The Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters commenced the public hearing of the ‘Social Media Bill’ on Monday, having passed first and second readings.
The bill, ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019,’ was introduced in the Senate in November 2019 and is sponsored by Niger senator, Mohammed Sani Musa.
Many Nigerians have kicked against the bill and the lawmakers have come under criticism for considering the bill. Many have said the bill is targeted at silencing the media and the masses.
The legislation comes few years after a similar anti-social media bill introduced in the eight Senate, sparked outrage across the country.
Over 20 institutions and groups that appeared at the public hearing, asked the lawmakers to trash the legislation even as many said Nigeria has existing laws that could cover the provision of the bill.
There were however, three groups that supported the bill – the Nigerian Army, Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Islamic Affairs and Civil Voices Coalition for protection of Rights and Privileges.
1. Nigerian Army
Solomon Udounwa, the Deputy Chief of Policy and Planning of the Nigerian Army, spoke on behalf of the army. He supported the bill as he said the mission of the army is to win all land battle in defence of the nation.
He noted that Nigeria has 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.”
He also gave reasons as to why the bill should be passed and signed into law.
Internet falsehood, he said, “undermines leadership, creates chaos, weakens institutions of governance and can be used to disrupt the economy and create social upheavals”.
For the army in particular, Mr Udounwa said fake news that targets the military “has serious impact on it as an institution, its operations and personnel welfare”.
“Internet falsehoods can undermine military leadership, lower troops morale, hurt the image of the image of the service and even harm personnel safety and that of their families.
“Internet falsehood not only distorts information but also misinforms members of the military and the general public. It severely impacts operational security and could also endanger inter-service rivalry where two or more services of the armed forces and other security agencies are pitted against each other.”
The officer listed measures taken by the army to limit falsehoods.
These include “doctrinal reviews, establishment of new units for specialised and specific functions to tackle the menace, improved information management, conduct of regular military-media interface, personnel education and enhancement of civil military cooperation activities”.
“The Nigerian Army Cyber Warfare command to strengthen our response – which has among other things, contributed immensely to the successful monitoring of the last general elections,” he added.
The officer said the army has submitted about 31 point observations on the bill and 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 minitary from this bill and typographical and other drafting errors”.
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He urged the Senate to look at the bill again and consider it in the interest of national security.
In a short presentation, 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 they support the bill but that section that will affect the right of Nigerians should be look into. He did not elaborate.
On his part, the Director of Administration at the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), Yusuf Chinedozi Nwoha, said the bill “that seeks to criminalise the issue of internet falsehood is supported by Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs”.
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.
Many have argued that the Nigeria Army has a valid point in its support for the legislation.
This is not unconnected to the fact that there have been cases of false news about the military and it has had to come out on some occasions to debunk these.
Moreso, it is understandable that certain information that the military would want to be keep secret, are sometimes leaked out to the public – hence the support for the bill.
In the same vein, the support of the NSCIA can be justified by the fact that internet falsehood sometimes creates chaos and confusion which leads to religious arguments and condemnation on social media.
However, while it is easy to make excuses for the two groups, it is not so for the ‘Civil Voices Coalition’.
Besides the fact that they acknowledged the threat to national security, no other reason was given by the group.
Checks by this newspaper show that the group does not have existing platforms on social media and no active website as well.
The only information that can be found on the group online is from three days ago from a news platform about the group discussing the same subject matter.
Meanwhile, in his closing remarks, the chairman of the committee, Opeyemi Bamidele, assured that the Senate has not taken a stance.
He said the lawmakers will go through every memoranda in presenting its report.
“This is a private member bill. The Senate cannot be held responsible for a member 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.”
PREMIUM TIMES earlier reported how the sponsor of the bill said the opinion of Nigerians on the bill supersedes his personal interest.
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.
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