Despite Public Outcry, Social Media Bill Scales Second Reading in Senate

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The Senate in session

Deji Elumoye in Abuja

A bill to regulate the use of social media in Nigeria, entitled, Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019 (SB.132), yesterday scaled second reading in the Senate, despite the public outcry that greeted its introduction.

The bill was, therefore, referred to the Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, All Progressives Congress (APC), Ekiti Central-led Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters to report back at the plenary in four weeks.

The bill, according to its sponsor, Senator Mohammed Musa, in his lead debate, proposes a framework and system of regulation, control and conduct on the use of the internet and various social platforms in the transmission of information in Nigeria.

He said: “The bill is not an attempt to stifle free speech or dissenting views; it is rather an opportunity to address a growing threat which, if left unchecked, can cause serious damage in our polity and disrupt peaceful coexistence.”

He stated that much as the internet has numerous benefits, it is also used to manipulate information and spread falsehoods.
The sponsor said state and non-state actors engaged in geo-political interests and identity politics, use internet falsehood to discredit governments, misinform people and turn one group against another.

“Individuals and groups influenced by ideologies and deep-seated prejudices in different countries use internet falsehoods to surreptitiously promote their causes,” he added.

He stated that while the phenomenon of internet falsehood and manipulation is a serious global challenge, countries like Singapore have taken measures to curb the proliferation of fake news and disinformation with the passage into law of the Proliferation from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019.

Contributing to the debate, Senators Abba Moro and Elisha Abbo, while supporting the bill, described its introduction as timely, adding that the fallout of fake news can consume the country if not curbed.

But Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani, who spoke against the bill, was, however, cut short by a point of order raised by Senator Bala ibn Na’Allah who quoted the provision of Section 39(1)(3) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), to justify the introduction of the bill by the Senate.
Section 39(1) of the 1999 Constitution provides that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information without interference.”

Na’allah’s point of order was sustained by the President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan.

The bill, which was overwhelmingly supported by senators after a voice vote called by Lawan, was referred to the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters for further legislative input and is to report back to plenary in four weeks.

The Senate had on November 6 passed the bill which stipulates a maximum penalty of three years jail term for offenders for first reading.
The provisions of the bill include penalties like “if anyone runs foul of the law, he coughs up between N150,000 to a maximum imprisonment of three years or both. And if it is a corporate organisation that refused to block that false information despite the fact that they have been alerted by authorities not to disseminate that information for public interest and they still go ahead to do it, refusing to do that blockage will be penalised between N5 million to N10 million for those organisations.

A similar anti-social media bill introduced by the Eighth Senate, sparked outrage across the country, and was later withdrawn.

The old bill titled: “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith” was sponsored by the then Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Bala ibn Na’Allah, and sought to compel critics to accompany their petitions with sworn court affidavit, or face six months imprisonment upon conviction.

The Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) had earlier cautioned the federal government on its plan to regulate social media.

NUJ’s position came after the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, challenged the NUJ to lead the campaign to rid the social media of fake news and hate speech by supporting the social media bill.

Receiving the national executive of the NUJ led by its President, Chris Isiguzo, on a courtesy visit to his office on Monday, the minister said it was in the interest of the NUJ and other media professional bodies to be in the vanguard of the campaign.

”As a matter of fact, the NUJ and other media professional bodies should take the lead in sanitising the social media space, because they will be the first victim when the people lose confidence in the media due to the reckless actions of non-journalists and purveyors of fake news and hate speech,” he said.

But Isiguzo cautioned against further destruction of the gains the nation had recorded in the quest for true progress and development, decrying the recurring impunity that has threatened the safety of journalists and journalism profession.

“The safety of journalists is deteriorating. Safety implies freedom from danger, and in the newsgathering context, safety implies protection from a range of threats journalists encounter, including arrest, imprisonment, kidnapping, intimidation, murder among other others,” the NUJ boss said.