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My Take on the “Frivolous Petitions Bill” AKA “Social Media Bill”- Abigail Anaba

by on December 12, 2015
 

It would have been fun starting this piece with a Goodluck Jonathan quote but that would be an instant turn off to many who do not like him.  So,  no quotes.  I am just going to go straight to the point and talk about the social media space. People who have been following my writings over the years can testify that I have been an advocate of responsible use of social media.  And so,  when I heard that a bill was proposed by a member of our NASS to regulate use of social media and to stop frivolous petitions (like when someone got it into their head to start gathering signatures so Yale withdraws their Honorary Degree on Ngozi Okonjo Iweala)  I was quite excited.

Let’s talk about why people support the social media bill.  One of the key reasons is the prevalence of lies and distortions on the social media space. It does seem like everywhere you turn someone is distorting something in order to get other people to look bad or for basic propaganda.  Consider the following:

Ben Bruce tweets

“A newspaper distorts”

Or perhaps we should take the more recent example of Sahara reporters lie about the removal of Senator Godwin Akpabio even when judgement had not been delivered on his case.

Stories like these make people feel that there ought to be some regulation of the social media and I agree with them. But did you know that such regulation already exists?  At the closure of the last Senate some bills were passed,  one of them was the cybercrime act.  Take a look at some of its provisions with particular reference to Section 24(b)

Surprised?

Don’t be. This bill is already an act which means that if Senator Akpabio,  Ben Bruce or any other citizen feels aggrieved or even bullied or stalked on Social Media they can right now,  without waiting for the passage of the Frivolous Petitions Bill take them to court.

I wonder if our Senators know about the Cybercrime Act. Some of them may not,  just as many Nigerians do not. This act and a few others were hastily passed at the twilight of the 7th Assembly and so we can excuse their not knowing of its existence.  We should remind them of it though because when you think about it this law makes the social media arm of the Frivolous Petitions Act redundant.

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Let’s us now take a look at this new bill that Nigerians have christened Social Media Bill.  Let me add a caveat here that I  am not a lawyer but I have sought the counsel of lawyers in examining this bill.  Plus,  as a personal mantra,  I believe the law should be written in a language that should be understood by everyone.  If making of laws were meant for lawyers only then the National Assembly and House of Representatives will be peopled by lawyers only.  Anyway,  back to the provisions of this bill

S.1 Makes it an offence to submit a petition to report conduct of a person for the purpose of an investigation…without a duly sworn affidavit confirming the content to be true.

Now we are going to create a scenario which we may or may not be referencing as we proceed.  In a school,  we have Primary 5 which has 12 students a teacher and among the students the class captain and his assistant.  There is a boy in this class,  let’s call him Ade. Ade does not make a noise in class but each time his name ends up in the list of noise makers.  When Ade tries not complain to his class teacher she won’t listen, so Ade decides to write a petition to the principal.

What the Senate is saying is that Ade first has to go to the disciplinary committee (the courts) and swear that everything written in the petition is true as far as he knows. And then they will accept his petition.

One would think that in writing the petition it should be taken for granted that one is writing the truth. But let us think like the person proposing this law. Perhaps, the purpose is to make the person filing the petition go through the trouble of swearing an affidavit for the inconvenience as well as the possibility no matter how small that the person will be guilty of perjury if it can be proved that they swore to the affidavit knowing its contents were false.  But we already have laws on perjury, defamation, slander,  and libel and IF someone brings on a frivolous petition based on lies he can already be counter sued.

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But maybe this is a way of raising revenue for the government.  I want to take it people pay to swear affidavits.  This would be a minor inconvenience.  But what if this is now used to stop people from making petitions? What if the court refuses to stamp ones affidavit because the petition will surely have to be read first at this level. Is this a way of weeding out “unnecessary”  petitions? What provisions in this bill takes away that power from the judiciary?  I would conclude that the provisions of this bill should be expantiated.

Again,  a petition is not determination. You submit one so a matter can be investigated. It’s the administrative or judicial body which determines the matter. To swear to an affidavit, you only need to show you believed your statement to be the truth. That in itself doesn’t mean the statement is the truth.

Let us go back to my earlier example.  Ade’s petition is against the class captain and maybe teacher who he feels have something against him.  During the course of the hearing it is determined that neither of these two have anything against him,  in fact he has wrongly assumed it is the class captain that makes the list, it is the assistant class captain who secretly writes the list. The question then is,  did Ade know this and in this case the answer is no.  So,  the entire Frivolous Petitions Bill is for the possibility that Ade knew it was the assistant class captain that makes the list but decides to write a petition against the class captain and teacher.  I will leave you to make of this what you will.

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S.2 “Unlawfully” is redundant as it is suggesting that a person can lawfully publish a petition not supported by a sworn affidavit.

S.3&4 is a poor imitation of Section 24.(b) of the cybercrime act which already states :

In addition, S.4  says you commit an offence if you post an abusive statement knowing same to be false. The poor drafting means there’s a loophole because what if you post a non abusive statement knowing same to be false? A strict reading of the section would mean that you haven’t committed an offence.
But is this necessary?

For instance Sahara reporters will walk free because they were not “abusive”  to Senator Akpabio while this Omojuwa’s tweet may send him to jail.  Meanwhile,  let’s not forget the Cybercrime Act already sends both of them to jail if found guilty.

Let us take a look at some other writings that can send people to jail.
1. Stanley Azuakola’s   “A pinch of news”
2.        Cartoons. All of them
3. Making a meme of the President or anyone for that matter

Are you asking why?  They are “abusive”  duh!  Oh and if you are one of those still thinking this is about people lying on social media wait till someone sues you to court for “malicious intent”.

 

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