IPC, IMS Slam Buhari’s Refusal to Assent Digital Rights Bill

IPC, IMS Slam Buhari’s Refusal to Assent Digital Rights Bill

MRA, IPC, IMS Slam Buhari’s Refusal to Assent Digital Rights Bill Three frontline media advocacy groups, the Media Rights Agenda (MRA), the International Press Centre (IPC) and the Institute for Media and Society (IMS), have strongly criticized the refusal of President Muhammadu Buhari to sign the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill into law, describing his

MRA, IPC, IMS Slam Buhari’s Refusal to Assent Digital Rights Bill

Three frontline media advocacy groups, the Media Rights Agenda (MRA), the International Press Centre (IPC) and the Institute for Media and Society (IMS), have strongly criticized the refusal of President Muhammadu Buhari to sign the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill into law, describing his reasons as “illogical and evidence of his administration’s unwillingness to uphold and protect the freedom of expression and other human rights of Nigerians in the online environment.”

In a statement in Lagos, MRA’s Legal Officer, Ms Morisola Alaba, said the reason given by the President for his refusal to assent to the Bill, which was transmitted to him for signature by the National Assembly on February 5, 2019, “was not only illogical but betrayed the fact that he had no legitimate reason for withholding assent.”

President Buhari had stated that the Bill “covers too many technical subjects and fails to address any of them extensively”, listing such areas to include surveillance and digital protection, lawful interception of communication, digital protection and retention, among others, which he said “are currently the subject of various bills pending at National Assembly”.  He also argued that the scope of the Bill poses a “challenge of duplication and legislative conflict in the future.'”

Ms Alaba said: “The purpose of the Bill was never to address technical subjects in the area of digital rights and Internet freedom in any detailed or extensive manner, but to propose and affirm a human rights-based approach in dealing with these issues and to ensure that future laws and policies as well as administrative actions are consistent with this approach.”

She argued that “Given that no laws have been passed to guide the actions and activities of Government and other actors in these areas and in the light of the fact that there is no certainty about when such laws are likely to be passed, it makes no sense to refuse to assent to the Bill on the ground that it may duplicate or conflict with laws that are not yet in existence.”

According to her, “A more logical approach for a government that is genuinely desirous of upholding and protecting the digital rights and freedoms of its citizens would be to ensure that the spirit behind the proposed legislation and the principles recognized in it are consistent with the government’s policy stance and then ensuring that the provisions of future laws touching on the issues addressed in the Bill are properly aligned with its policy approach, even where such laws seek to address technical issues in a more detailed and extensive manner.”

Ms Alaba noted that the President was well aware of the fact that his position was untenable and likely to be very unpopular, which was why he waited until after the General Elections to decline assent and express his views on the matter when he knew that he had 30 days from February 5, 2019 to indicate whether he would assent to the Bill or withhold assent.

Besides, she argued, the Federal Government had ample opportunities during the legislative process to express its views on the provisions of the Bill and to ensure that the administration’s concerns were adequately addressed by the lawmakers in the course of making the Law.

She said: “We are aware that several agencies of the Federal Government with specialized and technical competence and mandates in the areas covered by the Bill were involved in the legislative process and did not raise any objection to the passage of the Bill. Indeed, they signed off on the provisions of the Bill, which was why the National Assembly was comfortable enough to pass the Bill speedily.”

Slamming the attitude of the Presidency, Ms Alaba noted that “We consider it to be an unconscionable waste of the time of members of the National Assembly and huge public resources for the Presidency to stand by without engaging the legislative process or expressing the Administration’s position on such an important matter so its perspective can be properly taken into account, but to simply wait for the process to be concluded before vetoing the Bill.  Whilst we concede that the President has the constitutional power to veto Bills, we do not believe that the power should be exercised in such a cynical and arrogant manner.”

