The debate on whether or not the social media space and its operators should be checkmated using the instrumentality of law is yet to abate. While protagonists of the move have intensified their campaign, antagonists believe that such actions amount to gagging the press. In this report, KEHINDE OSASONA interacts with professionals and public commentators on the matter.
Lately, social media users have used the Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp to express their grievances and articulate their concerns about issues of great concern globally.
In Nigeria, the one that readily comes to mind was the 2012 protest tagged #OccupyNigeria, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign and lately the #ENDSARs protests.
While the campaign lasted, they both made use of the social media platform not only to advance their agenda, but to also ventilate their opinions. Although the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) guarantees the right to freedom of expression for Nigerians, with relevant provisions for checking infringements on the right, when the issue became a subject of discourse recently, blame games ensued between the authorities and social media users on one hand and lawyers and the government on the other hand.
A public commentator, Akinpelu Jemilu, who expressed disappointment over the development, believes that the same media space that is on the precipice was once used to unleash campaigns against the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan by aggrieved Nigerians.
“Like every other country of the world that have the ability and capacity to access the internet, both young and old have used the media space to better their lots by speaking against policies and actions inimical to their collective existence.
“Although I agree that regulation should be done, but I do not subscribe to any forms of clampdown on users for the simple fact that they were expressing their grievances.
“I am saying this because the whole thing is now taking a new dimension. By my own understanding, the constitution has already made relevant provisions for the restrictions of such rights.
“Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill of 2019 has already addressed it in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Cybercrime Act, 2015,” he said.
Blueprint Weekend recalls that on November 5, 2019, a bill to regulate social media in Nigeria and criminalise peddling of falsehood and malicious information was advanced before the National Assembly.
But before one could say Jack Robinson, Nigerians and social media enthusiasts had launched a nationwide campaign, saying the actions was meant to deprive them of their right to communication. The debate has since generated serious controversy, with more Nigerians kicking against it.
When accosted by newsmen early in the year to comment on the alleged move by the federal government to regulate the social media via a bill before the National Assembly, the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, denied any knowledge of the social media bill prior to its presentation in the 9th National Assembly. Not long after, the bill progressed to second reading at the Senate, just as it received backlashes from Nigerians.
The bill, entitled, “Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019” was said to have been sponsored by the Senator representing the Niger East, Mohammed Musa. Back then, Mohammed was quoted to have said in an interview conducted by DWTv as having said: “Who is the author of that bill, I am not even aware of it.
There’s no such bill before the house. I can say that categorically and authoritatively that there’s no such bill before the house.”
While exonerating the Buhari administration, the minister insisted that the government “is not the mastermind and anyone thinking such is ignorant.”
“What is even more shocking here is the ignorance of people. There’s what we call separation of power in major democracies.
This particular bill you’re talking about is a bill submitted not by the executive but by the legislative arm of government, so how can you accuse the executive?
“Do we have a choice which bill goes through or not? The government does not come in until when the bill has been passed. The only thing you can do as a president is refusing your assent to such a law. The law has not even been passed.
It is still with the senate. So, how does the president stop it without being accused of dictatorship? We don’t micromanage the parliament,” he said.
As the debate rears its head again, social media users have expressed fears owing to various penalties for false publications as advanced by the sponsors of the bill.
Meanwhile, crops of Web activists, tech professionals and rights groups in the country have described the move as duplication of law, and have joined forces to call for the withdrawal of a draft bill which, according to them, will limit freedom of expression in Africa’s most populous country.
One of such persons is Japeth Omojuwa, a Nigerian blogger who described the move as an infringement on people’s rights. “Once you gag people’s right to speak freely, you place a mental shackle on the subconscious mind where they must think twice before challenging state authorities,” he said.
An Abuja-based lawyer, Barth Ogar, in his view said the Constitution enshrined that every person has the right to talk.
According to him, there was a law on ground guarding against any unguarded utterances, and that it was the reason there was libel, defamation and slander.
“The last administration signed into law the freedom of Information Act, it is a law that gives you power to express yourself but of course you must respect other views and dignity.
Therefore, an attempt by this government to gag people in any manner has then abolished the Freedom of Information Act,” he said.
On his part, another lawyer, David Chinedu Nwachukwu, argued that people must exercise their franchise via the media space.
“The power the APC got today stemmed from the power of the social media space and I do not think they should be heel-bent on clamping down on the social media users. However, if they insisted on going ahead, then they must follow due process,” he said.
From the journalistic perspective, Emmanuel Ekwe said there was no need making law to regulate how people operate in the media space. According to him, it amounts to disallowing people to assess government on any wrongdoing.
“There is already an existing law to checkmate and for me there is an ulterior motive behind this new development after all the constitution guarantees freedom of speech,” he said.