The federal government has insisted that its suspension of social media platform-Twitter- remains in force until the organisation is registered in Nigeria and as well obtain license to operate in the country.
Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed made the government’s position known Tuesday in Abuja before the House of Representatives joint Committee on Information, Justice and Communication.
He also said government would sanction any other social media platform found wanting in similar manner.
Speaking before the panel currently investigating government’s decision to ban the platform, the minister said: “The suspension was because Twitter has made its platform a choice for people who want to destabilise Nigeria. We want Twitter to be registered first in the country before they can operate.”
He also denied the widely held opinion that the move was intended to gag free speech. “There was no intention of the federal government to stifle free speech in the country. The only reason we suspended Twitter is because it was promoting disunity, its activities are inimical to the unity of the country,” Mohammed insisted.
He further said government had “discovered 476 online platforms devoted to bring down this country (Nigeria). They are always faster than us (government), so the only way out is to regulate them.”
The minister said the move was not peculiar to Nigeria, naming Australia and Singapore among countries where regulation of the social media space was in place.
Responding to a question on whether the move was not directed at certain groups, coming at this time, the minister said the current government’s bid to rid Nigeria of fake news began in 2017, explaining that there had been instances where the government approached Twitter to take down certain posts which were not in the interest of Nigeria to no avail.
The minister also cautioned Nigerians using the Virtual Personal Network (VPN) to access Twitter to desist because of its possible security implications, including access to personal bank account information.
“For those using VPN, if you think you’re hurting Lai Mohammed, you’re hurting yourselves,” he said.
On whether any channel of dialogue had been opened with Twitter, the minister said, “We tried to but they rebuffed us. They are not known to us. They are not registered, but we hope we will be able to engage them”, as he lamented that the organisation had no investment in Nigeria, but in Ghana, while the target market was Nigeria.
Lead chairman of the committee, Hon. Odebunmi Dokun at the close of the session, noted that it was an investigative hearing, after which the report would be presented to the larger House.
He appealed to media practitioners to consider the sustainability of Nigeria as a country in all their actions.
ECOWAS stops FG
Meanwhile, the ECOWAS Court of Justice sitting in Abuja Tuesday restrained the Nigerian government and its agents from unlawfully imposing sanctions, prosecuting, harass, intimidate, arrest or prosecute Twitter and/or any other social media service provider(s) in the country.
The ruling followed the suspension of Twitter as announced by the Minister of Information and Culture Mohammed after the social media giant was banned in the country for deleting President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet.
The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) also ordered TV and radio stations to “suspend the patronage of Twitter immediately”, and told them to delete ‘unpatriotic’ Twitter.
But in a landmark ruling, the ECOWAS court also mentioned media houses; radio and television broadcast stations, the plaintiffs and other Nigerians who are Twitter users as being immune from prosecution, pending the hearing and determination of this suit.
The ruling followed the suit filed against the government by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and 176 concerned Nigerians.
In the suit, they alleged “the unlawful suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, criminalization of Nigerians and other people using Twitter, alleging that it has escalated repression of human rights and unlawfully restricted the rights of Nigerians and other people to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom in the country.”
After hearing arguments from Solicitor to SERAP, Femi Falana, and counsel to the government, Maimuna Shiru, the court said: “The court has listened very well to the objection by Nigeria. The court has this to say. Any interference with Twitter is viewed as inference with human rights, and that will violate human rights. Therefore, this court has jurisdiction to hear the case. The court also hereby orders that the application be heard expeditiously. The Nigerian government must take immediate steps to implement the order.”
In his reaction after the verdict, Femi Falana said: “The intervention of the ECOWAS Court is a timely relief for millions of Nigerians using Twitter who have been threatened with prosecution under the provision of the Penal Code relating to sedition.
“Contrary to the assurance credited to the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN that violators of the Twitter would not be prosecuted, the Federal Government filed processes in the ECOWAS Court threatening to prosecute Nigerians using Twitter for violating the suspension under the provisions of the Penal Code relating to sedition.
“It is extremely embarrassing that the Federal Government could threaten to jail Nigerians for sedition, which was annulled by the Court of Appeal in 1983, in the case of Arthur Nwankwo vs The State.”