The ‘anti social media’ bill
Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution 1999 is unequivocal in its provision that: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions, and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” Although the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki explained that senators were mindful of fundamental rights provisions in the constitution and would do nothing to contravene them, the Senate might have stirred the hornet’s nest by fiddling with a bill that seeks to gag the press, be it on-line press. The upper house legislators will nevertheless be held accountable for its leader’s pledge. Freedom of expression is a constitutional and fundamental right; inviolable under any democratic tradition.
The Senate, or any other legislative body for that matter, must be careful in how it goes about the bill in order to avoid undue heating of the already tense polity. Previous attempts to gag the press in Nigeria, even under military regimes, met with stern resistance; and only succeeded in pitching government against the people and the press, and creating social unrest.
The “Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other matters Connected Therewith, 2015 (SB.143)”, has, within eight days, reportedly, passed through second reading in the Senate. The bill targets on-line media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Whatsapp, on-line blogs and the like, which are said to be growing exponentially.
According to Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah, Deputy Senate Leader, who sponsored the bill, the aim is to bring sanity into the system and make way for “credible and verifiable” petitions. Na’Allah’s grouse is to stop the risk of writing “frivolous” petitions against public officials. For him, public officials should be shielded from scrutiny.
The bill provides inter alia: “Where any person in order to circumvent this law makes any allegation and or publishes any statement, petition in any paper, radio, or any medium of whatever description, with malicious intent to discredit or set the public against any person or group of persons, institutions of government, he shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment term of two years or a fine of N4 million.”
Furthermore, the bill stipulates that “where any person, through text message, tweets, Whatsapp or through any social media, posts any abusive statement knowing same to be false, with intent to set the public against any person and group of persons, he shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2 million or both.”
The Senate has widely been criticised with a wave of protests, resentments and condemnation from across the civil society and the media. Already, the On-line Publishers Association of Nigeria (OPAN) has sued the Senate at the Federal High Court in Abuja, seeking declarations and injunctions to stop the legislative organ from proceeding with an enactment on the bill.
Public disenchantment over the bill is to be appreciated against the fact that the social media phenomenon has become a strong cultural tool and an irrepressible part of the new technological age propelled through the Internet and mobile telephony. The development is worldwide. Social media is versatile and ubiquitous, which gives it edge over traditional media. How do you tackle a negative anonymous tweet that goes viral on the Internet without trace?
Available statistics indicate that Nigerian Facebook users currently stand at over seven million and Nigeria leads with the highest number of Internet penetration in Africa. As at July 2014, Nigeria reportedly had a 16 per cent Internet user growth with 67,101,452 users, which is the platform for social media access. Most of these Internet users are active members of one social media platform or the other, where they carry out formal and informal activities on-line.
Granted that, like the traditional media platforms, there could be abuses, which invariably calls for some regulations. But given the inherent character of social media, extreme care must be taken to prevent the child of social media being thrown away with the bath water. The largely unsuccessful experience of some developed countries that have attempted to curtail social media excesses in some aspects must be cultivated. The Western world for instance, is preoccupied with sexual issues on social media, because of its pervasive cultural reality in their environment.
With corruption endemic in Nigeria, lawmakers must ensure that the bill is not self-serving, or designed to unduly protect public officials from public demand for accountability.
In any event, there are enough existing laws in the country’s statute books on defamation, privacy, libel and slander to protect public and private individuals ordinarily. Care must be taken to ensure that enacting another law on similar issues does not amount to overkill.
Social media platform has a great future and has undoubtedly come to stay. Rather than waste precious time attempting to stifle its growth, the Senate and other arms of government should seek to harness its potential for public interest and developmental purposes.
In fact, social media could serve as a veritable tool for fighting corruption.