Anti-social media bill: Fear of the people?

IMOLEAYO OYEDEYI and ADEOLA OTEMADE report that the attempt to resuscitate the anti-social media bill is not sitting well with Nigerians who see the social media as the tool for airing views on the issues affecting their society.

The abrupt degeneration of the #EndSARS protest into a cycle of bloody violence, vicious destruction of properties and looting of both public and private properties worth billions of naira across the country has given rise to series of controversies and heated debates, both online and offline.

Public analysts believe that these controversies are indicative of the frustration of Nigerians over the issues of bad governance and economic misery that have enveloped the country in recent times.

Apparently oblivious of the intensity of rage being felt by Nigerians towards what they described as ‘visionless leadership’, a lawmaker at the Lagos State House of Assembly and popular Nollywood actor, Desmond Elliot, on Wednesday, October 26, charged his fellow lawmakers to pay more attention to the social media.

In his reaction to the day’s debate entitled ‘Effects and aftermath of #EndSARS protest in Lagos: destruction of monuments, public and private properties’, the actor-turned-politician argued that the free flow of information on the social media without certain regulatory mechanisms was part of the factors that fueled the #EndSARS protest which he said made it possible for “children” to hurl insults on those he called “elders”.

“All of these are making the narratives that we are seeing today, except we’re joking with ourselves. Social media, though good, has its negative impacts. When I went through the comment, I could not believe it, Mr Speaker, the curses, the abuses from children. And I ask myself, ‘Is this Nigeria? What is going on? Children cursing? Mr. Speaker, in the next five years, Nigeria is gone if we don’t start now,” he argued at the plenary.

Elliot had barely stepped out of the legislative chambers that afternoon when his comments began to attract unexpected outrage across the country as Nigerians queried his reasons for raising his voice in support of social media censorship.

However, as offensive as Nigerians deemed Mr. Elliot’s comment, it was obviously not the first time that such spirited moves will be taken against the social media in the country.

Sunday Tribune recalls that the first attempt came in form of a bill during the 8th Assembly. Entitled ‘Frivolous Petitions (Prohibition) Bill 2015’, the bill was introduced in 2016. It prescribed jail term and a 10,000 dollars fine for social media posts found to contravene the proposed law. Yet, the bill was withdrawn six months later in the face of widespread public criticism.

Barely three years later, a second attempt was made. This time, it was deliberated at the 9th Assembly and sponsored by Honourable Mohammed Tahir Monguno of Monguno/Marte/Nganzai federal constituency in Borno State on July 24, 2019. The bill was entitled ‘Hate Speech Prohibition Bill 2019’ but its bigger version was sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa, Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, representing Niger North senatorial district. With the title ‘Protection from Internet Falsehoods, Manipulations and Other Related Matters Bill 2019’, the new bill was aimed at punishing the use of the social media in peddling false or malicious information with a life jail term.

However, after passing its second reading, there was massive backlash from Nigerians on the social media, who accused the senator of plagiarism with pictorial evidence to show that the law entirely replicated a particular Act in Singapore which ranks 151 in the World Press Freedom index in which Nigeria ranks 120.

But in his defensive tweets on November 23, the senator said, “It is preposterous that this is said to be an instance of plagiarism. All over the world, legislation in other jurisdictions does influence the form and substances in other jurisdictions, particularly and present the same or similar challenges of regulation.”

Among the key provisions of the 2019 anti-social media bill are “to prevent Falsehoods and Manipulations in Internet transmission and correspondences in Nigeria, to suppress falsehoods and manipulations and counter the effects of such communications and transmissions and to sanction offenders with a view to encouraging and enhancing transparency by social media platforms using the internet correspondences.”

Other aims of the bill are ‘to prevent the transmission of false statements or declaration of facts in Nigeria and to end the financing of online mediums that transmit false statements.’

In its reaction to the move against the social media, Amnesty International described the bill as unsuitable for the country as it would asphyxiate press freedom and shut down the social media which it said has become the only available platforms where Nigerians can express their opinions freely.

“The Nigerian Senate is currently considering two harsh bills relating to freedom of expression online, including one which proposes the death penalty for ‘hate speech.’ These bills, supported by the Nigerian government, represent an alarming escalation in the authorities’ attempts to censor and punish social media users for freely expressing their opinions, Amnesty International said today.

“The proposed National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech bill, and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation and other Related Offences bill, give authorities arbitrary powers to shut down the internet and limit access to social media, and make criticizing the government punishable with penalties of up to three years in prison.”

