Fred Itua, Abuja
Barring any last minute change, the Senate may abandon its controversial Bill: “Protection from Internet Falsehoods, Manipulations and Other Related Matters Bill”.
Following a public hearing, yesterday, during which stakeholders overwhelmingly rejected it, the Senate gave the hint it might bow to public pressure and abandon the proposal.
The opposition to the Bill took a worrisome dimension that sponsor of the Bill, Sani Musa, covertly sneaked out of Room 022, venue of the public hearing.
Disturbed by the criticism that greeted the ‘escape’, Chairman, Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Bamidele Opeyemi, attempted some explanations.
He Musa had some other legislative assignments to handle and so, he had to leave. The explanation was rejected.
Prior to the declaration of the public hearing by the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, senators had taken positions with a large number of them kicking against it. Committee chairman informed the gathering that there was no common position among senators.
Based on submissions made at the public hearing, less than five per cent of those who came, spoke in favour of the Bill.
Shouts of disapproval rent the air when a representative of the Nigerian Army Chief of Staff, Major General Solomon Udoma, made a presentation.
Chief among the most contested clauses of the Bill is the provision for a fine of N5 million against any offence which fails to comply with an order of Police to correct a false statement.
Civil society organisations were of the opinion that the Bill is unnecessary and would only serve the interest of a few to the detriment of the generality of the public.
The Bill, they said, would not only infringe on human rights, but would violate human rights and freedom of speech.
Head of Civil Society Organisation Situation Room, Clement Nwankwo declared the Bill as “completely unnecessary.”
He pointed out that the Police had been going beyond its brief pointing out that “the Bill if passed will force the Police to do more harm than what they are doing in terms of infringement of human rights. There will be too much impunity, this Bill should be completely discountenanced.”
The contribution of former presidential candidate, Omoyele Sowore, threw up more controversies.
He charged the committee to look closely at the definition of falsehood and determine if the Bill was well intended to protect the people or to protect government.
“I am one of the first person to establish what they may call an internet news platform in Nigeria. When we started, the first question we asked ourselves is what is falsehood? Is something false because the government doesn’t like it? Or is it false because nobody want to accept that it is true?
“I give you a very simple example; in this country, there was a time the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria was sick and dying. We broke the news that he was terminally ill. It was described as false. If this bill was passed at that time, I would have been sitting in jail until that president dies.
“For five months, the man was brain dead but nobody had the ability and capacity to report it because it was described as false news. That is why I told you this bill is not about the protection of Nigeria but the protection of those in power. It is as simple as ABC,” Sowore added.
The Nigeria Union of Journalist (NUJ) said the bill would pigeon-hole Nigerians.
NUJ president, Christopher Isiguzo, said the Bill is worse than Coronavirus.
Though he agreed that fake news is v bad, Isiguzo said there were other ways of regulating social media, adding that further legislation on the Bill should stop.
The Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) agreed that the Bill gave too much power to the Police and other security agencies.
The Executive Vice President of NCC, Umar Dambata, noted that the Bill has general drafting anomalies.
He said: “It is our opinion that National Assembly will need a redraft, so that it can be aligned with existing legislative drafting.”