Over 20 institutions and groups that appeared at the public hearing of the ‘Social Media Bill’ have asked the lawmakers to trash the legislation.
Only the Nigerian Army, Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Islamic Affairs and Civil Voices Coalition for protection of right and privileges supported the bill.
Many of the critics said Nigeria had existing laws that could cover the provision of the bill.
The Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters commenced the public hearing of the bill having passed first and second reading.
The bill, ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019,’ was introduced in the Senate in November 2019.
Many Nigerians have kicked against the bill. The lawmakers have also come under criticism for considering the bill. Many have said the bill is targeted at silencing the media and the masses.
The legislation comes a few years after a similar anti-social media bill introduced in the eight Senate, sparked outrage across the country.
The hearing which commenced around 11:30 a.m., was declared open by the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, who said the bill is crucial and has generated a lot of interest.
He, however, said the outrage is not unexpected because it is related to the internet and it has affected every life. He also admonished ‘stakeholders’ ”to hear the other side no matter how strongly they feel”.
On his part, the chairman of the committee, Opeyemi Bamidele, assured that the National Assembly will not shy from making laws that will be acceptable and stand the test of time.
”It should be stated that the views of stakeholders matter to us because without your participation, this process will be incomplete. This, of course, is the beauty of democracy,” he said.
The President of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Chris Isigwuzo, was the first to make his presentation.
He said the bill seeks to pigeonhole Nigerians from freely expressing themselves, noting that democracy is the right of people to free expression.
While he warned that the Senate derives its legitimacy from the people, Mr Isigwuzo said the NUJ is totally opposed to the bill.
“We want to advise the sponsors to withdraw same. It is (an) unnecessary proliferation of laws. We have the Criminal Code, Penal Code and Cyber Crime Act which have dealt with the issue of misinformation or disinformation.
“We are not saying there is no fake news on social media, some of us are victims. Fake news is worse than coronavirus, no doubt but people should not be stopped from expressing themselves,” he said.
He urged the lawmakers to regulate the social media platforms ”but not the end-users”.
Lanre Arogundade, the Executive Director, International Press Centre, reminded the panel that Nigeria is a signatory to African charter on human rights and other international conventions that protect the rights to freedom of expression.
”We should not embark on the journey that will negate these principles. It is not about amending it but dropping it in its entirety. We should not compare to China because, for all intent and purpose, it is a (Chinese leadership) dictatorship,” he said.
The Executive Vice-Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission, Umar Dambata, said the commission does not regulate the content on the internet but is only responsible for providing infrastructure.
He said certain provisions of the bill could be used to infringe the rights of people.
He also frowned at the fact that the bill gives too much power to the Nigerian police to the extent of being the judge.
“Some provisions of the bill are already covered. It has general drafting anomalies. To the National Assembly, there may be a complete redraft of the bill,” he added.
The Publisher of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, said the bill is not about the protection of Nigerians ”but the protection of those in power”.
“The sponsor does not know how the internet works. With VPN, you can mask your identity, it is because this bill was plagiarised from Singapore…the Nigerian Government is the biggest purveyors of fake news.
“Let us not point government to the 1999 constitution. The constitution is outdated if we have a constitution that is for the people, this bill will never have been considered. This bill is dead,” he said.
On her part, the country director for Amnesty International, Osai Ojigho, said the bill is a threat to freedom of expression and it seeks to criminalise people peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression online.
She explained that the risk of violating the provisions of the bill and getting sanctioned is high.
”This is because the determination of whether a statement falls within those punishable under the bill, is left to the discretion of the law enforcement department,” she said.
“Therefore, in a state of lack of clarity, persons may choose not to speak or disseminate at all for fear of being at the mercy of the interpretation of the law enforcement department. The effect, therefore, unduly restricts and limits the enjoyment of people’s right to freedom of expression.
“Amnesty International is seriously concerned that the social media bill will only serve as a basis to deter public debate, criticism of the government, and political dissent. If passed, the bill will create a significant chilling effect on human rights including freedom of expression online in Nigeria.”
Other groups like the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre PLAC), Centre for Democracy and Development, Nigeria Law Reforms, Spaces for Change, Daar Communications, YIAGA Africa, took turns to oppose the bill.
Those in support
The Nigerian Army threw its weight behind the bill.
The Deputy Chief of Policy ad Planning, Solomon Doma, who represented the Chief of Army Staff, said the mission of the Nigerian Army is ”to win all land battle in defence of the nation”.
“This is to have a responsive army in constitutional roles. We welcome this bill for reasons for national security. We have had governments that have taken measures to promote national security, measures that may appear to limit individual liberties but all in the interest of the nation.
“Internet falsehood undermines leadership, it creates chaos and weakens institutions of governance, it can be used to disrupt the economy and create social upheavals.
“For the military in particular, fake news that targets the military has serious impact on us as an institution, our operations and personnel welfare. It can undermine military leadership, lower troops morale, hurt the image of the service and even harm personnel safety and that of their families.”
He added that the army has submitted 31 point observations on the bill.
”Some of the observations have to do with provisions that are at variance with the constitution, others that appear to deny fair hearing, provisions that appear to exclude the military from this bill and typographical and other drafting errors,” he said.
Meanwhile, the representative of Civil Voices Coalition for protection of right and privileges, Aliyu Mustapha, said they have acknowledged the threat to national security ”and everything goes with regulation”.
He said the group supports the bill ”but that section that will affect the right of Nigerians should be looked into.”
Also, the director, administration at the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, Yusuf Nwoha, said the bill “that seeks to criminalise the issue of internet falsehood is supported by the council”.
He, however, urged the Senate to harness and pass the bill in such a manner that it will not gag the freedom of speech of people as enshrined in the constitution.
“Outside this, Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic affairs supports this Bill,” he said.
In his closing remarks, Mr Bamidele assured that the Senate has not taken a stance.
He said the lawmakers will go through every memorandum and based on presentations ”do a report”.
“This is a private member bill. The Senate cannot be held responsible for a member’s bill. We will advise the Senate based on our findings. No one has any firm position on this. We know the eyes of the world are on us.”
The hearing is one of the final steps of the process of bill passage after which the legislation will be considered and possibly passed into law – if the lawmakers vote in support of the bill.