Senate, Social Media Bill, and the Triumph of Public Opinion

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The upper chamber has thrown out the controversial anti-social media bill, in commendable deference to public opinion, writes Vincent Obia

Attention in the media not long ago was centred on a contentious law proposal, the Frivolous Petitions Bill, generally described as anti-social media bill outside the National Assembly. The “Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith,” sponsored by an All Progressives Congress senator from Kebbi State, Bala Ibn Na’Allah, sought to regulate the practice of social media in the country. The sponsor said the bill’s intendment was to prevent unwarranted negative spotlight on public and political office holders. But the bill became the subject of a heated debate, as media practitioners and organs roundly rejected it as a masked media gag.

In deference to the public outrage, the senate on Tuesday withdrew the controversial bill, which was introduced last year. This followed the report of its Committee on Human Rights and Legal Matters submitted by Senator David Umar.

The withdrawal of the Frivolous Petitions Bill, no doubt, uncovers a profound reserve of respect for, and the power of, public opinion in the Nigerian democracy. It is a weighty force that, if properly respected and deployed, will work for the good of the leaders and followers alike. The step by the senate represents a commendable recognition that should always be accorded the voice of the people for whom the legislature exists. It should not be seen to be limited to issues that affect the media.

Beyond the withdrawal of the anti-social media bill, however, it is impossible to overlook the sense of indignation with which Nigerians regarded the vexatious bill. The bill sought to make it an offence for any petition to be submitted without a sworn affidavit from the law court.

The bill specified, “Where any person in order to circumvent this law makes any allegation and/or publishes any statement, petition in any paper, radio, or any medium of whatever description, with malicious intent to discredit or set the public against any person or group of persons, institutions of government, he shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment term of two years or a fine of N4, 000,000.00.”

Regarding the social media, the bills stated, “Where any person through text message, tweets, whatsApp or through any social media posts any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law, shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2, 000,000.00 or both fine and imprisonment.”

The bill was generally seen, and rightly too, as an affront to free speech, an audacious attempt to gag the media. Laudably, the Umar report reflected this feeling. The report pointed out that the bill was a violation of citizens’ rights, a contradiction of existing laws, an unjust imposition of the responsibility of investigation on petitioners, and a stumbling block to the anticorruption war. In a country where corruption is rife, and the powerful break the law with impunity, enacting legislations like the Frivolous Petitions Bill would be tantamount to allowing full rein to the principle that might is right. The senate has done well by jettisoning that attempt to narrow the frontiers of democracy.

The independent media in a civilised society is the fulcrum of the freedom of speech, thought, and conscience, the core of civil liberty. To preserve the sanctity of this fundamental freedom, it is best if the media is allowed to run on the basis of self-censorship. Any attempt to regulate the media from the outside will amount to political interference with all the deleterious consequences for society.

Rather than attempting to gag the press, the lawmakers should focus on how to strengthen the capacity of media practitioners and organisations to regulate themselves. They should enact legislations that would secure and fortify the fourth estate as a veritable institution for the defence of democracy. This is the least the legislature can do to help in the preservation of the country’s hard-won democracy.