BY EBERE NDUKWU
NATIONAL MIRROR, DECEMBER 23, 2015
Following the continuous criticism of anti-social media bill sponsored by Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Bala Ibn Na’allah which sets out heavy sanctions for people who “falsely” criticise public officials or institutions, EBERE NDUKWU looks at the implication of the bill on Nigeria’s democracy.
(ABUJA, NIGERIA) -- There is no denial that the rising and proliferation of social media in the country has positively helped in reshaping political ambiance of Nigeria in terms of educating and mobilising Nigerians.
It is a podium for political analysis, debates, political campaign and political mobilisation as seen in the last general elections in the country where political office holders, politicians, including president and governors owned and managed social media account such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Blog sites among others to inform the public.
During the last election, political leaders and political candidates shared their political agenda and mobilised people towards its propagation using the social media platform. The country’s ruling party, the All Progressives Congress, APC, benefited in no small measure using social media platform in selling its programmes and activities which led to its defeat of the incumbent president in the elections that took place in the first quarter of this year
Unarguably, the advent of social media in the world of information has added a very unique dimension to the participation of more people in those affairs that particularly has direct effects on their day-to-day lives and survival. Social media has already occupied those spaces that were hitherto un-occupied by the orthodox media.
The social media play great role world over in educating the people in a democratic set up, it also has its challenges. This is because while it plays some positive roles in enthroning democracy, its excesses also bring negative consequence on the populace.
Possibly it is on the need to balance the roles of social media in a democratic set up that made the Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Bala Ibn Na’allah, a member of the ruling APC from Kebbi State, to not long ago sponsored a bill which sets out heavy sanctions for people who “falsely” criticise public officials or institutions.
The Bill titled “Draft Bill to Prohibit Frivolous Petition and Other Matters Connected Therewith” seeks to forbid social media operators from slandering members of the public including the lawmakers themselves.
Put differently, the Bill seeks to gag the press and intimidate the users of the social media.
The Bill not only prescribes two year jail term for offenders, it comes with the option of N2 million fine, or both sanctions could be applied.
. The bill says, “Notwithstanding anything contained in any law, it shall be unlawful to submit any petition, statement intended to report the conduct of any person for the purpose of an investigation, inquiry and or inquest without a duly sworn affidavit in the High Court of a state or the Federal High Court confirming the content to be true and correct and in accordance with the Oaths Act.
“Any petition and or complains not accompanied by a sworn affidavit shall be incompetent and shall not be used by any government institution, agency or bodies established by any law for the time being enforced in Nigeria.
“Any person who unlawfully uses, publishes or causes to be published, any petition, complaint not supported by a duly sworn affidavit, shall be deemed to have committed an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for six months without an option of fine.”
It continues: “Any person who acts, uses, or causes to be used any petition or complaints not accompanied by duly sworn affidavit shall be deemed to have committed an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for a term of two years or a fine of N200, 000.00 or both.”
The bill also states that, “Where any person in order to circumvent this law makes any allegation and or publish any statement, petition in any paper, radio, or any medium of whatever description, with malicious intent to discredit or set the public against any person or group of persons, institutions of government, he shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment term of two years or a fine of N4, 000,000.00.”
For the social media, the bill says, “Where any person through text message, tweets, WhatsApp or through any social media, posts any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2, 000,000.00 or both fine and imprisonment.”
Unlike many other bills, the bill received an unusually rapid attention at the senate, with two readings made within two weeks of its introduction, forcing many Nigerians to slam the lawmakers.
Since the bill was sponsored, it has continued to receive criticisms of all sorts, while some Nigerians have seen it as not only a significant clampdown on freedom of speech, but a deliberate targeting of critics of federal lawmakers and the National Assembly, others have called it a threat to democracy in the country
In its reaction, Partnership for Media and Democracy in Nigeria, PAMED, a coalition of NGOs, called on the Senate to drop the Social Media Bill 2015 in order not to stand against the will of the people.
In a statement jointly signed by members of PAMED, the Institute of Media and Society, IMESO, Media Rights Agenda, MRA, and the International Press Centre, IPC, PAMED said the call became imperative because “the bill is a threat to democracy in Nigeria.’’
The group in the statement signed by Dr Akin Akingbulu, executive director, IMESO, Mr Edetaen Ojo, executive director, MRA, and Mr. Lanre Arogundade, director, IPC, citing examples from sections 3 and 4 of the bill said that the bill seeks to gag both the press and the general public from expressing views and opinions.
“If the bill becomes law, it would infringe on human rights to freedom of expression as globally recognised,’’ the group said.
