Despite evidence, Lai Mohammed denies existence of ‘social media bill’

Despite the abundance of proofs about its existence, Nigeria's minister of information Lai Mohammed has said the country is not trying to pass a law that can stifle dissensions.

The Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019, otherwise known as the Social Media Bill, if passed, will give sweeping power to the government to clamp down on critics and also shut down the internet.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Muhammad Sani Musa of the ruling All Progressives Congress, passed the first and second readings on November 5 and 20 respectively. The Guardian received an official copy of the bill on November 24.

But Mohammed told state-owned German broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, that such bill is not before the Nigerian Senate.

"I'm not even aware of the bill," Mohammed told DW's Tim Sebastian in London. He doubled down on that claim moments later, noting that "there is no such bill before the House. I can say that with relative authority."

Before his boldface denial to DW, Mohammed told a meeting of the Guild of Corporate Online Publishers in Abuja, days before the bill passed second reading, that the government was intent on seeing the bill become a law to clamp down on the proliferation of hate speech and fake news. He reiterated the government's position at different times.

“As I have said many times, no responsible government will sit by and allow fake news and hate speech to dominate its media space because of the capacity of this menace to exploit our national fault lines to set us against each other and trigger a national conflagration,” Mohammed said.

A section of the bill prescribes a fine of N300,000 or three-year jail term or both for anyone found guilty of making statements that “diminish public confidence in the performance of any duty or function, or in the exercise of any power of the Government.”

Part 3 (12) of the bill gives law enforcement agencies the power to shut down access to the internet and social media without recourse to the National Assembly or a court.

The section says: Law Enforcement Department may direct the NCC to order the internet access provider to take reasonable steps to disable access by end-users in Nigeria to the online location (called in this Clause an access blocking order), and NCC must give the internet access provider an access blocking order (emphasis ours).

Any internet service provider that refuses to obey the order on conviction by a court may be fined N10 million for each day the order is not obeyed.

Nebulous provisions, according to critics of the bill, portend danger to journalists and for freedom of speech.

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