Social Media Bill, Attempt to Muzzle Free Speech, Says CDD

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Director, Centre Democracy and Development (CDD), Idayat Hassan

Stories by Ugo Aliogo
The Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) has described the debate on the ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019 (SB 132),’ known as the Social Media Bill as an attempt to muzzle free speech.

According to a statement signed by the Director, CDD, Idayat Hassan, the legislation which has passed a second reading in the Senate, is an attempt to use the legislative process to muzzle freedom of expression.
Hassan noted that the bill purports to tackle the increasing problem of false information in Nigeria.

He further stated that a number of draconian provisions in the bill empowers the government to unilaterally shutdown social media and possibly the internet for posts they deem to pose risks for public safety and national security, saying, “this would pose a serious threat to Nigerians democracy and freedom of speech.”

CDD acknowledged the groundswell of public opposition to the bill, which stemmed from, “the intolerant political climate in which civil liberties have been repeatedly trampled upon by the government.”

CDD stated that the arrest, harassment and hounding of journalists, pro-democracy activists and voices of dissent were worrying signs that free speech, as a constitutional right of citizens, were under threat.

The statement noted that part three Clause 13, Subclause (2), “is one of the most concerning aspects of the bill, which stated that ‘no appeal may be made to the High Court by any person unless the person has first applied to the law enforcement department to vary or cancel the part three regulations and the law enforcement department refused the application whether in whole or in part.’

According to the statement: “Part three clause 12, sub clause (3) also gives the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) absolute power to direct the National Communication Commission (NCC) to order the internet access service provider to take reasonable steps to disable access to end-users in Nigeria based on their online location. NCC, according to the bill, can give the internet access service provider(s) an access blocking order.

“This draconian provision gives the police power to disrupt the internet access of not only the persons they accuse of spreading false statements but the entire population living in that location. According to the Global State of Digital 2019 report, 98.39 million Nigerians use the internet; almost 50 per cent of the population.

“Part five, Clause (35) of the bill, reveals a dangerous push by the government through the NPF to establish powers to determine and declare what news is ‘fake’ and what is true. With harsh punishments for those it deems to sharing ‘fake’ news. Publishers, organisations and individuals will face jail terms of up to three years and/or fines of up to N10 million for alleged infractions, which will be decided on by the security agencies.

“CDD is deeply concerned that the legislation places an inordinate amount of power in the hands of the government and security agencies. There are also technical issues, as a result of overlapping legislations in Nigeria.

“The Cybercrime Act of 2015 already has stipulations for the sharing of false information and the Nigerian Communications Commission Act of 2003 grants the NCC powers to oversee the function of telecommunications providers. The proposed bill raises far more questions than it provides answers.