Following a recent clamour for social media regulation, the debate is far from being over at the National Assembly, writes Udora Orizu
In recent times, there have been heated discussions concerning the regulation of social media in Nigeria. The discussion was brought to the fore again following the momentum, which the #EndSARS protest garnered, particularly on the social media. It’s not the first time social media has helped to expose government’s wrongdoings and mobilise mass action to hold leaders accountable.
Social media was also quite helpful to citizens during the time of ‘Occupy Nigeria’, ‘Bring Back Our Girls, Say No to Rape Protests’ and so on. But it also goes without saying that the innovation has been grossly abused and deliberately so especially, in the promulgation of falsehood, thereby causing great havoc to the fabric of the society.
However, in the wake of the protests against SARS, the power of social media was again massive, as aggrieved citizens across the country and beyond, took to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social platforms to vent their grievances. The trend reached the international community so much that celebrities worldwide lent their voices to the call for an end to the now defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and the need for a police reform.
This, curiously, is not the first time that the government mooted the idea of a bill to regulate social media use in the country.
Introduction of the Bill
Back in 2015, there was a sponsored anti-social media bill. The bill was however kicked against by many Nigerians, who believed that it negated the fundamental rights of the citizens by restricting their freedom of expression.
The first bill titled, ‘’A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith” was sponsored by 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.
Part of that bill read, ‘’Any person, who unlawfully uses, publishes or cause to be published, any petition, complaint not supported by a duly sworn affidavit, shall be deemed to have committed an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for six months without an option of fine.
“Any person who acts, uses, or cause to be used any petition or complaints not accompanied by duly sworn affidavit shall be deemed to have committed an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for a term of two years or a fine of N200,000.00 or both.”
After the bill passed second reading, President Muhammadu Buhari distanced himself from it, saying he was committed to free speech. The lawmakers were consequently forced to withdraw the bill.
Four years later, specifically on November 5, 2019, the Senate re-introduced the Bill to regulate the use of social media in the country. The bill, ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019’, was one of the 11 bills read for the first time at Senate plenary.
This time around, the sponsor of the legislation, Senator Mohammed Sani Musa, said the bill was aimed at curbing fake news on the internet.
Musa, who is representing Niger East Senatorial District, claimed that his bill was aimed at guiding the users and not to gag media practitioners in Nigeria.
He said individuals, who post false information on the internet, when found guilty would be asked to pay a fine of N150,000 or face an imprisonment of three months. The Senator also said any corporate organisation that refused to block false information after the regulating agency had alerted it would be asked to pay a fine, ranging from N5 million to N10 million.
His words: ‘’I felt we need it in this country if countries like Philippines, Singapore, Italy, Malaysia, Australia, France, Indonesia, Egypt are putting control to prevent the spread of false information, what stops us from doing it? There has never been a time when Nigeria has been very fragile in terms of its unity than this period.
“It is not to stop people from going into the internet to do whatever they feel legitimately is okay to do but what we felt is wrong is for you to use the medium to document information that you know is false, just because you want to achieve your desirable interest.
‘’If one commits an offence of this nature, and by virtue of what was committed, the law enforcement agencies will take the person to the court, there will be a court process that will prove that the person has done something wrong. It will serve as deterrence to others. We should fix certain penalties that when you know you will cough out something, you won’t do it.
“If today, you can disseminate information of your President, taking a picture of the President and putting it in an invitation card, giving false information of your President, the office is the highest seat in the land. It is sacrosanct. It is something we cannot see it as anyhow information and you think that is just part of freedom of information or there is liberalisation of Social Media so you can do anything. As far as I am concerned, it is wrong.’’
But still this action was greeted by controversial reactions, with several stakeholders and citizens condemning it yet again.
From the Public Hearing
In March 2020, stakeholders, who attended the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Legal Matters’ public hearing on the Anti-social Media Bill, rejected the bill, claiming it should be trashed.
At the hearing, while making a reference to coronavirus pandemic and it’s impact including on businesses, the Bill sponsor, Senator Musa pressed the audience to see fake news as a virus in need of containment.
