…As 5 CSOs, 4 Journalists File Another Suit, Insisting Suspension Violate Their Rights The ECOWAS Court of Justice in Abuja has restrained the Federal Government and its agents from arresting or prosecuting Nigerians who are making use of the microblogging and social media platform, Twitter, which was suspended by Nigeria two weeks ago. This came
…As 5 CSOs, 4 Journalists File Another Suit, Insisting Suspension Violate Their Rights
The ECOWAS Court of Justice in Abuja has restrained the Federal Government and its agents from arresting or prosecuting Nigerians who are making use of the microblogging and social media platform, Twitter, which was suspended by Nigeria two weeks ago.
This came amid the filing of another suit by five non-governmental organizations and four journalists against the FG at the ECOWAS Court, asking it to declare the indefinite suspension of Twitter in Nigeria a violation of their human rights under international law, order the Government to immediately rescind the suspension order, and compensate them for the violation of their rights.
The Attorney General of the Federation, Mr Abubakar Malami, had threatened to arrest and prosecute Nigerians who were using Virtual Private Network (VPN) to bypass the suspension of Twitter.
Leading Civil Society Organisation, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), and 176 concerned Nigerians, however, instituted a suit before the ECOWAS court, arguing that the unlawful suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, criminalisation of Nigerians and other people using Twitter had escalated repression of human rights and unlawfully restricted the rights of Nigerians and other people to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom in the country.
SERAP Deputy Director, Mr Kolawole Oluwadare, said in a statement that in a landmark ruling on Tuesday, the ECOWAS Court restrained the adminitration of the President Muhammadu Buhari, and its agents from “unlawfully imposing sanctions or doing anything whatsoever to harass, intimidate, arrest or prosecute Twitter or any other social media service provider, media houses, radio, television broadcast stations, the plaintiffs and other Nigerians who are Twitter users, pending the hearing and determination of this suit.”
The court gave the order after hearing arguments from Solicitor to SERAP, Mr Femi Falana (SAN), and lawyer to the government Mr Maimuna Shiru.
The ECOWAS Court further stated, “The court has listened very well to the objection by Nigeria. The court has this to say. Any interference with Twitter is viewed as interference with human rights, and that will violate human rights. Therefore, this court has jurisdiction to hear the case. The court also hereby orders that the application be heard expeditiously. The Nigerian government must take immediate steps to implement the order.”
Reacting to the ruling, Falana said the intervention of the ECOWAS Court is a timely relief for millions of Nigerians using Twitter who have been threatened with prosecution under the provision of the Penal Code relating to sedition.
The senior advocate argued that contrary to a later assurance credited to Malami that violators of the Twitter suspension would not be prosecuted, the Federal Government filed processes in the ECOWAS Court threatening to prosecute Nigerians using Twitter for violating the suspension under the provisions of the Penal Code relating to sedition.
“It is extremely embarrassing that the Federal Government could threaten to jail Nigerians for sedition, which was annulled by the Court of Appeal in 1983, in the case of Arthur Nwankwo vs The State,” Falana said.
The case has been adjourned till July 6, 2021 for hearing of the substantive suit.
Meanwhile, five non-governmental organizations and four journalists have also filed a suit against the Federal Government at the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in Abuja asking it to declare the indefinite suspension of Twitter in Nigeria a violation of their human rights under international law, order the Government to immediately rescind the suspension order, and compensate them for the violation of their rights.
The NGO applicants in the suit are Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Paradigm Initiative (PIN), Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), the International Press Centre (IPC), and Tap Initiative for Citizens Development (TICD) while the journalists are Mr. David Hundeyin, Mr. Samuel Ogundipe, Ms Blessing Oladunjoye, and Mr. Nwakamri Zakari Apollo.
The suit, lodged with number ECW/CCJ/APP/29/21 ECW/CCJ/APP/29/21, in a 73-page documentation, was filed on their behalf by Abuja-based human rights and free expression lawyer, Mrs. Mojirayo Ogunlana Nkanga, under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Revised ECOWAS Treaty, and the Nigerian Constitution, among others.
They are claiming that Nigeria’s ongoing suspension of Twitter, which came into effect on or around June 4, 2021, violated their right to freedom of expression and interfered with the ability of the journalists to do their work.
The NGOs and journalists are also alleging that the general situation in Nigeria with respect to human rights, has created an environment where freedom of expression is stifled, which has contributed to creating a chilling effect on press and media freedom and which the ongoing suspension of Twitter is a continuation of.
According to them, Nigeria has consented to be bound by the obligation to respect and protect the right to freedom of expression under the ICCPR and the ACHPR and therefore, any limitation imposed by the government on the right to freedom of expression can only be justifiable where the restriction is provided by law, serves a legitimate aim, and is necessary and proportionate in a democratic society.
Contending that these three conditions must all be met before any restriction on the right to freedom of expression can be considered legitimate, they noted that the suspension of Twitter is not provided by law, that there is no justification for it under Nigeria’s domestic laws, and that it was done by the government in an arbitrary manner in circumstances where there was no public or judicial oversight, transparency or accountability.
The NGOs and journalists are asking the Court to declare the indefinite suspension of Twitter a continuous violation of their human rights under international law, particularly the right to seek and receive information as well as the right to express and disseminate opinions under Article 9(1) and (2) of the African Charter; Article 19(2) of the ICCPR and the rights of journalists under Article 66(2)(c) of the Revised ECOWAS Treaty.
They are also seeking a declaration that the Government’s directive, through the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), for the deactivation of Twitter accounts in Nigeria violates their human rights under international law and that the threat by the Attorney-General of the Federation to criminally prosecute anybody found to be using Twitter in Nigeria following the suspension of the platform also violates their human rights under international law.
The NGOs and the journalists are therefore urging the court to issue orders mandating the Government to immediately take all necessary measures to rescind the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria; to take all necessary measures to guarantee non-recurrence in order to prevent the same violation occurring again in future; compelling the Government to issue adequate reparations, including restitution, compensation and measures of satisfaction to them to be specified and submitted to the court; as well as to issue an order of injunction restraining the Government, its servants and agents from imposing criminal sanctions on individuals, including the applicants, who use Twitter or any other social media service provider.
No date has been fixed for the hearing of the suit.
The suit is being litigated with the support of Media Defence, a London-based NGO, which provides legal assistance to journalists, citizen journalists and independent media.
In a related development, President Muhammadu Buhari has approved the composition of the Federal Government’s Team to engage with Twitter over the recent suspension of the operations of the microblogging and social networking service in Nigeria.
The approval was announced in a statement in Abuja on Tuesday by the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr Lai Mohammed, who will chair the team.
The Federal Government’s team also comprises the Attorney General of the Federation and Honourable Minister of Justice, Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs, Honourable Minister of Works and Housing, Honourable Minister of State for Labour and Employment as well as other relevant government agencies.
Following the indefinite suspension of its operations in Nigeria, for what the government decribed as “activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence,” Twitter wrote to President Buhari seeking to engage with the Federal Government over the suspension, with a view to charting a path forward.