The Nigerian government has shown that its resolve to regulate online media is undaunted.
With an earlier social media bill stalling at the parliament due to public outcry, the government has now plotted another route to censor the media.
Information minister Lai Mohammad earlier in the week told the parliament to empower the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission by extending the agency’s power to censor the media to include all online media through the ongoing amendment of the agency’s Act currently being considered.
Mr Mohammed would double down on this, during “Politics Nationwide,’’ a Radio Nigeria call-in programme on Tuesday, sayingthat the regulation of social media platforms is becoming a global practice.
He said that most countries have come to terms with the power wielded by the tech giants and how governments are vulnerable to such powers. Hence, the need for regulation
“Singapore, Algeria, Pakistan, Turkey regulate social media, Australia has done so,” he said.
He added that the UK had initiated a new law that places a fine up to 18 million pounds (about N10.8 billion) on social media companies if they failed to stamp out online abuses.
He said Google was fined 220 million euros (about N110 billion) on June 7 by French Competition Regulator for abusing its dominance in the online advertising market in France.
The minister also cited Pakistan as a country Nigeria is looking at as the South Asian country has approved a new set of rules to regulate social media by ordering companies such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even TikTok to register and open offices in Pakistan.
He added that in compliance with the new online broadcasting rule of Turkey, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video had obtained licences from that country’s broadcasting authority.
Although Mr Mohammed’s narrative is flawed – for example, the kind of regulation in Australia is totally different from Nigeria’s Twitter ban or regulatory plan – most of the countries Nigeria seeks to emulate ranked poorly in the press freedom and human development index.
They include Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Costa Rica, Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, Belgium, Ireland, Germany.
The exceptions are Jamaica, Portugal, Canada (which ranks 16th country with the freest press), and Estonia.
Nigeriaranked 120th of 180 countries on the press freedom index in 2020 and 161st of 189 nations on the 2020 human development index (HDI), down from158th in 2014.
HDI ranked all countries by whether or not their people had freedom and opportunity to live a life they valued.
How do the countries cited by Mr Mohammed control the internet and how do they fare on the press freedom and developmental indices?
Turkey blocked access to Twitter in March 2014 in the run-up to local elections, PREMIUM TIMES had earlier reported. The move was reportedly carried out to stem a stream of leaked wiretapped recordings of senior officials that had appeared on the site, prompting then Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to say he would “root out” the network.
Turkey lifted the ban on Twitter after the social networking site complied with its request to remove photographs of a slain Istanbul prosecutor.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) describedthe ban as censorship and a trample “on the public’s right to be informed about a subject of general interest.”
Press freedom in Turkeyis ranked 153rd, while human development places 54th in the world.
Born out of concern about the spread of online falsehoods, Singapore enacted the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, a piece of legislation that took effect in October 2018 and was first used the next month.
It gave sweeping power to all government ministers to decide what constitutes a breach and issue a correction notice that must be posted alongside an assertion they deem false.
If an action is judged to be malicious and against Singapore’s interests, companies could face fines of up to Sg$1m ($720,000), while individuals could face jail terms of up to 10 years.
Repeat offenders will be blocked if they do not post a label from the Singapore government identifying themselves as recalcitrant, according to a review by Washington Post which citedthe States Times Review as a case study.
Long criticised for restricting civil liberties, authorities in the tightly controlled wealthy island nation insisted that law was necessary to stop the circulation of falsehoods that could sow divisions in society and erode trust in institutions.
The law “is just one in the spectrum of tools that we have in order to deal with this whole challenge of disinformation and online falsehoods,” Singapore’s communications and information minister, S. Iswaran, reportedly said.
“We think it is important to juxtapose the truth with the falsehood, because that is where the eyeballs are.”
However, free-speech advocates labelled the tough rules a “chilling” attempt to stifle dissent and they worried that the law could embolden authoritarian regimes to enact similar laws to clamp down on their critics and threaten technology companies.
Human rights watch also describedthe law as “killing the chicken to scare monkey.”
Singaporeranks 160th on the press freedom index but is highly placed – 11th – on the HDI.
A bill before Nigeria’s parliament seeking to regulate social media has been taunted to have been dubbed from Singapore’s version.
In 2016, Algeria banned Facebook and Twitter, supposedly to block the leakage of student’s baccalaureate exams and test questions at a time the country was battling cheating scandals. Digital rights experts questioned the decision, suggesting it had a political undertone as was done in the past.
By 2019, a pro-democracy movement called Hirak led sweeping mass demonstrations across the North African country, forcing long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign in April 2019.
