Free speech is a necessary tool in the fight against corruption, writes Tracy Keshi

The Nigerian Senate on Tuesday, 5 November, re-introduced the bill, “Protection from internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019,” a proposed law that will regulate the use of social media in the country. The bill prohibits statements on social media considered likely to be prejudicial to the “security of Nigeria”, and “diminishing public confidence in the government”.

The lawmaker who led the debate on the bill at the plenary session of Wednesday, 20 November 2019, Sen. Mohammad Sani Musa, explained that the bill sought to address the threat and mitigate the risk associated with information via internet networks by monitoring abuse and deliberate misconduct. However, the bill contains certain provisions that overly restrict the use of social media, violates the law protecting freedom of speech, creates ambiguous criminal offences that allow authorities prosecute anyone who criticizes the government.

The freedom to information and expression, right of assembly and association, inclusion, human rights and citizens’ participation in public decision making is fundamental to the functionality of a developing society and a vital prerequisite for accountable governance and social justice.

The emergence of President Muhammadu Buhari for the second time after the 2019 general election may have brought with it a renewed hope of strength to overcome the numerous problems the country is currently facing. Citizens believed his administration will commit to advancing the civic space and enable citizens engagement in a democratic way.

Unfortunately, the right to freedom of expression has suffered abysmally with the organs of state charged with ensuring rule of law opposing voices of credible critics of bad governance and encouraging impunity and continued attacks on the fundamental human rights of citizens. An example is the arrest of Agba Jalingo, the publisher of Cross River Watch who has been charged with treason for his writing and social media posts about the Cross-River Governor, Benedict Ayade.

A worrisome trend of shrinking civic space has emerged and created a system that denies citizens their basic human rights to freely express themselves and to hold their government accountable. The freedom of expression as enshrined in Section 39 (1) of the Constitution of the Federal republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) is a necessary tool in the fight against corruption. President Buhari has made tackling corruption his administration’s key priority and the best way to end corruption is by respecting the constitutional right to freedom of speech. Any administration that participates in organised human rights abuses and civil society crackdowns pose serious danger to national peace and security.

When a government increasingly controls and restricts freedoms, it shrinks the civic space for effective citizens’ engagement and block meaningful participation of citizens in democratic governance and weakening the social contract between government and their citizens. This will likely make violence an alternative to addressing grievances.

According to statistics, 29.3 million Nigerians majorly young people use social media across the country. The role of social media is critical in promoting good governance and limiting corruption as it raises public awareness about corruption, its causes and consequences as well as a platform where citizens report incidence of corruption. The use of social media has exposed corrupt officials, and prompted investigations by official bodies.

In commemorating the International Anti-corruption and Human Rights we are calling on Nigerian lawmakers to ensure the laws protecting human rights are properly enforced and rights of everyone to peaceful criticism of the government without fear of reprisal, censorship, or legal sanctions. I am also urging civil society organisation, media and every anticorruption actor to stand #unitedagainstcorruption.

Keshi is a program officer with YIAGA AFRICA and actively involved with #BounceCorruption and #Upright4Nigeria Campaign.