Why Nigerians Are Fighting Back Against Attempts To Regulate Online Expression

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Nigerians are bracing themselves for renewed attempts by the Federal government to limit online freedom of expression, as the calls to regulate social media have grown in the aftermath of the 'End Sars' protests. This has been met with frustration and resistance online, as many see this as a direct attempt to silence Nigerians and disarm them from freely expressing discontent over an unregulated medium. 

The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed has long been a vocal proponent for the regulation of social media, calling for a national policy on its use to curtail 'Fake news'. In a meeting with South-eastern leaders, RipplesNigeria report Mohammed as saying“There was no massacre at the Lekki Toll Gate. The only massacre that took place during the EndSARS protest was the social media massacre.”

It should be noted that these comments not only stand in contrast to a plethora of eyewitness accounts, video footage and credible investigations but also come after the Nigerian military initially denied the presence of soldiers at the toll gate through official channels, before backtracking on these same comments a week later.

The end of 2019 saw the Nigerian Senate consider two bill proposals: the 'Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill' and the 'National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill'.

As per Amnesty International, these two bills would reportedly:

  • Grant authorities arbitrary powers to shut down the internet and limit access to social media.
  • Make criticizing the government punishable with penalties of up to three years in prison.

Progress of these bills

The progress of these bills had been slowed by a mix of public backlash and the coronavirus pandemic. Of the two bills, the 'Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill' has been more successful. It passed both its first and second readings in November of last year. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters with public consultation taking place on March 9.

Udoka Chiefe of Techpoint.africa offered a comprehensive breakdown of the public hearing in March including the arguments both for and against. Chiefe reports that of the most common concerns was the bill's ambiguous use of language and 'the sponsor’s lack of knowledge of what it takes to implement the proposed provisions'. 

Senator Mohammed Sani

The bill's sponsor Sen. Mohammed Sani Musa, pictured left.

The date for a third reading has yet to be made public, but the positioning of noticeable politicians has left many Nigerians anxious of renewed attempts to push through the bill.

Why the debate matters

The obvious matter of curtailing online expression is clear. At the time of the March consultation, Chiefe highlighted the claims of the Nigerian Communications Commission's Executive Vice Chairman who reportedly stated that,

“…certain provisions in the Bill could be used to violate citizens’ rights, free speech and potentially, our human rights.”

In addition to the nature of punishments which include the potential of up to three years in prison and fines worth 300,000 naira (this equates to £600) the ambiguous nature of the bill (as mentioned above) has left many sceptical as to how the regulation would be applied in practice. Chiefe also reported on the fears of the Executive Vice Chairman that the measures would hand excessive power to the nation's police force. 

Events of the last month also highlight the importance of social media in keeping citizens informed of ongoing events which could otherwise have been obscured. The support behind the movement to #Bringbackourgirls after the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping in 2014 is another example of Nigerian's having used social media to rally for good and attempt to force action. 

Shifting the narrative

For those that have been following affairs in Nigeria, this follows a pattern which has begun to emerge among some of the nation's politicians. This pattern has been to reframe the events of the last weeks which had seen popular and peaceful protest against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad as being filled with disorder and looting.

Lagos lawmakers Desmond Elliot and Mojisola Alli-Macauley (who are both elected members of the Lagos Assembly) have been among a growing number of politicians to question the impact of social media, and suggest that it has had a negative impact on Nigeria's youth.

Additionally, the Inspector-General of Police, Muhammad Abubakar has claimed that social media was used to escalate the protests, while last week also saw the Governor of Imo State, Hope Uzodinma claim to 'strongly advocate' for the regulation of social media in the country.

He further added that,

"[The] opposition party incited hoodlums to cause trouble in Imo [state] because the real protesters went off the street after my address and assurances to them’’

These comments have been illustrative of a widening disconnect which has been seen between Nigeria's government and its civilians who still await answers as to the reforming of police, the Lekki Toll Gate massacre and more recently the killing of residents in Oyigbo, Rivers State.

Elements of the bill are being compared to the Protection of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation bill which passed in Singapore in May 2019, although the author of Nigeria's equivalent Sen. Mohammed Sani Musa has denied accusations of plagiarism.

To read the official 34 page document on the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill, click here.

To follow track of the status of the bill, click here.

What can you do to help?

Awareness, Awareness, Awareness...

Spread awareness about what is happening. You can do this by continuing to use the hashtag #EndSars. Make sure to keep informed - do not let it fall out of the International limelight as this represents an obstacle to change.

Stay informed. Lend your voice. And support on the ground efforts where you can. I advise following @fkabudu to remain up to date.

 

Mayowa Ayodele

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