The Senate has reintroduced a bill seeking a three-year jail term for anyone involved in what it calls the abuse of social media. The development came years after the upper chamber was pressurized into abandoning planned promulgation of what many tagged a “draconian and anti-social media” law.
In the new bill, however, there is an option of fine of N150,000 or both. It is also proposing a huge fine of N10 million for media houses involved in peddling falsehood or misleading the public. The bill which has already passed first reading on the floor of the upper legislative chamber is entitled ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019’. It is sponsored by Mohammed Sani Musa (APC, Niger East).
In 2016, when it first introduced a similar bill and was later forced to withdraw the same following public outcry, the Senate had sought to compel social media critics to accompany their petitions with sworn court affidavit, or face six months imprisonment upon conviction.Part of that old bill which was sponsored by Senator Bala Na’Allah reads :”Any person who unlawfully uses, publishes or causes to be published, any petition, complaint not supported by a duly sworn affidavit, shall be deemed to have committed an offense and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for six months without an option of fine.”
It also said “Any person who acts, uses, or causes 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 imprisonment for a term of two years or a fine of N200,000.00 or both.”
Defending the resuscitation of the bill, Musa, who is a first-time senator and heads the Committee on Senate Services, argued that “Nigeria needs the legislation because it would protect its fragile unity.”
“With this legislation, some journalists will look at it as if we are trying to bring a legislation that will gag the social media or the right to free press. It is a legislation that will guide how we can tolerate our activities on the social media.”
According to him, “False information has been disseminated so many times and it has caused so much chaos in different parts of the world. See what happened in Rwanda, the xenophobic attacks. You can pass information as long as you are passing to the reading public, facts and not creating them.”
Musa said the law was required in this country because “If countries like Philippines, Singapore, Italy, Malaysia, Australia, France, Indonesia and Egypt are putting in place control to prevent the spread of false information, what stops us from doing it? There has never been a time Nigeria has been more fragile in terms of its unity than this period.”
According to him, “It is not to stop people from going into the internet to do whatever they feel legitimately is okay to do, what we feel is wrong is for you to use the media to document information that you know is false, just because you want to achieve your desirable interest.”
But a group, Paradigm Initiative, cautioned the Senate and the National Assembly against enacting oppressive legislations.
In a statement, the Executive Director, Gbenga Sessan, yesterday in Abuja urged the National Assembly not to pursue any repressive legislation that will serve Nigerians no good.
According to Sesan, the bill contains elements that may affect the right to free expression of internet users in Nigeria.Lagos-based lawyer, Lotanna Dim, said: “That is an infringement on our right to freedom of expression and speech. Therefore, the bill is unconstitutional and quite frankly parties supporting this bill should be embarrassed at their inability to understand that social media is a form of expression.”
Another Lagos lawyer, Mr. Theophilus Orumor, said: “What differentiates the social media from other forms of media is the easy accessibility by everyone, irrespective of class and position. So one thing the social media has attained to the utter consternation of some elites is that everyone now has a voice at next to nothing cost, no financial cost implications. Some have contended that the speculated attempt to regulate social media is a class war. I am tempted to agree. I think the elites, the rulers and the capitalists, among others, are not too happy about this easy access to social media by everyone. So they must curtail it.”
A professor of law, who wants to be unnamed, said: “The law will not pass. The bill is obviously unconstitutional. There’s unimpeachable freedom of expression, subject to private rights and public interests. “Anyone who’s aggrieved with a social media report should seek private remedies to protect his rights. It’s not public concern if the report targets a private individual.”
The Publicity Secretary, Nigeria Guilds of Editor (NGE), Ken Ogbeche, said: “ Nigerian government cannot regulate the social media in the manner they are going about it. What they are doing is a wrongheaded way to regulate something they have no capacity to do. The social media is not a Nigerian invention. It is social media, it is built, invented and configured by its progenitors for purposes of networking, social engagements, enlarging and deepening the discourse space so that humanity can communicate effectively with one another. “Though it has advantages and disadvantages, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages and I have always insisted that it is only a government that is afraid of the multitudes of skeletons in its cupboard that should be threatened by the social media.”