-By Deji Adeyanju
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” – George Orwell
Over a year ago as I stepped out of Keffi Prison in Nassarawa State, Nigeria, a joint team of Special Task Force Police Officers from the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Monitoring Unit and some Army Officers arrested me. I was not told the reason they were re-arresting me. Days before this, I was arrested at the Police Force Headquarters in Abuja at a scene of a protest against police partisanship in Nigerian politics and subsequently charged to court for unlawful assembly, nuisance, disturbance of public peace and threat to public security and safety, criminal defamation and derogatory conduct against constituted authority and breach of law and under sections 96, 113, 114, 152, 183 and 391 of the penal Code but later granted bail. As the convoy of security operatives drove from Keffi to Abuja, a lot was on my mind. I demanded answers from the officers but none was given.
I was subsequently taken to the Police Force Headquarters after an hour’s journey and kept in an office after which I was transferred to FCT Police Command where I was interrogated by a team of five investigators over my comments on social media and criticism of the government. They brought so many printed tweets and post from Facebook claiming they contravened sections 24 and 25 of the Cybercrime Act of 2015. They then confronted me with a petition written by the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai alleging that I was supporting Boko Haram and demoralizing the Nigerian Army and our troops in the North East. On seeing the petition, all I could do was to burst out in laughter. I responded by saying all I was demanding for was accountability and good governance on the part of the government and its officials and I will never stop doing so. The officers informed me I might be charged with terrorism or treason and my response was they should charge me to high heavens if they so wish. I was, thereafter, taken to another police facility where I was kept in a smelly cell with other suspects facing several allegations including robbery till the next day when I was charged to court on cybercrime related matters. The court, however, granted me bail after I had spent some days in keffi Prison yet again. The reason for narrating this in relation to the Social Media Bill is to prepare the minds of Nigerians for what is to come. The proposed Social Media Bill is not anything different from the Cybercrime Act of 2015, it just expands the scope.
The ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019’ that is coined to look like a private member bill is actually an Aso Rock Bill aimed at taking away the freedom of expression of citizens. The Social Media is the main target of this bill and if passed into law will allow government censor and regulate its use in Nigeria and like me, many citizens will go to jail for criticism of the government once officials feels our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc comments are inappropriate or cause embarrassment to the government.
According to the proposed Bill, it is an offence to transmit false statement of fact and provide services to transmit falsehood, for instance by telecommunications companies, and other firms. Citizens who commit these ‘social media offences’ will be liable, on conviction, to a fine of N300,000 or 3 years in imprisonment and N10 million for a group; and any organization 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. In addition, the bill prohibits statements on social media deemed “likely to be prejudicial to national security” and “those which may diminish public confidence” in Nigeria’s government. The must worrying aspect of this bill is that those criticized are to determine who has committed a crime in this regard. Thus, the bill, if allowed to scale through, will allow the government to draw up criminal charges against any person that criticizes the government. These offences are to be punishable by a fine, a prison sentence of three years, or both. If the bill is passed into law, law enforcement agencies will be empowered to order Internet service providers to disable Internet access. These will amount to violation of international laws protecting human rights, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; as well as constitutionally guaranteed rights, such as the freedom of expression. This will jeopardize the rights of the 29.3 million social media users across Nigeria, especially at such critical times when social media is one of the main avenues for citizens to express their opinions, shape public discourse, and be actively part of governance since almost all the conventional media platforms have been intimidated into silence and censored.
Concerns about the Bill:
The following are some of the concerns we have about the Social Media Bill:
1. Replication of extant laws and violation of human rights: The Cyber Crimes Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act have already covered many of the offences the proposed Bill seeks to address. These two existing laws have been used as tools to gag citizen’s especially journalists and human rights activists including me and several others and as such if this bill is passed, it will further take away the rights of citizens.
2. It Seeks to take Away Freedom of Expression: The constitutional safeguard guaranteed to every citizen in section 39 of our constitution will be taken away if this bill is passed. This is the right to hold opinion, to receive and impart ideas and information without interference. If this bill is passed, citizens will be prevented from freely expressing themselves, as the government would have succeeded in instilling fear in them. This section also guarantees the right of every citizen to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions to the public. The attempt to restrict this right will lead to a shutdown of the Internet in the long run.
3. It Will Further Shrink the civic space: This government has a reputation of clamping down on the civic space and voices of dissent. There are numerous cases of journalists, activists, and critics who have been arrested/abducted for criticizing the government or expressing unacceptable views. This bill will lead to further shrinking of the civic space in the country.
This government had always wanted to restrict social media since it came to power. It all started in 2015 when they introduced an anti social media bill through a proxy tagged “Frivolous Petitions (Prohibition) Bill 2015” then in 2016 during the 8th National Assembly but we and several other members of the civil society got it axed with the help of a more patriotic Senate and through protests and online advocacy. The current 9th National Assembly is seen more like a Rubber stamp willing to do the bidding of the executive, which is why many Nigerians fear this bill, may scale through. President Buhari had always felt social media was the main problem of his government and he did not hide this facet. In his Independence Day speech in 2018, he hinted about the reintroduction of the social media bill when he said his government would go after social media users who use it wrongly. The question then will be, who determines whom spreads hate on social media because what is hate speech to one is love speech to another? The Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed and several aides of the government have also repeated severally that social media is one of the greatest headache of their government and have done everything to suggest the government is behind this bill.
Conclusively, the irony of this bill is that those who are opposing the use of social media today used the same medium to get into power in 2015 and the reason why the Cybercrime Act of 2015 was hurriedly signed into law by Goodluck Jonathan might have been the toxic nature it was used by the then opposition but those who signed the Cybercrime Act into law in 2015 are no longer in power today and those who are proposing this Social Media Bill will also be out of power tomorrow and many of them will become victims of this same legislation when the tables turn. Like all tyrannical regimes, this one is acting like it has no plans to handover power, which is why many believe there might be a third term agenda despite all the denials. If not, how do you explain all the repressive acts and moves of this government? They are also proposing a hate Speech Bill that criminalizes free speech. In closing, I will like to end with this wise words of Harry Truman, former president of the United states of America: “ Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
Comrade Deji Adeyanju
Convener, Concerned Nigerians Group
A civil rights movement dedicated to protection of human rights and rule of law.