged to take historical note of how previous sessions of the National Assembly had sided with the people and resisted executive overbearing and repression.
“YIAGA Africa is of the firm view that the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill (Social Media Bill) is not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.
“Even though the government’s purpose may be legitimate and substantial, that purpose cannot be pursued by means that broadly stifle fundamental personal liberties.
“We strongly believe that the bill contravenes extant laws that guarantee citizens freedom of expression and thought.”
But the Nigerian Army supported the bill arguing that even in advanced democracies, they still have a way of regulating the media.
Representing the Chief of Army Staff, Yusuf Buratai, Major General Solomon Udoma, said “false information undermine leadership, destroy peace and threatens unity.”
However, one of the supporters of the bill, who is the Director of Administration of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Society, Ustaz Yusuf Nwoha, said aspects of the bill which could infringe on the rights of Nigerians should be expunged.
The Independent Corrupt Practices Commission represented by Dr Esa Onoja, maintained a neutral position.
The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Opeyemi Bamidele, said over 60 individuals, groups and institutions volunteered to speak on the bill.
He, however, said the views and opinions expressed by stakeholders at the forum would form the basis for his committee’s report.
The sponsor of the bill said the legislation sought to regulate information being posted on the social media to guide against abuse.
President of the Senate, Lawan, said, “I agree that matters of freedom of speech and the inalienable rights of man are issues we should not compromise. I also agree that the right of an individual ends where the rights of another individual begins.
“As a people however, we cannot stop discussing this freedom and its limitations for peace and harmony, growth and development.”
Meanwhile, in a memo by its Executive Director, Lanre Arogundade, the International Press Centre restated its opposition to the bill, describing it as a duplication of existing laws, including the Cybercrime (Prohibition) Act.
IPC said, “In view of the mandate of our organisation to promote and protect media freedom and independence, the Internet rights of journalists, and online bloggers, the right to freedom of expression and access to information and the right of Nigerian citizens to political participation without unnecessary hindrance, we hereby formally restate our opposition to the bill and demand that it should be withdrawn.
RE: #NOTOSOCIALMEDIABILL ~ IT’S ANTI-FREEDOM!
By Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri
Spaces for Youth Development and Social Change
Spaces for Change (S4C)
March 6, 2020
Honorable Members of the Nigerian Parliament
Members of the Nigerian Civil Society
Gentlemen and Women of the Press
RE: #NOTOSOCIALMEDIABILL ~ IT’S ANTI-FREEDOM!
The Action Group on Free Civic Space in Nigeria has steadily followed the discourse surrounding the ‘Protection From Internet Falsehoods, Manipulations and Other Related Matter Bills, 2019 (SB132)’, popularly known as the Social Media Bill, since it was introduced in November 2019. Having scaled through the first and second reading and now coming up for public hearing on March 9, 2020, the Action Group on Free Civic Space (AGFCS) joins concerned Nigerians to urge the distinguished members of the Nigerian Senate to protect and defend the constitutionally-guaranteed rights and freedoms of citizens by throwing out this bill.
On the face of it, the Social Media Bill (SMB) is promising to prevent the transmission of false statements/declaration of facts in Nigeria. However, numerous provisions of the bill disclose intentions that have enormous potential to not only stifle constitutional freedoms but also, crush civil liberties. We specifically note that:
- The SMB contains provisions that run contrary to the constitutional guarantee of free speech and fair comment protected under national laws.
- The SMB reproduces rules and regulations already covered by existing laws like the Cybercrime Act 2015, Terrorism (Prevention) Act 2011, Penal Code, National Human Rights Commission Act, etc.
- Numerous law enforcement mechanisms for curbing cybercrimes exist; hence there is no need to replicate this function.
- The language used in framing offenses is overbroad with the potential to criminalize vast swaths of honest expressions, services, and conduct.
Citizens are generally entitled to fair comments in public and private discourses on matters of national importance and public interest. The right to fair comment is concomitant to the right to free speech guaranteed under Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution. The SMB’s blanket criminalization of various forms of declaration of facts presumed to be false, runs afoul of constitutional guarantees of free speech and fair comment protected under the constitution and several national laws cited above.
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The SMB bill is also replete with vague phrases framed around the protection of national security, public health, public safety, public finances, bilateral relations with other countries or influencing the outcome of elections to any office and so forth. Further aggravating the situation, the interpretation section of the bill is silent on the definition of these (underlined) terms. The language equally used in framing offenses in the bill is overly broad that any legitimate, honest expression during a social discourse can be easily stretched to come under the ambit of the stipulated offenses.
Where the benchmarks for measuring compliance or violations are missing and, power to determine offense is at the subjective discretion of law enforcement agencies as reflected on the bill, we are afraid that the legal provisions could be prone to abuse, especially by interpreting or applying them beyond the original intendment of the law in order to justify crackdowns on civil society, including targeted attacks on activists, journalists, bloggers, and civil society organizations.
We make bold to state that a number of law enforcement agencies are statutorily mandated to tackle cybercrime. They include the Cybercrime Advisory Council, the National Computer Forensic Laboratory, the National Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) Coordination Center and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Instead of enacting new laws and creating new mechanisms with overlapping regulatory functions, we advocate for the capacities of existing law enforcement agencies to be strengthened by equipping them with adequate and necessary infrastructure and resources to carry out their mandate.
The documentations on the closing spaces digital database—www.closingspaces.org— presents 279 cases of clampdown of human freedoms in Nigeria from 2015 till present with ‘75 incidences recorded of journalists arrested and assaulted on account of their journalistic duties, 9 media houses (DailyTrust, Premium Times, AIT, Fresh105.9Fm Oyo State, Breeze 99.9fm Nassarawa State, etc.) attacked for publishing and airing content critical and exposing of government activities, 21 activists and 20 internet users arrested for expressing dissenting and critical opinions of government’s activities on their social media platforms.
In light of a steadily shrinking spaces for civic engagement in the country, the SMB, if passed into law, could easily be wielded as a tool to punish media houses, internet users, bloggers, social media influencers, opposition voices, and critics of government policies whose democratic expressions and activities are likely to be criminalized on the basis of ‘diminishing public confidence in the government’ performance of its functions espoused in Section 5 (2f) of the bill.
In light of the above well-founded fears, the Action Group on Free Civic Space, says a big NO to this bill and urges the Nigerian Senate to reject this bill in its entirety. Doing so is not only in public interest, but also promotes an enabling environment for citizens to freely engage governance in democratic conversations. The Action Group on Free Civic Space represents a loose network of 85 organizations, student unions, social movements and active citizens across Nigeria, working on different thematic issues, but committed to ensuring that government regulation in the name of national security does not shrink the civic space in Nigeria.
SPACES FOR CHANGE
FOR THE ACTION GROUP ON FREE CIVIC SPACE