For three weeks now, the Social Media Bill that is being considered in the Nigerian Senate has been a hot topic across the internet. The bill has passed two readings in the senate. This means it can proceed for a third and final reading after which it will be referred to the House of Representatives, the second chamber in the legislature.
The bill, which is actually titled ‘The Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill’ but popularly called the Social Media Bill, will impose penalties of up to N2,000,000 ($10,000) and up to two years in jail on anyone who violates it, should it pass.
20 Nigerian, African and international rights groups have formed a coalition and delivered a letter to key officials in the Nigerian Senate, citing concerns about free expression and the criminalisation of free expression under the bill.
Gbenga Sesan, Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria says “The Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill is another attempt at limiting freedom of expression, especially on a platform that has allowed citizens to connect with others to take appropriate joint action against government inaction at various levels. Continued action on the bill by the Senate will further reinforce the trend of repressive legislation in the online space in Nigeria.”
“Recent online protests against this bill would, ironically, be jail worthy offenses if this were to go through,” said Deji Olukotun, Senior Global Advocacy Manager at Access Now. “At a time when Africa’s largest democracy has committed to fighting corruption, the bill could criminalize reporting by journalists and prevent citizens from holding their officials accountable.”
The open letter which was convened by Paradigm Initiative Nigeria and Access Now urges Senators to drop the bill from consideration. The letter also highlights the country’s Cybercrime Act which passed this year; this act imposes stiffer penalties of up to 10 years.
Mr. Sesan points out that “the Cybercrime Act has not been used to convict a single cyber-criminal in the last six months since it was passed. Yet within the same space of time, there have been arrests and detention of at least three bloggers for writing what has been deemed offensive to the ‘powerful.’”
The letter mentions that the bill violates Nigerian and international law. It says that “a user cannot be sure how to comply with the law, or know whether their posts are intended to ‘set the public against’ an undefined group or the government. At the same time, the bill is illogically specific, and does not justify its targeting of WhatsApp, a private messaging application, and Twitter, a microblogging platform.”
The letter also explains that the bill “cuts against Nigeria’s spirit of openness and support for a vibrant free press and an innovative internet ecosystem. Journalists would be at risk of criminal penalties for reporting on public officials, silencing a crucial tool to combat corruption and encourage accountable governance.”
Recommendations were made in the letter asking the senate to reject the bill, but that if the Senate were to continue with the process of considering the bill, it should ensure that the required public hearing before the third reading of the Social Media Bill is announced publicly.” This will enable “full civil society input and participation.”
Bear in mind that Mallam Garba Shehu, the Senior Special Assistant to the president on Media and Publicity, has stated that “the President won’t assent to any legislation that may be inconsistent with the constitution of Nigeria” while also making it clear that the president won’t hinder lawful legislative process.
The groups that signed the open letter include Access Now, Association for Progressive Communications, Centre for Information Technology and Development, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Committee to Protect Journalists, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Enough is Enough Nigeria, Freedom House, International Service for Human Rights, Internet Sans Frontieres, Media Rights Agenda, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, Pen International, Pen Nigeria, Rudi International, Social Media Exchange (SMEX), Web Foundation, West African Journalists’ Association and Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.
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