Nigerians can now rest easy. The Frivolous Petitions Bill 2015 that was introduced in the Senate and sparked public outrage after it passed the first and second readings in November and December last year has just been shredded by the same upper arm of the legislature. The proposed law, it must be remembered, was backed by Deputy Senate Leader, Bala Ibn Na’Allah. Public indignation over the bill grew, following revelations the bill had prescribed an outrageous fine of N5 million and seven years jail term for anyone, who condemned state officials and establishments in a malicious way.
It is unthinkable that in 21st century Nigeria, such a despicable bill that would have deprived citizens of their right to freely express themselves, had come very close to being passed into law before it was halted and ditched by senators.
The moment the proposed law was introduced for debate in the Senate, citizens took up arms and protested vehemently and raucously. Public anger and protestations must have influenced the last minute decision by senators to can the bill. That was one proposed law the citizens would not sit back and watch nonchalantly, as it passed the final reading in the Senate.
What I found rather troubling during the period the bill was debated in the court of public opinion was the open support accorded to the proposed law by no less a personality than the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed. While civil society expressed righteous anger over the intentions of the bill and called for it to be dropped, Justice Mohammed rose in a public forum to express his support for the bill. It was like the Chief Justice had stabbed the citizens in the back when everyone expected him to say how offensive he found the bill.
Speaking on Monday, 7 March 2016, at a public hearing arranged by the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters on Frivolous Petitions Bill, 2015, Justice Mohammed said he supported the bill because, you wait for it, it was praiseworthy and positive. Praiseworthy? I beg to disagree. Justice Mohammed said rather than harm the citizens’ rights, the bill would safeguard everyone’s basic rights. Not only did he support the bill, he also urged everyone to defend the bill. My position differs significantly from that of Justice Mohammed. I do not see how a bill that was designed to restrict the rights of citizens to express themselves freely could be in the best interests of citizens.
Justice Mohammed, who was represented by Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi, a Justice of the Supreme Court, said the bill was “not meant to serve the purpose of denial of access to information”. Rather, he argued, “The aim of the bill should be for the purpose of ensuring that whatever information is disseminated to the public, must come from a legitimate, genuine and a known source which is identifiable and meant to safeguard the best interest of the general public for purpose of good administration and governance.”
He clarified his position by making matters worse. He said the purpose of the Frivolous Petitions Bill 2015 was to “check against information given in bad faith, with the intention to serve ulterior motives”. He said: “I wish to add quickly that the most difficult war to fight is where it is waged against a faceless opponent.” This is specifically the aspect of Justice Mohammed’s thesis that I find objectionable.
It is not the posting of untruthful and damaging information on the Internet that should worry the Chief Justice. He should be concerned about the digital divide that exists within the country, an inequality that has widened the gap between the “information haves” and the information “have nots”. The Chief Justice should be concerned that many citizens still lack access to the Internet and other new technologies that serve as popular channels for public debate.
By expressing support for the Frivolous Petitions Bill, the Chief Justice contradicted his position as an unprejudiced, fair-minded symbol of justice, equity, fairness, and impartiality. By supporting a bill that would have infringed on the constitutional rights of citizens to express themselves freely, the Chief Justice has drawn wide criticisms. It is irrelevant now to say that, as the bill has been thrown out in the Senate, the Chief Justice should not be subjected to further criticisms. Let us remember this: the Chief Justice is a role model in society. He is a symbol of justice, forthrightness, honesty, truthfulness, egalitarianism, integrity, even-handedness, and neutrality.
By supporting the Frivolous Petitions Bill, the Chief Justice may have cast himself and the high office he occupies as an anti-thesis of social equality, classlessness, and democracy. A Chief Justice who swore to uphold, respect, and defend the constitution of the nation that guarantees everyone freedom of expression, cannot express support for a bill that aimed to restrict the human rights of citizens. The judiciary cannot work against the very philosophical foundation of democracy on which our nation is built.
As far back as the 18th century, Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill contributed a sound argument in the debate between authority and liberty. He insisted that human actions should be directed to promote the “greatest happiness for the greatest number of people “for the good society is one in which the greatest possible number of persons enjoy the greatest possible amount of happiness”. Mill believed one way society could ensure that citizens contributed most to achieving the greatest happiness would be “by giving them the right to think and act for themselves”.
In the age of social media and other new technologies, it is injudicious to expect everyone to express similar viewpoints as Justice Mohammed seemed to be canvassing. Part of the appeal of the Internet is not only the anonymity that it guarantees to web users but also the fact that people are free to express themselves without revealing their identities, as long as their views do not defame or injure the reputations of other people.
While new technologies may have made it possible for everyone to access information much easier now than before, there are also growing abuses of the Internet. As Shyam Sundar underlined in an article in a 1998 edition of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. He wrote: “The internet has made it possible for gossip and rumour to not only gain wide circulation but also attain the status of ‘news.’”
These abuses are not sufficient ground enough to propose a law, such as the Frivolous Petitions Bill, that would restrict public use of the Internet. The increasing use of social media as a platform for civic deliberation and political participation in various countries has raised the blood levels of budding tyrants and dictators. Opponents of social media have tried and failed to propose laws to restrict public use of that channel of communication. This is precisely what the sponsors and advocates of the Frivolous Petitions Bill have attempted but failed in Nigeria.
In many parts of the world, the Internet is regarded as a platform for expression of popular and unpopular views. This is why some countries under authoritarian rule have put in place measures designed to obstruct citizens’ access to the Internet. However, while other democratic countries are considering ways to popularise wider use of the Internet, some Nigerian legislators and members of the judiciary are looking for ways to install laws that will severely restrict citizens’ rights to free expression.
I do not really see the need for the Frivolous Petitions Bill 2015 because there are already laws that take care of defamation, libel, seditious publications, and treason. In other words, the detestable bill whose proponents claim would guarantee citizens their privacy cannot be more effective than existing laws that protect our national security interests, the reputations of individuals (i.e., privacy laws), and laws that guard against exposure to obscene and pornographic material. The Frivolous Petitions Bill is, therefore, in my view, thoughtless, vain, petty, narrow-minded, unnecessary, and vindictive.
Social media have gained popularity across the world because they give voice to the voiceless, they empower the less privileged, and they provide a forum for free expression of opinions . Do we want to deny our citizens access to social media? Social media provide informal channels that serve as vehicles for the promotion of political debate and as a channel that accomplishes a variety of citizens’ needs. In this context, social media are highly democratic.
Everyone should celebrate the demise of a repugnant bill that was aimed to constrain people’s freedom to express themselves. It would have been an unspeakable offence against humanity if legislation was successfully introduced in Nigeria to ban or restrict citizens’ right to criticise government officials, institutions, and public servants in online discussion forums widely regarded as “People’s Parliament”.
There is no doubt that technological advances have affected the ways and means through which citizens express themselves. The right thing to do in the current environment is to aim to expand the channels of popular expression rather than close them down.