A Coalition of Civil Society Groups has rejected the Senate’s move to hold a public hearing on the controversial Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations; and for Related matters Bill, 2019 (SB. 132).
The bill was introduced in November last year by Muhammed Musa, a senator representing Niger East, to regulate the social media and curb fake news on the internet. Since then, the bill has continued to attract criticism from Nigerians and civil society groups.
This newspaper reported how Nigerians’ outcry killed such a similar Anti-Social bill introduced in 2015 during Senator Bukola Saraki-led 8th National Assembly.
The 9th Senate has slated March 9, for a public hearing on the bill.
It would be recalled that a town hall meeting was organised by AIT in February to discuss the feasibility of the two controversial bills sponsored by the two senators.
PREMIUM TIMES witnessed how the bill and its twin on Hate Speech sponsored by Mr Musa’s counterpart from Niger State, Sabi Abdullahi, were defeated by CSO groups and Nigerians in attendance.
The CSOs position
In a similar vein, the groups, 110 in total, on Wednesday in Abuja, said the bill is a resuscitation of “an obnoxious bill that had been hitherto unanimously rejected by the people” and should not be further considered for public hearing to be funded by tax-payers’ money.
The group added that such a bill is ‘self-serving and politically motivated’ to police the internet and gag the freedom of expression.
Bukky Shonibare of Girl Child Africa, who read the signed stance of the 110 CSOs, argued that, “It has been affirmed severally in various courts of law that the right to freedom of expression is a constitutional and fundamental right; inviolable under the 1999 constitution.
‘’Section 17 (1) of the Constitution expressly states that: ‘The State Social order is founded on ideals of Freedom, Equality and Justice,” while in section 37, it protects “The Privacy of Citizens, their homes, correspondence, telephone conversations and telegraphic communications is hereby guaranteed and protected.'”
The group, in its argument against the bill, referenced the statements of both President Muhammadu Buhari and his Vice, Yemi Osinbajo, before the attempt to launch the bill in 2016 was eventually defeated.
“Free speech is central to democratic societies anywhere in the world. Without free speech, elected representatives won’t be able to gauge public feelings and moods about governance issues. As a key component of democratic principles, people in democratic societies are so emotionally attached to free speech that they would defend it with all their might,” Mr Buhari was quoted to have said.
Mr Osinbajo, in his submission against the bill said he does not “think that government regulation is necessarily the way to go, but I believe that we, as persons of faith and we, as leaders, and those of us who use the social media actively owe a responsibility to our society and to everyone else, to ensure that we don’t allow it to become an instrument of conflict and instrument of war.”
Despite the position expressed by the duo, media freedom in Nigeria remains under attack. This is eminent in the recent cases of arrests of journalists, bloggers, social media activists and other Nigerians.
“This apparent executive plot pushing, manipulating and exploiting the Senate to regulate the social media and internet, will expose people to increased intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention, and exacerbate the growing attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and activists.
“The National Assembly must immediately and publicly reject this illegal and unconstitutional bill (and) ensure full and effective compliance with Nigeria’s international human rights obligations and commitments. We, as people and civil society reject this bill as both politically motivated and self-serving,” the coalition groups said.
In an interview after the briefing, a programme officer of Amnesty International, Seun Bakare, quizzed the basis of the bill and whose interest it tends to serve more.
In his argument, he said passing such bill will worsen the country’s ranking on corruption index as “those who govern and who do not want their actions screened or called to question by Nigerians,” will use this to their advantage.
“If we then choose to have a society where people cannot express themselves, the fear is that what we have in our hand is greater than we can imagine. If people do not have the right and freedom to express how they feel, it will lead to frustration. This is why this government must stop this bill.
“We already have many laws in our books that will do exactly the same thing you want this law to do. And so, we do not need this bill and the Senate of Nigeria must understand that it does not serve its own purpose, it is supposed to be serving the purpose of the people that voted them in.
“We don’t need another legislation, what we really need is good leadership,” he concluded.
Another speaker at the press conference, Jude Illo (OSIWA), expressed worries over the impact such a bill would have on media houses, journalists, and other online users who make a living off the social platforms if implemented.
“Every media house could be endangered by this bill. Imagine a situation where the government is in a position to determine what is false, and what is not false?
“This bill did not define what false statement is, it left it to the intelligence of our Nigerian police to determine what is false and what is not false. Practically everything you write or upload can put you into trouble as long as that subject matter is on the internet. This is dangerous.
“The bill is ambiguous. It talks about Nigerians’ relationship with other countries. It talks about ill-feelings, when (did) we start legislating feeling? It also tells you that when the Nigerian police, in their infinite wisdom, decides that what you have said is false and issue a regulation that either you retract or you provide what is the truth by their standards, you cannot go to court until you appeal to them to change their mind,” he said.