The undersigned civil society organizations in Nigeria are extremely concerned that the Ninth Senate of Nigeria has managed to keep a dangerous Bill alive, despite strong opposition from the Nigerian People against the Bill
The Protection from Internet Falsehoods and Manipulation and Other Related Matters Bill, 2019, commonly known as the Social Media Bill or Anti-Social Media Bill, sponsored by Senator Muhammed Sani Musa in November 2019, has remained a lingering threat to freedom of speech and digital freedom in Nigeria. On March 9, 2020, in line with the Nigerian Senate’s procedural obligation on legislative propositions, a public hearing was held by the Senate’s Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, led by Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, wherein the proposed bill was widely and convincingly rejected by Nigerians from all walks of life.
Today, one year after, the future of free speech and democracy in Nigeria is still at the mercy of a Senate that appears to be uninterested in publishing the report of the public hearing, wherein the bill was overwhelming rejected, nor willing to conduct a third reading on the bill where it is expected to be shut down permanently. The apparent lack of interest from the Senate in shutting down the Social Media Bill suggests a sinister intent to pass the dangerous bill which criminalizes freedom of expression, when Nigerians are least vigilant.
Despite several international instruments that Nigeria is signatory to, and developments on the continent and beyond within the last one year that ought to serve as enough reasons to shut down the Social Media Bill, the Red Chamber remains unwilling to do so. Among these developments are the ruling of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice that the 2017 internet shutdown by the Togolese government during the protests that engulfed the country at the time, is illegal and an affront to the right to freedom of expression; as well as a similar ruling by a panel of judges of the Jakarta State Administrative Court that the intentional internet shutdown in Papua and West Papua by the government during protests in both provinces in 2019 is illegal and also an affront to freedom of expression.
These rulings are indicative of the illegality and tyrannical nature of any government’s attempt to outright constrict citizens’ right to freely express themselves, or use legislations like the Social Media Bill, which, among other things has been ill-designed to attack such vague things as “coordinated inauthentic behaviour,” and promote incredibly repressive moves like an “Access Blocking Order” whenever citizens express their opinions – a fundamental right that remains guaranteed under the Nigerian Constitution.
It has been established that the proposed bill, which was utterly copied from an undemocratic Singapore, cannot be transposed to a democratic and multi-ethnic nation like Nigeria with a population that is more than forty times that of Singapore. It has been further established that shutting down the internet or constricting citizens’ rights to freely express themselves can bring dire consequences upon any society, democratic or not, as was the case during the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China, when Dr Li Wenliang’s voice was repressed by the Chinese government for attempting to inform the Chinese people and the world about the deadly pandemic on social media.
The disastrous impact of the pandemic, which has caused the death of nearly three million people across the world, is a stark reminder that the right to freedom of expression is sacrosanct and should not be assailed by the Nigerian government or its institutions.
Important to note is the fact that although the Social Media Bill has yet to be passed into law, Nigeria is already dealing with cases of internet censorship and occasional attacks on freedom of expression like the recent restriction of access to an online news medium, People’s Gazette, by some telecommunication providers in Nigeria. This follows a suspected intentional truncation of internet services in some parts of the country on October 20, 2020, during the #EndSARS protest, and particularly, immediately after the deadly attack on peaceful protesters at Lekki Toll Gate, Lagos. Also important to note is the high likelihood that the proposed bill, if passed into law, can be used as a tool to perpetrate political vendetta among rival politicians and political leaders.
We believe that Nigeria’s democracy is only as strong as its promotion of citizens’ rights, especially constitutionally guaranteed ones like the right to freedom of expression. Social media has proven over and over to be a platform of equitable expression for Nigerians. To pass a bill like the Social Media Bill will not only be a direct attack on equity and free speech, but it will fundamentally alter Nigeria’s democracy in ways that may lead to unforeseen troubles for the country.
To this end, we are propelled to demand, again, that the Ninth Senate of Nigeria must not delay any further to shut down the Social Media Bill permanently.