The Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed recently stated the government’s discomfort with the use of social media in the country, with a consequent proviso that the sector needed to be sanitised.
This is not the first time the government would express the desire to moderate the use of social media. In justifying the need for some form of regulation at the setting up of a seven-man committee to implement reforms in the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the minister argued that no responsible government would allow fake news to dominate its media space, because it is capable of causing a crisis in the country.
“Since we launched our reform of the broadcast industry, many Nigerians have reached out to us, demanding that we also look into how to sanitise the social media space. I can assure you that we are also working on how to inject sanity into the social media space, which today is totally out of control.”
And it seems the Federal Government is ready to damn the consequences of its action, especially as the minister insisted that no amount of criticisms will stop the implementation of the approved recommendations, adding that the implementation will commence immediately the committee submits its report. Ironically, he said the government has no intention of gagging the press, but that its campaign is against fake news and hate speech.
It would be recalled that in 2018, the Federal Government launched a campaign against fake news and hate speech and the government said fake news, in most cases, is designed to misinform the readers.
Also, the Wikipedia said fake news is a neologism often used to refer to fabricated news that has no basis in fact, but presented as being factually accurate.
But without a law regulating social media is in place, some Nigerians had been prosecuted for being reckless in their statement on social media platforms. One such person was the popular blogger, Kemi Olunloyo. In 2017, she was remanded in custody three times and was sent to the prison for alleged cybercrime charges and defamation of character after accusing Pastor David Ibiyeomie of Salvation Ministries of adultery.
What must have motivated the renewed zeal the minister of information is putting into regulating the social media when there are laws that could be explored to deal with issues of libel and defamation? Sections 59(1) and (2) of the Criminal Code Act and Section 418 of the Penal Code could be used to try libelous and defamatory offences. This is aside from the Cybercrime Law, passed during former President Goodluck Jonathan administration in May 2015 and the Law among other things addressed threats to cyberspaces including Internet usage and safety with regard to prevention, prohibition and combating cybercrimes.
Despite that Cybercrime Law was already in place, months after President Muhammad Buhari got sworn-in in 2015, there was another attempt to regulate the social media with the introduction of the Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill. Many Nigerians were vehemently against the bill, as its provisions were seen as repressive and calculated to infringe on their rights.
That failed bill was to provide that: “Where any person through text messages, tweets, WhatsApp, or through any social media post any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and/ or 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 (about US$5,500) or both such fine and imprisonment.”
Following the harsh criticism that trailed the proposed bill, the Senate had no option than to in May 2016 withdraw the Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill, suspending it, especially as the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, stated then that passing the bill would thwart efforts by the government to fight corruption.
Again, on June 26, 2018, the Chairman, Senate Committee on ICT and Cybercrime, Abdul Fatai Buhari announced that a bill to regulate social media had been sent to the Senate as Nigerians are abusing social media use.
To back Lai Mohammed’s proposal to regulate the social media, a bill titled ‘Protection from internet falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019’ was presented before the Senate for a first reading last week. The bill cited in the Senate Order Paper for November 5, 2019, was sponsored by Sen. Musa, Mohammed Sani, Niger East constituency. The first reading was done on the floor of the Senate the next day.
Commenting on the new drive by the Federal Government to regulate the social media, the Executive Director, Media Right Agenda (MRA), Edetaen Ojo said no new law is required to address the issues that the Federal Government said it is trying to address with its plan to regulate social media.
As a media right organisation, he said it is concerned that the real objective here is to constrain the ability of citizens to engage in public debates, especially regarding the performance of the government around many issues on which it is clearly failing and feeling the sting of criticisms by ordinary citizens who now have access to the “public square” as it were, through the social media.
“In 2012, when it adopted Resolution A/HRC/RES/20/8, which it has subsequently reaffirmed through two other Resolutions adopted in 2016 and 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Council has affirmed that ‘the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular, freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’.
“The clear indication of this is that protections and limitations that already exist offline should also be applicable in the online environment.”
