The 2019 version of an anti-social media bill has been read for the second time on the floor of the Nigerian Senate, paving the way for its passage into law.

Titled Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019 (SB 132), it brings a government hammer into conversations hosted on social media platforms. Twitter and Facebook have become fertile ground for public discourse between Nigerians of different stripes over the last decade. Considerable success has been achieved by using these media to propel mass action on political and socio-economic issues.

The government now wants to impose an edit button. Political, anti-government speech is expected to be under particular scrutiny. Penalties for breaking the social media law include a fine of up to N300,000 or three years imprisonment for individuals and N10 million for corporate organizations.

Citizens and digital rights activists are voicing fears of potential impact on human rights and democratic expression. 

“No forward-looking country is seeking to gag their citizens in the guise of fighting fake news,” says Adeboye Adegoke, program manager at Paradigm Initiative, a digital rights organisation, to TechCabal. 

“Only totalitarian states are taking this approach.”

The naming of the bill is uncannily akin to military-era legislation used to suppress freedom of expression. That draconian law, Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree No. 4 of 1984, was promulgated and enforced by current President Muhammadu Buhari when he was Head of State.

Boko Haram?

Muhammadu Sani Musa, a senator of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) who proposed the bill, bases his defence on the need to thwart the influence of foreign ideologies.

He argues his bill is a firewall against people with “deep-seated prejudices in different countries [who] are using internet falsehood to surreptitiously promote their causes, as we have seen in Nigeria with the insurgency of Boko haram.”

It is unclear that every “foreign ideology” or “deep-seated prejudice” invariably produces opinions capable of terrorizing people. Without specific definitions, Musa’s logic rightly induces scepticism as to the true intentions of the bill.

Fighting “cancerous” fake news

Another prominent defender of the bill is Elisha Abbo, a senator under investigation for allegations of physical assault. Abbo, a member of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition party, supports the bill “holistically” because “if we cannot regulate the spread of falsehood, it will consume all of us.”

In June, CCTV recordings of him supposedly slapping a young woman in an Abuja sex toy store were widely shared on Twitter, proving the platform a useful medium for keeping lawmakers honest. 

To be sure, online misinformation is a scourge requiring deliberate policy attention. Advanced image and audiovisual manipulation technologies can fall into the hands of malicious actors. For the uninitiated, deepfakes are hard to distinguish from originals.

But as Chimaroke Nnamani, a PDP Senator from the south-east said while rejecting the bill, there is a CyberCrimes Act that caters to issues of slander and libel orchestrated on the internet. Devising another law for the same purpose is a covert means of creating limits on citizen expression, he said.

Protection from falsehood? More like protecting self-interest

Unlike in the days before social media, public officials are at greater risk of getting exposed for malfeasance today. Think the state governor caught stashing dollars in his kaftan, or bullion vans driving into a godfather’s residence. The social media bill is how members of the political class – regardless of party – push for stronger shields against the public’s eye. 

Adegoke says Senator Musa’s bill could be motivated by discomfort with being outed on social media as the supplier of INEC card readers for the March 2019 general elections. In any case, the bill appears a replication of Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 signed into law in June.

“Singapore is a very bad example to copy from, considering it ranks 151 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index,” Adegoke observes.

Who calls the shots?

Drafting a bill to gag social media is questionable enough. Setting up an arbitrary enforcement mechanism is a recipe for dysfunction.

Under the proposed law, law enforcement agencies will have regulatory powers over internet intermediaries. But intermediaries are already supervised by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) per the Nigerian Communications Act 2003. Musa’s bill goes above and beyond, empowering law enforcement “to give directives to the NCC itself,” Adegoke says. 

Same enforcement agencies that “already have poor human rights records and are known to routinely abuse citizen’s rights.”

Supporters of this bill – and a similar one against Hate Speech – are determined to get what they want. Where the 8th Senate (2015 – 2019) failed, they hope to succeed. 

That will require the bill scaling a third reading after review by the Senate’s judiciary committee. Should it proceed to gain assent from President Buhari, it could herald an ominous turn in Nigeria’s democratic journey.

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