Twitter ban controversy: SERAP, 176 concerned Nigerians head to ECOWAS Court

The controversy over the Twitter ban by the Nigerian government took another turn Tuesday as the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and 176 concerned Nigerians filed a lawsuit against the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration.

The suit, they said, was to challenge “the unlawful suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, criminalisation of Nigerians and other people using Twitter, and the escalating repression of human rights, particularly the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom in the country.”

Following the deletion of President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet, Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed last week announced the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria.

Similarly, the federal government also threatened to arrest and prosecute anyone using Twitter in the country, while the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) directed all broadcast stations to suspend the patronage of Twitter.

The suit

But challenging the action in a suit No ECW/CCJ/APP/23/21 filed before the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in Abuja, SERAP and the concerned Nigerians  sought  “an order of interim injunction restraining the Federal Government from implementing its suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, and subjecting anyone including media houses, broadcast stations using Twitter in Nigeria, to harassment, intimidation, arrest and criminal prosecution, pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit.”

Filed by SERAP solicitor, Mr Femi Falana, the plaintiffs argued that “if this application is not urgently granted, the Federal Government will continue to arbitrarily suspend Twitter and threaten to impose criminal and other sanctions on Nigerians, telecommunication companies, media houses, broadcast stations and other people using Twitter in Nigeria, the perpetual order sought in this suit might be rendered nugatory.”

“The suspension of Twitter is aimed at intimidating and stopping Nigerians from using Twitter and other social media platforms to assess government policies, expose corruption, and criticize acts of official impunity by the agents of the Federal Government.

“The free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens and elected representatives is essential. This implies a free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censor or restraints, and to inform public opinion. The public also has a corresponding right to receive media output.

“Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and the full enjoyment of this right is central to achieving individual freedom and to developing democracy. It is not only the cornerstone of democracy, but indispensable to a thriving civil society.

“The arbitrary action by the Federal Government and its agents have negatively impacted millions of Nigerians who carry on their daily businesses and operational activities on Twitter. The suspension has also impeded the freedom of expression of millions of Nigerians, who criticize and influence government policies through the microblogging app.

“The suspension of Twitter is arbitrary, and there is no law in Nigeria today permitting the prosecution of people simply for peacefully exercising their human rights through Twitter and other social media platforms.

“The suspension and threat of prosecution by the Federal Government constitute a fundamental breach of the country’s international human rights obligations including under Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Nigeria is a state party.

“The suspension has seriously undermined the ability of Nigerians and other people in the country to freely express themselves in a democracy, and undermined the ability of journalists, media houses, broadcast stations, and other people to freely carry out their professional duties.

“A lot of Nigerians at home and abroad rely on Twitter coverage of topical issues of public interest to access impartial, objective and critical information about ideas and views on how the Nigerian government is performing its constitutional and international human rights obligations.

“The implication of the decline in freedom of expression in Nigeria is that the country is today ranked alongside countries hostile to human rights and media freedom such as Afghanistan, Chad, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Colombia,” the suit read in part.

The plaintiffs   therefore asked the ECOWAS Court of Justice for the following reliefs: “A DECLARATION that the action of the Defendant and its agents in suspending the operation of Twitter or any other social media and micro-blogging application without an order of a competent court of jurisdiction is unlawful, inconsistent and incompatible with Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“A DECLARATION that the act of the Defendant in mandating its agent to commence and continue to regulate the social media in Nigeria amounts to restriction and censorship, thus violating Nigeria’s obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“A DECLARATION that the act of the Defendant and its agents in suspending the operation of Twitter or any other social media and micro-blogging application in Nigeria without any offence known to law is incompatible with Nigeria’s international human rights obligations, and are therefore null and void to the extent of their inconsistency and incompatibility.

“A DECLARATION that the directive by the Defendant, through the National Broadcasting Commission, directing and ‘advising’ broadcast stations to deactivate their Twitter accounts and discontinue its use is a breach of the citizens’ right to freedom of expression, access to information as well as media freedom, and therefore, null and void.

“A DECLARATION that the act of the Defendant to frequently threaten Nigerians and other people who use Twitter and/or other social micro-blogging applications in Nigeria with criminal prosecution and the actual act of suspending the operations of Twitter in Nigeria, violates the principle that there is no punishment without law, and the right to fair hearing, and therefore, null and void.

“AN ORDER setting aside the suspension, ban, sanction or other punishments whatsoever imposed on Twitter, Nigerians, media houses, broadcast stations and any social media service providers by the Defendant and its agents.

“AN ORDER directing the Defendant and its agents to immediately revoke, withdraw and/or rescind their suspension or ban of Twitter and/or any other social media service provider(s) in Nigeria in line with Nigeria’s obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Revised ECOWAS Treaty 1993.

“AN ORDER OF PERPETUAL INJUNCTION restraining the Defendant and its agents from unlawfully imposing sanctions and other punishment including criminal prosecution or doing anything whatsoever to harass Twitter, broadcast stations, Nigerians and other people and any social media service provider(s), and media houses who are Twitter users.

“SUCH FURTHER orders the Honourable Court may deem fit to make in the circumstances of this suit.”

Reps investigate

Also, the House of Representatives has said it would, within 10 days, investigate the reasons behind decisions by the federal government to ban Twitter.

Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila stated this in his opening address at the plenary Tuesday, noted that the micro-blogging platform had become a huge communication tool and platform for enterprise especially for the teeming youth in the country.

Gbajabiamila also said the lawmakers were inundated with protests and demands for intervention by the parliament.

He, however, noted that the House also needed to hear from the government, especially the information and culture minister who issued the directive suspending the social media app in the country.

Gbajabiamila, therefore, mandated the relevant committees of the House to invite Mohammed to explain the decision by the government and the reasons and basis for it.

The committees, which he ordered to start work immediately, is expected to report back within 10 days.

Malami holds the ace – Mohammed

And even at that, the information minister has said Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami, SAN, will decide whether or not to prosecute the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Pastor Enoch Adeboye; Founder and General Superintendent of Deeper Christian Life Ministry Worldwide, Pastor William Kumuyi; as well as other violators of the Twitter ban by the federal government.

Mohammed said this Monday evening during an interview with BBC News Africa.

Adeboye, in a tweet Monday, had said his church is present in over 170 countries and tweeting is in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

 Also, hours later, Kumuyi also tweeted that his church had branches across over 100 countries and five continents hence it can tweet from anywhere in the world.

Asked specifically whether the government would prosecute Kumuyi and Adeboye for defying its Twitter ban, the minister said: “The Attorney-General has made it clear that if anybody violates the regulation that such a person will be prosecuted and this is not about any particular person. It is in the realm of the Attorney-General to decide who or who not to prosecute.”

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