Ojo maintained that whatever issues that the Federal Government is seeking to address, existing laws and regulations should be able to address them.
On his part, Director, International Press Centre (IPC) Lanre Arogundade said there has to be multi-stakeholders involvement and engagement to discuss the desirability of any social media regulation and the possible modalities for such.
He insisted that the engagement process is very pertinent because the question also arises as to who determines what constitutes hate speech.
“There are many players in the social media arena including the media, journalists, other media professionals. To that extent, IPC will be opposed to any legislation that may seek to curtail their rights and the rights of citizens to free expression online. We also do not want any situation where any criticism of the government is considered hate speech.”
For the Programme Manager, Paradigm Initiative, Boye Adegoke, the new plan by the government to regulate social media is mischievous and one that a truly democratic government should never be pursued, especially one that rode to power by using online platforms to push its agenda.
“The conversation around the governance of social media or the internet generally is global in nature and evidence abound that national governments with autocratic tendencies often use the excuse of “sanitizing” social media to enable tyranny, embolden dictatorship and suppress dissents and critical voices in the society.
“This adventure by the Nigerian government being led by the Minister of Communications, Alhaji Lai Mohammed points to this direction. This government continues to show intolerance for the opposition and critical voices. It has done so through illegitimacy in the past.”
He stated that introducing a social media regulation is an attempt by the government to legitimise its documented undemocratic practices, which is unacceptable
On existing laws to explore instead of enacting another, Adegoke said, earlier this year, President Buhari refused to assent to the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill after it was passed by both houses of Nigeria’s National Assembly.
“The failure to sign that Bill into law clearly shows the government does no care about the rights of Nigerians and is only interested in taking away such rights. We are yet to see a single effort by the Nigerian Government to promote the openness of the internet or asserts the rights of Internet users in Nigeria to date.
“The government appears obsessed with regime preservation to the point that it now appears it doesn’t mind reversing the gains of ICT’s contributions to Nigeria’s economy. A recent report released by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics revealed that the contribution of Information and Communication Technology to Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product surpassed that of oil and gas in the second quarter of 2019 – This gains will be reversed by such negative policy being pursued by Minister Lai Mohammed.”
On the way forward, he said: “How about we start by dismantling the government’s social media propaganda machine? It is an open secret that this government has a social media propaganda wing often referred to as the ‘BMC’. Individuals from the group have been rewarded with special assistant roles in this government as a pat on the back for a job well done.”
If the government is truly interested in “sanitising” the social media, he said the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, which is back at the National Assembly could help.
He said the Bill addresses legitimate concerns around hate speech by creating a right-respecting approach to addressing the problem. “And more importantly, the bill ensures that the rights of citizens to express themselves online is preserved. In this circumstance, the supporters of this government are able to mobilise and amplify the positives of this government using digital platforms either as ‘BMC’ or otherwise, and others, who have different opinion are equally able to do same without being harassed and suppressed by the state in the guise of social media regulations.”
A lawyer, Mr. Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, in a statement titled the illegality of social media regulation, noted that it is totally wrong and unlawful for the executive arm to always seek to take over, whittle down or undermine the constitutional responsibilities of the other arms of government, especially the judiciary.
According to him, there are several laws in force in Nigeria dealing with hate speech, fake news and the like; and these laws already empowered the judiciary as the sole determinant of what constitutes fake news or hate speech.
“So, there is nothing new indeed, to be achieved with the proposed review of the National Broadcasting Code. For instance, Section 24 of the Cybercrimes Act prohibits cyber-stalking and this includes, but is not limited to sending messages through the internet, which are false, which annoy or inconvenience others, insult, breed hatred and intimidate others etc.
“Any infraction of this provision attracts a grave punishment of N7m or imprisonment of not more than 3 years or both. And for the political class that is usually scared of damage or injury to its reputation, any of such false publication that destroys reputation attracts a punishment of ten years or a fine of N25m,” Adegboruwa said.