An election that followed ushered in President Abdelmadjid Tebboune whose government would have none of Hirak’s continued demand for sweeping political reforms.
Mr Tebboune’s government, in December 2020, adopted its first ever decreegoverning electronic media; an order that critics said was censorship and stifling free speech.
It, among other things, required online media to register on a .dz internet domain, forcing opposition sites to adopt use of nicknames to protect writers and their families from state harassment.
Charged for “offending the president,” a criticof the government, Walid Kechida, was jailedfor nine months under the penal code. In February, Khaled Drareni, a journalist, was releasedafter almost one year in prison for allegedly “inciting unarmed gatherings.”
Thirty-one human regional and international rights groups condemnedthe crackdown on civil liberties in Algeria.
Algeria, Africa’s largest country known for its oil wealth, places 146th on the press freedom index and 91st on human development.
A set of internet rules rolled out in November empowers the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to block an entire online system and access people’s online conversations and metadata without any judicial oversight.
The rule also requires platforms with more than half a million users in the country to register with the PTA within nine months and establish a permanent office and database servers in Pakistan within 18 months.
The platforms are prevented from uploading and live streaming any content related to “terrorism, hate speech, pornography, incitement to violence and detrimental to national security” or violating the “glory of Islam,” which could be blasphemous.
The platforms are expected to act within 24 hours or, in case of an emergency, six hours to remove such contents once up.
Erring service providers or social media companies could face a fine of up to 500 million rupees ($3.14 million).
Observers and rights activists have roundly decried the rule, worrying that it could potentially erode press freedom and expose journalists who critique the military or government of the conservative Islamic nation to undue persecution.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, condemnedthe law. Digital rights group described it as a “blatant violation” of Pakistanis’ freedom.
Although major social media networks were temporarily suspended in April to “restore public order,” Pakistani authorities had said they would reviewthe law.
Pakistanplaces 145th on the press freedom index and 154th in terms of human development.
In the case of the Oceanic country, regulatory laws were passed to give financial cushion to local publishers who had continuously argued that they should be compensated for contributing the links that drive audiences and advertising dollars of digital platforms like Facebook and Google.
Therefore, Australia’s Media Bargaining Code was not designed to restrict free speech as Nigeria’s information minister portrayed it.
It was designed by authorities in Australia to strengthen publishers when negotiating payment for news content used on tech firms’ sites.
Australia passedthe new law in February. It required internet companies’ platforms to pay local media outlets and publishers to link their content on news feeds or in search results.
This resulted in a standoff between the tech companies and the Australian government, but it was resolvedafter series of concession deals among the parties.
This perhaps explains why Australia ranks 25th on the free press index and has the 8th best human development index in the world.
Stifling free speech
Mr Mohammed maintained that the regulation of social media was not targeted at stifling press freedom and gagging free speech.
However, critics have accused the Nigerian government of wanting to model its moves on some countries with undemocratic practices.
The detractors also accused the government of cherry-picking what suits its agenda, while turning a blind eye to the human developmental strides in some of the countries cited.
The government has, in turn, said that without the regulation, the proliferation of fake news and abuse of information would continue and Nigeria’s corporate existence would be under threat.
“We must not confuse press freedom with irresponsibility,” Mr Mohammed said. “How can you stay in your country and allow your own platform to be used to propagate war in another country?”
“Our appeal to Nigerians is that they should understand where we are coming from. We have no intention to stifle people’s freedom or to cut off the source livelihood of anybody.”
But, media advocates have faulted this, saying the government needs to be more open and rid itself of fake news first while also guaranteeing freedom of speech on and offline before making moves to regulate the media.
Freedom of speech and press freedom, they said, have a far reaching impact on the lives of the people.
“We are concerned about an alarming backsliding on human rights across Nigeria as the Federal Government and State authorities continue to use the criminal justice system and repression to silence peaceful dissent, while failing to ensure accountability for violations of rights. People continue to suffer repressive measures including unlawful surveillance and harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention and unfair trials,” a coalition of civil society organisations including Amnesty International and the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) said in a recent statement.
“The Nigerian authorities have continued to propose laws to regulate the social media, and restrict the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom, including through legislative bills popularly known as the ‘Hate Speech Bill’ and ‘The Social Media Bill’ which both provide severe punitive sanctions such as the death penalty in some cases, for social media users convicted of “crimes” provided under them.”
Yusuf Akinpelu is PREMIUM TIMES' Head of Data Desk. Prior to this, he covered the National Assembly and fact-checked for Dubawa. He is a graduate of Statistics from the University of Ibadan. He has a penchant for books, debates, and wildlife.