‘The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.”
–Prof Wole Soyinka
Senator Mohammed Sani Musa, the lawmaker representing Niger East Senatorial District on the platform of the All Progressive Congress (APC) has hit front-page news again after his Supreme Court victory in June.
But this time around, he seems to be stirring the hornet’s nest in the media space with his social media bill that has been greeted with mixed reactions in and outside the shores of the country, most of them harsh on him.
Musa is the sponsor of the ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019’ which the Senate on Tuesday, November 5, re-introduced among the 11 bills read for the first time on the floor of the upper legislative chamber.
According to Musa, his social media bill was aimed at curbing fake news on the Internet, as well as guiding the users and to ensure sanity among media practitioners in Nigeria, but not to gag the media.
In that regard, he had proposed that individuals who post false information on the Internet, when found guilty would be asked to pay a fine of N150,000 or sentenced to three months imprisonment.
Musa added that any corporate organisation that refused to block false information after the regulating agency had alerted it would be asked to pay a fine ranging from N5 million to N10 million.
However, this is not the first time the government has mooted the idea of passing a bill to regulate the use of the social media.
During former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, the Senate introduced the ‘Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith’. The bill, popularly known as the ‘Anti-Social Media Law’ spelled out jail term and huge fines for individuals who share abusive content online. The bill later collapsed like a pack of cards due to widespread outrage, condemnation, and rejection of it.
Also on June 26, 2018, the Chairman of the Nigerian Senate Committee on ICT and Cybercrime, Abdul Fatai Buhari, announced that the Nigerian government lay before the Senate a bill set to regulate social media on the argument that “many Nigerians were misusing it”.
According to statistics, Nigeria currently ranks highest in the number of Internet users around the globe with over 111.6 million Internet users in Africa.
This active use of the Internet by Nigerians is in diverse areas such as work-related activities, social media engagements, online transactions, purchases and so on.
Legal practitioner, Mr Patrick Njoku argued that Nigeria has sufficient laws, including the Cyber Crime Act 2015 to deal with ‘Hate Speech’ and ‘Fake News’, insisting that “the Federal Government may have ulterior motive over the passage of the bill.
His curiosity heightened especially as the bill, sponsored by Senator Musa, was coming speedily on the heels of the Information Minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed’s disposition towards the same trajectory, which he pointed out suggests a collaborative gang up by the two arms of government against the citizens.
“This is more so, considering that the regulation is not only targeted at media practitioners, but the entire citizens of the country, “ he reasoned.
While social media is a place to connect with friends and family, these platforms have become a critical part of political mobilization in Nigeria and the world at large. It has also helped to expose the government’s wrongdoings and mobilize mass action to hold leaders accountable such as ‘Occupy Nigeria’, ‘Bring Back Our Girls’, among others.
Critics say the Nigerian government has become intolerant of criticisms following its inability to deliver on promises, thereby looking for subtle ways to silence the opposition in order to take full charge of the political space in future elections.
Expectedly, different schools of thought have reacted to the proposed bill, while those against the bill argued that if it is passed into law, it would create room for unwarranted policing of citizens’ freedom of expression.
But those that are in support of it argued that the law would allow for censorship of libelous materials, saying that the law will make it possible for persons inciting hate or making hate speeches online to be liable to arrest and prosecution.
Apprehensive of the danger that may loom ahead if the bill is passed, the Nigerian Guild of Editors has advised the Federal Government to drop the proposed bill.
The move, it said, negates Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution, which guarantees “freedom of expression, including the right to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
The Guild kicked against the proposed regulation of the social media space, declaring it as an attempt to gag press freedom.
It reminded previous efforts in that direction were usually “misconstrued by security agents and some public officials to harass, arrest and in most cases, illegally detain journalists and other Nigerians for holding their opinions.”
Cautioning the Federal Government to seek ways to maximize social media to disseminate information on its activities and policies, it called for the engagement of the founders and promoters of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to creatively curtail extremisms of violence and hate speech.
The proposed social media regulation, the Guild warned will further worsen the nation’s rating in poor record of Press Freedom and Freedom of Speech, which stands at 120 out of 180 nations surveyed.
Instead of ‘sanitising’ the social media, the Guild advised the government to engage and collaborate with the media in a synergy to combat fake news and rumour.
Internet expert, Busola Dimeji, stated that the Federal Government must learn from the experience of other countries if it were sincere.
According to her, “after the Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand, the country is building a coalition with other countries to regulate social media effectively. Some countries like China, Germany, and Egypt have already designed measures regulating the usage of social media platforms in their countries. There is a need for the country to take a clue from the Republic of China where it heavily limited what citizens can see and do online rather than trying to pass obnoxious law”.
Most Nigerians are of the view that posterity may be harsh on Senator Musa if the bill finally sees the light of the day.
Senator Musa was born on May 11, 1965 at Minna, Niger State.
He had his General School Certificate/WAEC in1983 and B.Sc (Hon) Business Administration from ABU Zaria.
He attended various educational institutions across the world, including Harvard Business School, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania USA.