The Nigerian Senate, on Thursday, hit back at critics of a proposed law which sets out heavy sanctions for people who “falsely” criticise public officials or institutions.
The bill, sponsored by Bala Ibn Na’allah, a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress from Kebbi State, has been widely criticised, and is seen as not only a significant clampdown on freedom of speech, but a deliberate targeting of critics of federal lawmakers and the National Assembly.
Nigerian lawmakers frequently come under the media spotlight because of the huge salaries they draw with relatively little output.
Mr. Na’allah’s bill, titled “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith” seeks to compel critics to accompany their petitions with sworn court affidavit, or face six months imprisonment upon conviction.
The bill says, “Not withstanding anything contained in any law, it shall be unlawful to submit any petition, statement intended to report the conduct of any person for the purpose of an investigation, inquiry and or inquest without a duly sworn affidavit in the High Court of a state or the Federal High Court confirming the content to be true and correct and in accordance with the Oaths Act.
“Any petition and or complains not accompanied by a sworn affidavit shall be incompetent and shall not be used by any government institution, agency or bodies established by any law for the time being enforced in Nigeria.
“Any person who unlawfully uses, publishes or cause to be published, any petition, complaint not supported by a duly sworn affidavit, shall be deemed to have committed an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for six months without an option of fine.”
It continues: “Any person who acts, uses, or cause to be used any petition or complaints not accompanied by duly sworn affidavit shall be deemed to have committed an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for a term of two years or a fine of N200,000.00 or both.”
It also states that, “Where any person in order to circumvent this law makes any allegation and or publish any statement, petition in any paper, radio, or any medium of whatever description, with malicious intent to discredit or set the public against any person or group of persons, institutions of government, he shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment term of two years or a fine of N4,000,000.00.”
For the social media, the bill says, “Where any person through text message, tweets, WhatsApp or through any social media posts any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2,000,000.00 or both fine and imprisonment.”
The bill received an unusually rapid attention at the senate, with two readings made within two weeks of its introduction.
Many Nigerians have slammed the lawmakers, mainly using the social media.
Senate hits back
On Thursday, Dino Melaye (APC-Kogi State) set the tone for the Senate’s response when he raised a point of order, lashing out on New York-based online media platform, Sahara Reporters.
Mr. Melaye claimed that untrue stories had been published against him and the Senate, and warned that the senate should not overlook.
“While I celebrate the social media as one of the actors, this senate should not be blackmailed,” he said.
“The senate is a sacred hallowed chamber. The bill moved yesterday by Ibn Na’allah has been misconstrued by the same people.
“This senate should not be quiet about it.”
Other lawmakers took turn to speak about alleged false publications in the media.
The senate leader, Ali Ndume (APC-Borno State), said the publication of false stories was becoming rampant in the country.
The senate as a lawmaking body should hold people responsible for their actions, Mr. Ndume said.
“It is not only Sahara Reporters; there are other online platforms that wake up and post all sorts of things.
“At a point, one of the online platforms accused me of buying 400 golf cars for Boko Haram use,” he said.
Biodun Olujimi (PDP-Ekiti State) also expressed frustration, saying she had to exit all the social media “because of these problems”.
Ruling on the matter, the senate president, Bukola Saraki said, “We all support freedom of speech but as a senate we should not be blackmailed.
“You can’t write false stories just because it is social media.”
The matter was referred to the committees on ICT, judiciary and to be led ethics and privileges committee.