“There are many provisions in the bills that do not meet international human rights standards. For example, section 4 of the “hate speech” bill prohibits abusive, threatening and insulting behaviour, which is open to very wide interpretation. This section would pose a threat to critical opinion, satire, public dialogue and political commentary, the rights group said in a statement in December 2019.

Offering a legal perspective to the proposed social media censorship in Nigeria, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and columnist, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, in one of his recent columns, posited that the anti-social media bill is needless as there are already a few extant laws in the country’s constitution that underpins such matters.

“It is conceded that there are the challenges of fake news, hate speeches, defamation of character and other vices associated with the use of social media. However, is that enough justification to further regulate the already regulated use of the social media through the enactment of legislations, which sometime violate constitutional provisions?” he queried.

“There exist abundant of laws already put in place and which are sufficient to curb any fear that government officials and other well-meaning Nigerians may have. Examples of such laws already regulating the social media stage are the Cyber-Crime Prohibition Act, Criminal Code Act, Penal Code Act and the Nigerian Press Council Act among others,” he added.

Another legal practitioner, Mr. Taiwo Ojo, said, “Honestly, the happenings in the country are born out of the lack of responsible and pragmatic leadership. To further censor social media is pure tyrannical rule and I don’t expect any sane individual to be in favour of it.”

He argued that, “If the government were sincere in the Boko Haram fight, the tackling of armed bandits/herdsmen, the IPOB quest for succession, the implementation of the previous sovereign conferences, the reform of Nigeria and implementation of true federalism/state policing and birthing a new constitution as the collective people of Nigeria have asked for, we wouldn’t be in this mess of a situation.”

In her own submission, a public servant, Ade-Alao Temi, said, “The ongoing move by the Federal Government to censor social media is a bad move due to the recent happenings in the country; it’s a move against the freedom of speech, the move is to silence aggrieved people who are not happy with the way the economy is and the way corruption has permeated all levels of government; it is wrong on all counts.

“In recent times, we’ve seen how social media has been able to get justice for those who deserve it, meet others, get jobs, connect with the world, social media has also led to suicides due to false accusations, false stories; but despite the negatives, it’s still a wrong move.”

The younger generations who are chronic users of social media are by no means angry at the attempt to shut them out of their favourite media space. Fred Opara, a social media user, in his own submission, wonders: “What becomes the fate of the people and governance in Nigeria when the media, constitutionally recognised as the fourth estate of the realm is muzzled.”

He said the fight against government’s proposed censorship of the social media “is a battle the press should lead, coordinate and prosecute to its logical conclusion, not by opinion polls but through appropriate sensitization of the people and the international community to the sordid penchant of the leadership to truncate our inalienable right of the freedom of speech and expression in Nigeria.”

Another Facebook user, Ifepariola Sogo, described the proposed censorship as ‘misplaced priority’ because, according to him, both the rich and the poor make use of social media platforms to express their displeasure towards various anti-people policies of the government.

“The move is a misplaced priority. For now, both the rich and the poor (being the majority) make use of the medium to let the world know the impunity, gross disregard for the rule of law, recklessness and neglect being faced by Nigerians at the hands of the so-called leaders,” he said.

Akanwa Gift, another social media user, believes that instead of seeing social media as a tool for fake news, the government should be held responsible instead because it feeds the population with half truth.

“Social media shouldn’t be the issue. Our Information Minister can’t pass truthful and current information to the people. So for me, the social media is the last thing to think about. It is never the problem of this country. There are fake news which are real, and there are real news which are fake. The social media have opened the eyes of every poor Nigerian who have no means of airing their problems. So, the government should rather solve the problems they have at hand instead of putting blame on the social media,” she said.

Toeing the line of other social media users, Hugo Libral believes that the Federal Government should be more concerned about addressing the challenges confronting the country instead of making attempts to censor the free flow of information.

“The Federal Government is not addressing the challenges facing the nation. Is the social media a problem? They only want to gag the social media so that people would not be able to expose the ills of the society; they are afraid of something. Ask them why they are afraid of the social media? Was the social media regulated before they came to power? Why now?” he queried.

Umar Ande would rather address the social media debate from another perspective. In his own view, there are extant laws regulating media operations in the country but what is lacking are laws meant to regulate the social media.

“There are enough laws already regulating the media in Nigeria. What we don’t have are laws that would regulate the social media. The media should help educate the public on the difference between the two because the public is confused. The media should be sincere enough to educate the public. “However, instead, the media is not doing the needful since it has taken sides with enemies of the nation and failed politicians who are taking advantages of the situation to take their own pound of flesh against the current administration,” he said.

 

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