However, a few hours later, following testimonies from civil society organisations, government agencies and private citizens, the Nigerian Army and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs joined Musa in supporting the bill.
From the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria (BON), there was overwhelming consensus that most of the bill’s provisions were already captured in previous legislations like the Cyber Crimes Act of 2015 and the nation’s Penal Code.
After the testimonies, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, Chairman of the Senate committee on judiciary, human rights and legal matters, said this is a private-member bill and the Senate has not taken a position on the bill, as there are senators for and against the bill.
He said, “We will consider all of this and advise the senate based on our findings after the consideration of all preponderance of opinion written and expressed. We will go by what we see as the overriding public interest.’’
The New Push
Despite public outcry, the federal government, on October 27, a week after the Lekki tollgate shooting, launched a fresh campaign to regulate social media. Leading the charge was the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who said the federal government felt compelled to regulate social media to curb the spread of what he called fake news.
The Minister spoke in Abuja while responding to questions when he appeared before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values to defend the 2021 budget proposal.
According to him, the biggest challenge facing the country was fake news and misinformation, warning that the next war that would be fought in the country and across the globe might be on social media, citing the recent #EndSARS protests, which he said was fought on social media.
The Minister, however, explained that the federal government was not seeking to shut down the social media, because it has come to stay, but added that the country should have a social media policy that regulates social media and check fake news and misinformation.
He said if the social media was not regulated, it would destroy the country but expressed the hope that social media and fake news would not destroy Nigeria.
Backing the Minister’s call for social media regulation, Governors of the 19 states in the North Central, North East and North West, under the Northern Governors’ Forum (NGF), rising from a recent meeting, among other issues, urged the National Assembly and the Executive arm to ensure that the controversial social media bill was passed into law.
The meeting was attended by the Senate President, the House Deputy Speaker and other members of the National Assembly, the Chief of Staff to the President, Ministers of Federal Capital Territory as well as Information and Culture, the Inspector General of Police, Chairmen of the Northern States Traditional Rulers Council led by the Sultan of Sokoto, among others.
Governor of Plateau State and chair, Northern Governors Forum, Simon Lalong, who read the communiqué said: “The meeting took note of the devastating effect of the uncontrolled social media in spreading fake news. Therefore, calls for major control mechanism and censorship of the social media practice in Nigeria.”
Reacting to the Forum’s decision, several groups and individuals told the governors to tackle the weightier problems of insecurity in the region before making social media their priority.
In a statement, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) said it would resist any attempt by the federal government to regulate the social media, which it said has given Nigerians freedom to speak and express themselves. It expressed fears that such move could lead to negative reactions from the youths, which could snowball into another round of civil unrest.
On its part, the Socio Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) threatened to sue the governors and the National Assembly if the bill was passed and signed by President Muhammadu Buhari.
Rights activist, Aisha Yesufu said: “Northern Governors should focus on the poverty, illiteracy, insecurity, kidnapping killings, street kids in the North. Boko Haram, bandits and kidnappers are the least of the problems of the North. The main problem in the North is the Northern Governors, Northern traditional rulers and Northern religious rulers. There is no need demanding #SecureNorth. The demand should be #FreeNorth.”
Speaking exclusively with THISDAY last week, the Spokesman of the House of Representatives, Hon. Benjamin Kalu, when asked about the House position on the recent clamour, and if the lawmakers would pass or reject the bill if re-introduced, said procedures for the passage of any bill will be strictly adhered to if any executive bill is brought before the Green chamber for passage.
His words: The Federal Government has the right to introduce executive bill to the parliament, but not every executive bill from the Presidency gets passed. It’s not the decision of the parliament to pass Bills; it’s the decision of the constituents, citizens, who this Bill seeks to serve.
“And they make this decision through their representatives. Before a bill becomes an Act, there’s a part reserved for the public, it’s called the public hearing. That certain group of people put themselves together in support of executive bill doesn’t mean that will be the position of the National Assembly.
‘’The position of Nigerians should be the position of the National Assembly and this is reflected in their contributions during public hearing, so, when such bills come, they will go to public hearing, when all stakeholders’ views will be collected and a decision will be made thereafter.’’