Nigeria’s Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, has come under fire after denying the National Assembly is considering a bill to regulate the activities of Nigerians on social media.
In an interview with the German broadcaster, DW, aired Thursday, Mr Mohammed said he was speaking “authoritatively” that the controversial “Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill’ was not before the National Assembly.
Tim Sebastian, host of the channel’s Conflict Zone, had asked the minister four times about the bill to buttress his argument that the Nigerian government had grown intolerant of criticisms, and was clamping down on citizens’ basic rights.
Each time, Mr Mohammed replied he did not know about the infamous legislation and insisted it was not before the parliament.
“I am not even aware of that bill,” the minister said the first time, before adding: “There is no such bill before the house.”
“I can say authoritatively, there is no such bill,” he affirmed, appearing to confuse the interviewer.
Mr Mohammed, who has been minister since 2015, was clearly making a false claim. The controversial social media bill was sponsored by the Niger East senator, Mohammed Musa.
The bill, which seeks to “criminalize the use of the social media in peddling false or malicious information”, caused a major backlash in 2019 with many Nigerians condemning it.
The bill has not been withdrawn yet. If passed and signed into law, it will punish anyone found guilty of its provisions with a N300,000 fine, three years imprisonment, or both. Corporate organisations face a fine not exceeding N10 million.
The bill, alongside another targeting “hate speech”, has been widely criticised in and outside of Nigeria.
Ahead of the introduction of the bill, the federal government through Mr Mohammed had vowed to crack down on fake news and hate speeches in the country’s social media space.
Mr Mohammed said at the time that the government was “working to inject rationality into the social media space in the country, to tackle fake news and hate speeches spreading without restriction.”
On November 15, 2019, the information minister held a meeting with the Guild of Corporate Online Publishers in Abuja and said there was no going back on the social media regulation. He said public criticism of the bill will not deter the government from the plan. The statement showed the minister was aware of the bill and even supported it.
When the Nigerian Union of Journalists cautioned the federal government on the bill, Mr. Mohammed asked NUJ to support the bill because “they will be the first victim when the people lose confidence in the media due to the reckless actions of non-journalists and purveyors of fake news and hate speech.”
He said the bill did not serve to “stifle free speech or gag journalists” rather “only purveyors of fake news and hate speech need to be worried.”
“Let me be clear: We are going ahead with our plan to stop, as much as we can, the anarchists, non-patriots, and purveyors of fake news and hate speech. No responsible government will sit by and allow these purveyors of fake news and hate speech a free reign. That’s why many countries of the world are taking measures to regulate the social media,” Mr. Mohammed said.
But asked about the bill on DW, Mr Mohammed denied knowledge of the legislation.
Hear the minister:
DW: What also worried people enormously was your decision to submit a bill which in its original form would have seen anyone convicted of so-called hate speech actually sentenced to death by hanging under particular circumstances. You actually wanted and you sought authorization from parliament to kill people because of something they said. Why would you do a thing like that?
Mohammed: I think what is even more shocking is the ignorance of people, there is what is called separation of power in major democracies. This particular bill we are talking about is a bill submitted not by the executive but by the legislative arm of government. So how can you accuse the executive. We did not submit this bill; it is a private member’s bill by a senator which is …
DW: And you’re telling me you didn’t want it to go through, is that right?
Mohammed: Do we have a choice in which bills go through or not? Which bill is being discussed? There’s public hearing. You see the government does not come in until when the bill has been passed.
DW: And you didn’t use any influence to get that passed?
Mohammed: Absolutely not.
DW: If this bill had gone through minister, journalists could’ve been jailed for any article deemed threatening abusive or insulting and could’ve been hanged if there were caused any loss of life. Well you did not object this bill, did you?
Mohammed: You see there is what is called doctrine of separation of power, the only thing you can do as a president is to refuse your assent to such a law. The law has not been passed, was not originated by the executive …
DW: The law is still going through the Senate.
Mohammed: How does Mr. President stop it without being accused of dictatorship and …
DW: You telling me that you wouldn’t have signed the law with that provision in it?
Mohammed: You’re being speculative
DW: You can’t tell me that can you?
Mohammed: You see when we get to that bridge we have to cross it, we look at the contents of the law and what form it would be passed. But you see people rush hastily to judgement. You said we submitted that bill, we did not…
DW: You didn’t want it submitted?
Mohammed: We don’t micromanage the parliament
DW: Really? What about the protection from internet falsehood and manipulations bill, also carrying draconian provisions, under its terms journalists can be arrested for publishing content.
Mohammed: Who is the author of that bill?
DW: Are you against this bill or not?
Mohammed: I am not even aware of that bill
DW: The protection from internet falsehood and manipulations bill, you’re not even aware of it? It is causing an outcry internationally, and you’re the minister of information and you know nothing about it
Mohammed: There is no such bill before the house
DW: There is a bill.
Mohammed: I can say that authoritatively, there is no such bill before the house.
DW: Reporters without borders said these bills talking about the prohibition of hate speech bill and the protection from internet falsehood and manipulations bill, they say these bills contain extremely harsh penalties that violate the international law and are likely to be used to gag the media. And you are saying you know nothing about this bill?
Mohammed: I don’t.
The minister’s comments has sparked anger with many Nigerians saying Mr Mohammed was being untruthful.
“The reason Lai Mohammed denied that bill is because they know the Bill is a shameless bill made for shameless men whit fragile egos,” Twitter user, William Ukpe, wrote.
Another user, Sandra Ezekwesili, wrote, “Shame on you !!Buhari Minister at it again. Imagine a minister of Information and culture dishing out lies with reckless abandon, he has no regard for posterity, disgracing Nigeria before international community. Lai Mohammed, repent for posterity sakes.”
Shame on you !!Buhari Minister at it again.
Imagine a minister of Information and culture dishing out lies with reckless abandon, he has no regard for posterity, disgracing Nigeria before international community. Lai Mohammed, repent for posterity sakes. pic.twitter.com/bZqNUFvFGz
— Usman Okai Austin (@Oma_igala1) January 31, 2020
Another user, EbongJc, was less dismissive. “Lai Mohammed may be lying,” he said. “There is no such bill before the House @nassnigeria.
“Instead of accusing him of lying, 🇳🇬 should be happy that the “Prohibition of the Hate Speech Bill and Protection from Internet Falsehood & Manipulation Bill” DOES NOT EXIST. 😁