Nigeria and Twitter
We are in perilous times in our land, given the flurry of events in the past one week. It started with the meeting between the President and the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, which was said to have been convened to apprise the President with plans for the various elections on the timetable of INEC, especially the ones slated for 2023. Prior to that meeting, INEC had convened several town hall meetings with relevant stakeholders, to examine the likely effects of the activities of arsonists who have targeted several offices, facilities and equipment of INEC, particularly in the South East. The President had on that occasion challenged anyone to prove that he has not been running the country in line with the Constitution. He then said, in relation to the agitations for Biafra by IPOB activists, that his government will treat them “in the language that they understand”, which many took to be a veiled reference to the unfortunate carnage that took place during the 30-month long civil war that ravaged Nigeria in the late sixties. The five minutes long video went viral, with different groups giving it varied interpretations.
The presentation by the President was summarized by his media handlers and posted on Twitter, a global micro-blogging site, which has a large following in Nigeria, especially amongst the youth. On June 2, 2021, Twitter deleted the post by the President, which it claimed violates its safety rule. In response, the President directed the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, himself a lawyer, to take steps to suspend Twitter operations in Nigeria. Let us look at the matter in closer detail. The President’s offending post states as follows:
“Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian civil war. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”
The Twitter safety rule states as follows:
“Violence: You may not threaten violence against an individual or a group of people. We also prohibit the glorification of violence.”
But why is the Twitter ban so important to generate national discourse? In law, we deal with precedents, by which an occurrence serves as a benchmark to determine other subsequent ones. So, if it happens to Twitter, it can happen to Facebook, or Linkedin, Instagram, WhatsApp, Google, Yahoo or even the entire World Wide Web and can even graduate dangerously, to the print and electronic media, ultimately. The other point is the effect that social media has had on the exercise of the constitutional right to freedom of expression, guaranteed under the Constitution and other international legislations. Section 39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution provides 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.” In the words of the learned authors of Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, expression means “an act, process, or instance of representing in a medium (such as words); utterance; a significant word or phrase; a mode, means, or use of significant representation or symbolism.” In essence therefore, social media has become a platform for the exercise of the freedom granted by the Constitution, for citizens to express themselves. Whereas the law permits some form of transparent regulation by the government in respect of the traditional media, the advent of internet and social media has assisted in no small measure, in facilitating the exercise of the freedom of expression. Whatever is done to hinder, limit or deny the medium or process of that expression should be a source of concern to all lovers of democracy.
Before the present Twitter imbroglio, the Federal Government had always been very uncomfortable with the freedom enjoyed by the press. Earlier this year, the Honourable Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, informed us of the resolve of the government to regulate social media, with the attendant threats of sanctions for defaulters. He revealed that the President had approved the recommendations of a five-man Review Committee, set up to examine the existing National Broadcasting Code, which came up with several far-reaching recommendations, including suspension or withdrawal of broadcasting licence, outrageous sums to be imposed as fines, criminal prosecution, etc.
In a democracy, it is dangerous for the government to seek to control the media space, be it social or traditional media, as it is illogical to supervise those who are to hold you accountable.
To be continued tomorrow
Adegboruwa is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN.
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