Buhari Government’s Obsession With Regulating Free Speech On Social Media

Buhari Government’s Obsession With Regulating Free Speech On Social Media [MUST READ]

By Opinions | The Trent on November 9, 2019
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Press Freedom APC Social Media Bill Senate Anti-social media bill

On June 26, 2018, the chairman of the Nigerian Senate Committee on ICT and Cybercrime, Abdul Fatai Buhari, announced that the Nigerian government has laid before the Senate a Bill set to regulate social media “because many Nigerians are misusing it.”

Making the announcement during a speech at a Cybersecurity Conference in Abuja, he said that if social media is left unregulated, the activities of Nigerians on social media “could set the country on fire” as the country approaches national elections.

The Minister of Communications, Adebayo Shittu, also later confirmed the government’s resolve to control the cyber activities of citizens. He said his ministry was working with the Office of National Security Adviser (ONSA) and the National Assembly (NASS) to put in place rules that impose sanctions on those that “undermine the country’s interests and global security on the cyberspace.”

These announcements have rightly alarmed many Nigerians who are perhaps wondering what is left to regulate again after the adoption of the Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention etc.) Law which was passed during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan in May 2015. The Law among other things addresses threats to cyberspaces including Internet usage and safety with regard to prevention, prohibition and combating cybercrimes.

Also, this is not the first time that Nigeria has attempted to regulate social media even with the existence of the Cybercrime Law. A few months after the passage of the Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention etc) Law, Nigeria attempted to pass another controversial law with the introduction of the Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill.  The provisions of the bill were seen as repressive and calculated to infringe on individuals’ rights online.

The media and press freedom organisations, especially digital rights organisations, including the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), warned that if the Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill got passed, it would reverse all gains Nigeria had made in freedom of expression and human rights.

The Bill had four sections which, among other things, sought to restrict digital rights with provisions such as:

“Where any person through text messages, tweets, WhatsApp, or through any social media post any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and/ or group of persons, an institution of Government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2,000,000 (about US$5,500) or both such fine and imprisonment.”

Thankfully, the Bill was withdrawn in May 2016 following civil society advocacy and protests by citizens.

The latest Bill announced by the Chairman of the Senate Committee on ICT and Cybercrime, Abdul Fatai Buhari, is therefore, one too many a measure against digital freedom in Nigeria. Indeed, if this Bill is approved, it will not only repress digital rights but also join a long list of legislations that are already inimical to freedom of expression.

For example, Sections 373, 375 and 376 of Nigeria’s Criminal Code Act as well as the Defamatory and Offensive Publications Act all criminalise defamation. Again, Section 418 of the Penal Code which states that:

“Whoever circulates, publishes or reproduces any statement, rumour or report which he knows or has reason to believe to be false with intent to cause or which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the public peace, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years or with fine or with both.”

Further, both Sections 59(1) and (2) of the Criminal Code Act and Section 418 of the Penal Code are used to try false publication offences.

Indeed in May 2016, when the Senate withdrew the Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill and suspended all considerations, it was because its Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, had rightly noted that passing the Bill would thwart efforts being made by government in fighting corruption.

So wetin happen?

Two years down the line, what has changed to defeat the above sound argument? What study has been done on how Nigeria has implemented the plethora of defamation, national security and cybercrime and internet laws and to what effect? These are some of the crucial questions that must be answered by anyone calling for additional laws to regulate social media.

With all the issues that affect Nigeria, one would think the last thing the state would think about is legislation to regulate social media. For example, fundamentalism remains a challenge in the country with recent reported incidents of killings in Plateau State.  Impunity for crimes against journalists also remains a challenge with the unsolved murders of at least four journalists who were killed last year. These are beside the many journalists who have been physically attacked, etc.

It is therefore difficult to understand what the Nigerian Senate and government seeks to achieve with a new social media law.

I find it particularly interesting that a few months after the very progressive Digital Rights and Freedom Bill was passed waiting to be assented to by the President, the state has already made moves to take away the very rights that it sought to protect with the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill.

It is important that the authorities in Nigeria take steps to promote and protect freedom of expression and digital rights and remove any impediments in the enjoyment of these rights.

In particular, the Senate must consider repealing repressive laws such as Sections 373, 375 and 376 of Nigeria’s Criminal Code Act as well as the Defamatory and Offensive Publications Act which all criminalise defamation and to a very large extent have the potential to limit the enjoyment of freedom of expression offline and online, and access to information.

I also join calls by civil society actors in Nigeria to President Mahummadu Buhari to assent to the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill.

Vivian Affoah, is a senior programme officer for Freedom of Expression at the Media Foundation for Africa. This article was first published on the organisation’s website. 

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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