…Say it’s Designed to Encumber the Press, Stifle Freedom, Silence Opposition Voices …Want Legislature to Guarantee, Promote Rights of the Citizenry A network of 85 civil society organizations, Action Group on Free Civic Space in Nigeria, the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have stridently called on the Nigerian
…Say it’s Designed to Encumber the Press, Stifle Freedom, Silence Opposition Voices
…Want Legislature to Guarantee, Promote Rights of the Citizenry
A network of 85 civil society organizations, Action Group on Free Civic Space in Nigeria, the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have stridently called on the Nigerian Senate to jettison the ‘Protection From Internet Falsehoods, Manipulations and Other Related Matter Bills, 2019 (SB132)’, popularly known as the Social Media Bill.
They argue that the bill is designed not only to curtail the rights to freedom of expression by the citizenry and shrink the democratic space but also to make the media and opposition voices buckle under.
In a statement on Sunday, the Action Group on Free Civic Space in Nigeria said the bill reproduces rules and regulations already covered by extant laws. It argued that existing laws should be enforced more.
The CSO noted that, if passed, the bill could easily be wielded as a tool to punish media houses, internet users, public officers, bloggers, social media influencers, opposition voices, and critics of government policies on the basis of ‘diminishing public confidence in the government’ performance of its functions espoused in Section 5 (2f) of the bill.
“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,” the statement said.
“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.
“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 date, 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, public officers, 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 said it 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.”
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has also called on Nigerians to unite against moves to pass the obnoxious anti-social media bill by the National Assembly.
The Senate, on Monday, began public hearing on the bill, and PDP is accusing members of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Presidency of plan to gag Nigerians, suspend the constitutional provision of free speech and foist a dictatorial system on the country, through the bill
In a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Mr Kola Ologbondiyan, the PDP called on Nigerians to eschew all political, sectional and religious differences and stand in unity against the bill.
It added that that anti-social media bill was “designed to suppress and silence the people, emasculate institutions of democracy, particularly the media, take away the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech of citizens and turn them into conquered people without a voice, in their own country.
“It is clear that this bill is part of the anti-democratic moves to further emasculate the 1999 Constitution (as amended) ostensibly as a prelude to foisting a full totalitarianism in our country, where citizens will no longer have the right to freely hold or support opinions.”
According to the statement, the reason for the bill is to suppress dissenting voices from criticizing the APC-led Federal Government, which it described as incompetent and corrupt.
“The frenzy to pass this bill further exposes the intolerance of the Buhari-led administration as well as the desperation to cover its atrocities for which it is mortally afraid of public criticisms,” PDP added.
The party expressed worry that the Senate listed the bill for second reading even when Nigerians across board had rejected it.
It noted that Nigeria already has appropriate laws guiding the boundaries of free speech and opinion, which the authorities could enforce within the ambits of constitutional provisions, in the case of any violation.
The controversial anti-social media bill, on Monday, elicited a near leper’s embrace from Nigerians, who vehemently opposed and rejected its passage at the public hearing by the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters.
Even the sponsor of the bill, Senator Mohammed Musa Sani (APC, Niger East), who could not withstand the persistent bashing, took a walk from the venue of the public hearing.
At the public hearing, the National President of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ). Mr Chris Isiguzo, who led the opposition against the bill, said that the bill sought to pigeon-hole Nigerians from freely expressing themselves.
Kicking against the proposal, Isiguzo, urged Nigerians to reject it, stressing that democracy was imperilled when citizens rights were trampled upon through legislation.
He said: “This bill, going by its provisions, is an unnecessary proliferation of laws since targeted offences are already covered by the criminal code or penal code and even latest legislations like the Cybercrime law of 2015.
“Proliferation of laws is not a unique ingredient of democratic governance, one of the reasons the Senate should discard the bill.
“Though fake news is worse than Coronavirus but people should not be stopped from their inalienable right of freedom of speech.
“Rather than seeking to regulate end-users of the various social platforms, the platforms should be the focus of such regulation as obtainable in other countries”.
Also speaking against the bill, the former NUJ Chairman in Lagos State, Mr Lanre Arogundade, said that provisions of the bill negated that of African Chatter of Peoples and Human Rights, which Nigeria is signatory to.
Coming down hard on areas that have potential to shrink the democratic space, Arogundade, also executive director, International Press Centre (IPC), particularly condemned section 3(1) part 2 of the bill which according to him, seeks to criminalise criticisms of public officials.
In a similar vein, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC), Professor Umar Dambata, gave the bill a technical knock-out as he declared that provisions of the bill were difficult to implement even if passed into law.
According to the NCC boss, the Commission only provides infrastructure for social media platforms and not in any way regulates their contents.
“Provisions of the draft copy of the bill were thoroughly dissected by our legal department with submissions that many of them are infracting on extant laws like the Cybercrime law of 2015, Data Protection law etc.
“Besides, as submitted by our legal department, provisions of the bill seek to give too much power to the Police which will invariably lead to infringement or violation of citizens’ rights aside drafting anomalies inherent in all the provisions.
“On account of the afore stated reasons, the NCC seeks for its withdrawal for the purposes of completely redrafting it in a way that will not trample with constitutional rights Nigerians “, he said.
Also, in his submission, the Executive Director of YIAGA Africa, Mr Samson Itodo, said that the bill was nothing but legislative overkill, pointing out that the bill seeks to remove food from the table of young people and must be killed.
“Kill this bill and Nigerians will be happy for it “, he urged.
Absence of the sponsor of the bill, Senator Sani Musa, who was at the session from the beginning, became visible when Publisher, Sahara Reporters, Mr Omoyele Sowore was called upon to make his submission.
Sowore said that it was painful that Senator Sani Musa was no longer around to hear from him directly, alleging that the lawmaker plagiarised the content of the bill from Singapore without considering the fact that what worked in Singapore might not work in Nigeria.
He stated that the purpose of the bill was nothing other than to protect those in power by stopping those who are not satisfied with actions of government from voicing out.
The Chairman of DAAR Communications, Mr Raymond Dokpesi (Jnr), Chairman of Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria (BON) Mr Sa’ad Ibrahim and Executive Director, Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC), Mr Clement Nwankwo were some of the other contributors who vehemently kicked against the bill.
However, representatives of the Nigerian Army and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, supported the bill, hinging their position on national interest.
While declaring the public hearing open, the Senate President, Dr Ahmad Lawan, assured Nigerians that the National Assembly would not arrogate to itself the power of exclusively passing the social media bill into law without inputs from the Nigerian public.
According to Lawan, freedom of speech and the inalienable rights of man are issues which should not be compromised under any guise.