Philip Nwosu And Daniel Kanu
Human rights activists and respected lawyers have risen against the move by the Senate to pass the ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill, 2019,’ commonly called social media bill.
For the activists and lawyers, the bill, which tends to impose death sentence on offenders and persons found guilty should be thrown out as it runs foul of Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.
According to a lawyer and the author of the History of the Legal Profession in Nigeria, Aham Njoku, Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (1) says “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.
He said that the Senate should throw away the bill and face more important issues because the law will infringe on the freedom of expression.
“We have more pressing issues like roads, lack of pipe-borne water, lack of good medical care and others, the Senate should throw away the bill and concentrate on these things,” he said.
Similarly, Femi Aborishade told Sunday Sun that the bill would simply be another way of legislating totalitarianism, so as to gag people from saying their minds on issues of governance in Nigeria.
He said that the bill would be rejected by rights activists as all would be mobilised against it.
He said: “It is simply legislation in aid of totalitarianism, to curtail the fundamental right of expression and to maintain a culture of silence in the face of unprecedented impunity, misgovernance, corruption, and abuse of public office.
“We reject it. We will reject it in its entirety. We have enough provisions in existing statutes to take care of hate speeches. The fundamental right of expression should not be criminalised. The laws we need are laws to criminalise non-provision of socio-economic rights to education, medical care, employment, housing, water, good roads, electricity, food, clothing, etc for the vulnerable classes of people in the society.
“Misgovernance and general failure of government, the realities of lack in the midst of plenty, hunger-induced reactions, prolonged life in darkness, deathtrap roads, mortuary status of public hospitals etc, all combined to result in different forms of expressions which condemn governments and, public agencies and their officials, which are now being termed ‘hate speeches’.
“Look at what is happening in the context of charges of “cyberstalking the President” (meaning insulting the president) against Sowore and Bakare and refusal to obey court orders to release them from detention, the bill against hate speech is nothing but a reincarnation of Decree No. 4 of 1984 under General Buhari military dictatorship under which, anything said against any public officer, right or wrong, was criminalised.”
Another legal giant, Monday Ubani said that the bill was not necessary as the country has enough laws to deal with such infraction.
He said what the Federal Government should do is to implement the existing laws rather than hiding on the new bill to stifle fundamental rights of the citizens to freedom of expression.
Said Ubani: “There is no reason for it, we have enough laws in our statute to deal with any infraction committed in the social media, and we have the cybercrime law, the criminal code we have even the law of defamation, if there is anyone that feels that his character has been injured.
“It is just for us to implement those laws, I think the government is misplacing priorities, they want to stifle freedom of expression, they are not solving the people’s problem, all the promises they made it is obvious they are unable to fulfill them so the best thing for them is: let the people not complain, if you complain they term it hate speech and flung the person into detention.
“And it is also to stifle other people’s opinion so that people will be afraid to speak against the activities of the government. What they intend to do is condemnable.”
Former Chairman of the Lagos Council of the NUJ and the Executive Director of International Press Centre (IPC), Lanre Arogundade, dismissed the bill as annoying and unwarranted.
He said: “It is absolute waste of public resources to seek to establish a National Commission for hate speech at a time when the social and infrastructural needs of citizens are begging for urgent attention. Roads are collapsing, hospitals are failing, schools are getting dilapidated, but fixing those doesn’t seem to be the priority for this bunch of elected representatives of the people.
“The intention is to criminalise dissent, freedom of expression and press freedom and we will not buy into such anti-human rights agenda. Those who deserve death penalty are the looters of the treasury, the long list of which EFCC has. And those who deserve life sentence are those who misappropriate funds meant for constituency projects. Politicians that lie and fail to fulfill campaign promises are the ones who should be under the hangman’s noose.”
Senator Shehu Sani on his twitter handle, cautioned the National Assembly not to suppress freedom of expression by regulating social media in Nigeria.
He said: “The bill on the regulation of social media poses a serious threat and danger to freedom of speech and expression. Any law aimed at limiting the rights and freedoms of citizens to express their views is aimed at building a tower of tyranny.”
Sani said the bill posed a serious threat and danger to democracy and a plan to silence critics and other dissenting voices.
Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah was first to introduce “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith” and sought to compel critics to accompany their petitions with sworn court affidavit, or face six months imprisonment upon conviction.
The present bill, ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019,’ is currently before the 9th Senate and is sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa, as one of the 11 bills read for the first time on the floor of the upper legislative chamber.
In the explanatory memorandum of the Senate, the bill, if passed into law, seeks to prevent falsehoods and manipulations and counter the effects of such communications and transmission to sanction offenders with a view of encouraging and enhancing transparency by social media platforms using the Internet correspondences.
According to the Senate, what makes social media offence, include; Transmission of a false statement of fact and providing services to transmit falsehood
Senator Musa in explaining the bill said firms or telcos that failed to check abuse of fake news on their platform, will be liable. For example, MTN, Glo, 9 Mobile, etc; which Nigerians use their platforms in transmitting this information, if nothing is done, will be fined as deterrent to others.
Also citizens who contravene the laws will be liable on conviction to a fine of N300,000 or three years in imprisonment and N10 million for a group.
Any organisation that failed to block the passage of false information via its platform will be liable to pay between N5 million to N10 million as fine.
Musa said the bill is for “patriotic Nigerians” who want to see the country live in peace.
He said with the advent of social media, there is reason for a country to see how this new media is tolerated.
“I as an individual may decide to remain in my room or office and then draft something I know very well is false because I want to hit at someone. I will decide to draft and throw on social media. Waiting few seconds, it’s on there. Before you know it, it has been shared all over. I have a passion for IT and I know what it takes to disseminate your information, it is like the speed of light,” he explained.
He noted that the bill is not an attempt to gag the social media or right to free press.
“It is a legislation that will guide how we can tolerate our activities on the social media. False information has been disseminated so many times and they have caused so many chaos in different parts of the world,” he said, citing examples of the spread of fake news on the Internet during the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
“I felt we need it in this country if countries like Philippines, Singapore, Italy, Malaysia, Australia, France, Indonesia, Egypt are putting control to prevent the spread of false information, what stops us from doing it? There has never been a time when Nigeria has been very fragile in terms of its unity than this period.
“It is not to stop people from going into the Internet to do whatever they feel legitimately, it’s okay to do, but what we felt is wrong is for you to use the medium to document information that you know is false, just because you want to achieve your desirable interest,” he said.
Lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, (SAN), Chief Mike Ozekhome described the bill as draconian and should be aborted as a malformed embryo at its second reading before it is delivered as a societal monster.
His words: “The bill is an ill-intentioned, ill-conceived, ill-digested and ill-part dictatorial and absolutist piece of nonsensical legislation waiting to consume all of us. An obnoxious law such as this will further drive underground and into hiding, the opposition and genuine social critics who speak truth to power and criticise serial opaque, anti-people, corrupt and high-handed polices of government.
“This government has been tested and known to be very allergic to constructive criticisms. It is a government that listens to itself, sets its own examination questions, marks them and awards marks to itself. Citizens’ opinion does not matter. That is why we have topmost government officials who shock the conscience of Nigerians and the world by saying, for example, that insecurity in Nigeria is exaggerated.”