The International Press Centre (IPC), Lagos which expressed concern about President Buhari’s decision not to sign the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, said the statement from the presidency as quoted by several media outlets indicated that the President did not sign the bill because it allegedly covered too many technical subjects and “fails to address any of them extensively”, especially in the areas of data protection, surveillance, and lawful interception of communications.

The President’s refusal letter suggested that the Bill should be limited to “human rights” within the digital environment to reduce the challenge of legislation and legislative conflicts in the future. 

IPC however disagrees with this position as the “Digital Rights Bill clearly provides for the protection of human rights online, protect internet users from infringement of their fundamental freedoms and guarantees the application of human rights for digital platform users. The Bill also seeks to guarantee human rights within the context of emerging innovative technologies, security concerns, increasing citizen participation in governance and democratic processes.”

In a statement by the Director IPC, Mr. Lanre Arogundade, said it stood by its stated position that the Bill, if signed as it is, “would revolutionize the state of digital rights in the country for the better and in a manner comparable to international standards.”

Mr. Arogundade said the presidency should prioritise digital rights by signing the Bill particularly “as the right is recognized as a human right that protects and acknowledges the protection of the right to privacy and freedom of expression, in the context of new digital technologies. This is also recognized as a right by the laws of several countries.”

The IPC Director therefore appealed to the president to review his position and sign the Bill.

Urging President Buhari to reconsider his stance on the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill brought for his assent after its passage by the National Assembly, the Institute of Media and Society (IMS) said, “We are surprised that the President declined assent to this Bill, a comprehensive and timely document which conforms to global trends and standards. It is one document which preparation enjoyed the inputs of a wide diversity of stakeholders.”

“It is difficult to agree with the argument that a Bill cannot receive presidential signature because it contains subjects addressed in other bills whose journeys in the legislative processing mill are uncertain.”

“The refusal of assent by Mr President will send negative signals to the international community on the government’s attitude to freedom of expression and human rights in general as well as its approach to policy-making on issues which are central to building a democracy.”

IMS therefore called “on the National Assembly and other stakeholders to remain in support of this Bill and engage further with the presidency so that the Bill will return to become law in the near future.”

Also the Pan-African digital rights advocacy organisation, Paradigm Initiative, has expressed disappointment over the decision of President Buhari to decline assent to the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill.

“The refusal of the President to sign the Bill is a huge setback for human rights online in Nigeria,” the group said on Wednesday.

The Bill was transmitted to the President on February 5, 2019, by the National Assembly. However, in a letter read on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday, the President conveyed his decision to decline his assent to the Bill, saying that the Bill “covers too many technical subjects and fails to address any of them extensively.”

But Paradigm Initiative has promised to continue to work on getting the Bill passed into law. Speaking on the development, the organisation’s Executive Director, Mr Gbenga Sesan, said: “Work will continue on the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill in Nigeria, and in other countries where Paradigm Initiative is now working with partners on the adoption of similar positive rights legislation.”

“We would like to make it clear that the efforts of our coalition on the Bill are not a lost cause. Although the President’s refusal to assent the Bill is a setback, we are currently liaising with our partners towards a strategy to take this work forward. At stake is the state of human rights online in Nigeria, which is too important to abandon, and which we have dedicated ourselves to protect,” Sesan said.

The group also acknowledged the President’s willingness to sign a Bill focused on “the protection of human rights within the digital environment,” and vowed to work with the National Assembly and other stakeholders to make this a reality.

Also speaking on the development, Paradigm Initiative’s Program Manager, Mr Boye Adegoke, said: “We also acknowledge the role that certain stakeholders played including the role of a government agency that premised their opposition to the Bill on the fact that some of Bill’s provisions are currently the subjects of various National Assembly Bills. We consider it strange that assent was denied to a Bill on the ground that its provision could conflict with proposed laws that have not been passed by the National Assembly. ”

The Digital Rights and Freedom Bill makes provision for the protection of human rights online and has been praised by experts for its forward-looking provisions on human rights and its potential to help protect users of digital tools.

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