The use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms in Nigeria and other parts of the African continent has been increasing with people using these tools to propagate their freedoms and rights as well as push for their agendas.
The benefits of social media by citizens can be both rewarding and disappointing at the same time for a government. The proposed ‘social media bill’ in Nigeria could have focused more on the challenges that social media might present to a government, rather than the alternative.
A few months ago, a bill which is being sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na'allah, from President Buhari's All Progressive Party (APC) was brought forward for deliberation by the Senate.
The bill has caused an uproar in Nigeria with legal practitioners, media, and human rights activists, civil society groups among other citizens terming it as a tool to gag and frustrate people’s freedom of speech.
According to its spokesperson, Aliyu Sabi, the Senate is “committed to freedom of speech and a fully inclusive and participatory democracy.” He added that those in support or against the bill or parts of the bill will have the opportunity to direct its final outcome.
If passed, the "Frivolous petition Bill 2015 (SB. 143)" also known as anti-social media bill will see people convicted under the legislation face jail time and fines of up to 2 million naira ($10,000).
Human rights activists fight against the bill
Mr Efemena Agadama, a human rights activist, and novelist has condemned the bill maintaining that it is unnecessary and that the laws of the federation on libel, defamation, treason and related laws have clauses that cover the essence of the social media bill.
In a statement to media houses, Mr Agadama noted that the bill, if passed into law would put more lives in danger than envisaged.
Even as activists and other stakeholders rally for rejection of the bill, Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) has thrown his weight behind the bill. A representative of the CJN Justice Mahmud Mohammed, said the bill, when passed into law, would protect the interest of all.
According to Justice Mohammed, “the bill is not out to curb or check excesses and recklessness of all arms of government, its aim is to ensure that only facts are disseminated to the public.”
On the other hand, a representative of the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Mr Francis Oyong, an assistant director in the ministry, disagreed with the bill arguing that it would affect press freedom and freedom of expression.
Also backing those fighting against the bill is Mr Chibuike Okorie, a representative of the Nigeria Law Reforms Commission. He told a meeting (a one-day public hearing by the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights, and Legal Matters) that the commission would not support the bill as it aimed at correcting what had been taken care of by the provisions in the nation’s existing laws.
According to him, certain provisions of the bill were capable of hindering the ongoing anti-graft war, frustrating probe of internal fraud and mismanagement in the ministries, department and agencies.
“The demerits of the bill clearly outweigh its merits. The bill is unnecessary, having regard to the existing laws. Laws must be general not for some people,” he said.
According to the Human Rights Watch, the bill was designed to muzzle free speech and could affect more than 15 million Nigerians who use social media platforms in the country.
Social media a ‘menace’ for many African governments
It’s not just Nigeria that is trying to control social media usage in Africa. Most recently, Uganda had its social media platform blocked in a bid to control what people shared during elections.
Congo Brazzaville also ordered telecom providers to shut down social media on the day of elections.
The shutting down of social media or switching off internet communications is a worrying trend in Africa and by passing the bill in part or as a whole by Nigerian government will create a precedent for other nations to follow suit in the globe.
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