The tension over the Nigerian Senate’s Anti-social Media Bill has joined the league of controversies beclouding the Country. The bill tagged “Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019”, has generated concerns from different quarters. With the bill passing the second phase of reading, all stakeholders who have hitherto been relaxed over the matter have woken from their slumber to tackle what they consider a calculated attempt to politically sponsor civil silence.
With the recent declaration of an intending public hearing over the bill, stakeholders including Civil Societies, Human Rights and Socio-cultural groups among other Civil organisations have expressed their readiness to tackle the bill and ensure it becomes an unsuccessful venture. Rising tension among strong social media users have, in the past few days, been so stern on the move to mobilise serious campaign against the bill to make it nothing but an unpopular venture destined to fail.
The hostility to stop the bill is appearing to take a similar experiential turn of the opposition that greeted the “Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith”. In 2015 Senator Bala Na’Allah of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party had then proposed the draft bill to “Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith.” Popular opposition against the bill through the #NoToSocialMediaBill campaign led to its demise.
The articles of the deceased 2015 bill had spelt out jail terms and huge fines for individuals who shared “abusive contents” about politicians and other public figures. The bill which went to the extent of granting security authorities the power to spy on text messages and contents of other media met its waterloo in 2016 in the face of severe public slams with opposition against it as a repressing calculated attempt to infringe on the statutory rights of Nigerians.
Coming about two years after its demise, the opposition against the Mohammed Musa’s anti-social media bill has also largely been conditioned on the ground that it is nothing but a shear political attempt to restrict and infringe on citizens’ right of freedom of speech as provided by the Nigerian constitution.
Those who have expressed their concern about the bill have described it as counter-productive and repugnant to the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution. Some concerned stakeholders have also agitated that there are extant provisions of the Nigerian laws that take care of anything that may concern regulating communication excesses. References have been made to extant provisions guiding cybercrimes, defamation of character, libel, and slander as existing legal instruments strong enough to address controversies that surround public communications in the Country.
A Senator, Chimaroke Nnamani (Enugu East), who had taken a stern position against the bill had made reference to this point. Condemning the bill in its entirety, Nnamani had described the bill as a complete unnecessary venture, given the provisions of the Cyber Crimes Act.
He had said; “I not only oppose this bill, I condemn it in its entirety. Based on our constitution, there is freedom of information and freedom of speech.
“There is a Cyber Crime Act that deals with this issue. There are also laws that deal with false information, libel, slander and so on.
“Yes, fake news has done a lot in America and other countries but they have not brought any law to deal with it. I, therefore, oppose this bill,”
With the new bill in question, the reaction of many Nigerians towards the bill reflects that they view the new development as a calculated political attempt by the APC led government to revive a dead bill by a charming sorcerer from the senate.
On the surface, the Mohammed Musa’s 36 clauses bill seeks to regulate the use of Social Media as well as curb fake news on the internet.
Defending the bill, Senator Musa had argued that the bill does not intend to gag the media but to check the spread of false information on the internet. Stressing that the bill is meant for “patriotic Nigerians” who want to see the country live in peace, he had mentioned that as a developing nation facing so many challenges, there is no better time than to regulate the Internet but now.
“It is rather an opportunity to address the growing threats which if left unchecked, can cause serious damage to our polity and disrupt peaceful existence,” he had said.
In his argument, the lawmaker had claimed that governments across the world are trying to mitigate the risks associated with information transmission through the internet by monitoring abuse and deliberate misconduct. He further described the internet has a weapon of falsehood and manipulations. Senator Musa further alleged that inauthentic online accounts run by human trolls have been used to rapidly spread falsehood.
His words reads: “One of the disadvantages of the internet is the spread of falsehood and manipulation of unsuspecting users.
“Today, motivated by geopolitical interest and identity politics, state and non- state actors use the internet to discredit government, misinform people and turn one group against the other.
“The hoax about the demise of President Muhammadu Buhari in London and his purported replacement by one Jibril of Sudan, among others, are things that threaten the peace, security and harmony of our people.”
According to Senator Musa who sponsored the bill, he prescribed a fine up to the sum of N300,000 for individuals found guilty of the provisions; with a sum up to N10million for corporate defaulters.
He said; “Penalty for defaulters goes up to N300,000 for individuals and up to N10 million for corporate organisations and imprisonment of up to three years or both.
“It also issues guidelines for internet intermediaries and providers of mass media services and sanctions for offenders,”
It however becomes a matter of concern that while several political figures are throwing their weight behind the bill, some few have not found any compelling need for it. In the face of controversies surrounding the bill, the Vice-President had earlier described it as unnecessary. Similar concerns have also been expressed by Constitutional Lawyers and Human Right Activists among whom are Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs).
Building on the opposition against the bill, a suit filed by Human Right Activist and Constitutional Lawyer, Mr. Tope Akinyode, is pending before the Federal High Court, Lagos. The suit which has been slated for hearings today (December 2) is seeking for a perpetual injunction to stop the National Assembly and the Presidency from further proceedings and actions in pursuit of the bill. According to the Activist, the bill if made law would serve as an encroachment on the freedom of speech of Nigerians.
“The bill is repressive and difficult to maintain without a brutal violation of the citizen’s right to free speech,” he had argued.
On this note, it is therefore important in the face of the massive outcry that the Nigerian Senate reconsider the surrounding atmosphere of the bill and the corresponding reactions and come forward with an advancement on the present situation as Lawmakers. While there has been wide opposition against the bill, it is required of the Senate to come out bold and make it known to Nigerians the significance of the bill to the growth and development of the Country. Put in perspective, this is to say that, in what way will the bill if passed into law contribute to the growth of the Country?
The truth remains that many Nigerians are agonising in the face of harsh economic conditions and the social media have largely been the means by which many today express their concerns and feelings. If therefore the Senate and all political stakeholders sponsoring the bill to become law wish to have the opposition against the bill backed-off, it is required of them to put their debate before Nigerians so clear and convincing on the distinct provisions of the bill that extant laws in the Nigerian Constitution cannot address and how the controversial bill will address them? The objectives the bill is set to achieve in the long run; the benefits Nigerians will get from it and as earlier stated, how it will advance the Nigerian politico-economic growth and development? Existing arguments have never been strong enough to convince the over suspecting Nigerians who believe the bill is nothing but another calculated attempt to politically infringe on their right and reduce them to silence.
While it cannot be disputed that there are mischief-makers who have been exploiting the Social media to the negative, it is expected of the Senate to devise logical means through which light can be shed into the dark on this respect. If the Senate’s sponsored bill is its best modalities, the onus lies on the Upper Chamber to give Nigerians convincing prove that the bill is meant for National good and development. Nigerians will only back-off and express support if they are convinced it is for public good.