Saying that the bill completely negated important international conventions to which Nigeria was a signatory and which all affirmed the right of citizens to hold opinion, freely express themselves and freely disseminate information, they group described the bill as a subjugation of the constitution which the Senate swore to uphold.
It stated that senators were representatives of the people and should be held accountable by the people they served by answering questions and responding to their criticisms.
“PAMED has come to the conclusion that the bill constitutes a threat to democracy because it seeks to repress the social media, the conventional media, the civil society and the citizenry as a whole.
“In the light of all the pressing development challenges confronting the country, which should be the priorities of the senators and all other persons exercising any form of political power or authority, the PAMED is of the view that the bill itself is frivolous and unwarranted.
“The bill, through its frivolous content and malicious intent, seeks to achieve nothing other than undermining freedom of expression, press freedom, public participation in governance and democracy.
“PAMED, therefore, affirms that the bill violates all the norms of democratic practise, freedom of expression, press freedom, transparency and accountability as well as open governance.’’
In its reaction, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, filed a petition to the United Nations against the bill.
In a recent statement, SERAP executive director, Adetokunbo Mumuni, said: “SERAP can confirm that the Office of the UN Special Rapporteur is now considering our petition. We have received communication from Marcelo Daher at the Office of the Special Rapporteur to this effect. The Special Rapporteur has also requested a copy of the bill, which SERAP has promptly sent to Marcelo Daher.
“SERAP appreciates the prompt attention to this matter by the Office of the Special Rapporteur. We urge the UN to pursue this matter to a satisfactory conclusion by ensuring that the Nigerian Senate is not allowed to strangulate media freedom and social media in the country.
According to SERAP, “the only option for the Senate now is to withdraw this obnoxious bill without further delay and end this international embarrassment. SERAP will be prepared to withdraw the petition at the UN if the Senate can follow this honourable path.”
However in defence of the senate on the bill , Senator Dino Melaye, (APC-Kogi State) raised a point of order, at the floor of the House lashing out on, Sahara Reporters while claiming that untrue stories had been published against him, warning that the Senate should not overlook the bill believed by many as anti social media.
Melaye said: “While I celebrate the social media as one of the actors, this Senate should not be blackmailed. The Senate is a sacred hallowed chamber. The bill moved by Ibn Na’allah has been misconstrued by the same people. This Senate should not be quiet about it.”
Other lawmakers also took turn to speak about alleged false publications in the media. The senate leader, Ali Ndume (APC-Borno State), said the publication of false stories was becoming rampant in the country, saying that the Senate as a lawmaking body should hold people responsible for their actions.
“It is not only Sahara Reporters; there are other online platforms that wake up and post all sorts of things. At a point, one of the online platforms accused me of buying 400 Golf cars for Boko Haram”, he said.
Biodun Olujimi (PDP-Ekiti State), who also expressed frustration, said she had to exit all the social media “because of these problems”.
Ruling on the matter, the Senate President, Bukola Saraki said, “We all support freedom of speech but as a Senate we should not be blackmailed. You can’t write false stories just because it is social media.”
The matter was referred to the committees on ICT, judiciary and ethics and privileges committee.
In its move to calm the mounting opposition on the bill, the leadership of the Senate recently through a statement by its spokesperson, Senator Aliyu Sabi assured Nigerians that they will be able to make input and determine the fate of the controversial Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Related Matters bill.
The Senate said that members of the public, including those for or against the Anti-Frivolity bill or parts of the bill will have the opportunity to shape its final outcome as there is an elaborate process which the bill must undergo before it becomes a law, nothing that some of the comments on the bill emanated from misconception and misunderstanding of the objective which is meant to protect all individuals and institutions, including journalists and social media users.
Senator Sabi: “The senate is committed to freedom of speech and a fully inclusive and participatory democracy”. The process of passing a bill is comprehensive and provide for inputs to be taken from all and sundry. The first stage is merely to read the short title of the bill. The second stage is purely to debate the general principles. The next stage is committal of the bill to appropriate committee or committees for further detailed legislative action where the details, intendment and clause by clause implications of the bill is dissected by the committee. This stage also involve public hearing in which members of the public, civil society, nongovernmental organisations and all interested parties for or against the bill have the opportunity to shape and influence its content.
“The outcome from this committee stage is what will be finalised and then represented to the chamber for clause by clause consideration and approval or disapproval by the Senate. Thereafter, if the bill is approved, then the clean version of the bill is forwarded to the House of Representatives for concurrence or otherwise”.
According to him, the anti-frivolity bill will go through the whole hog and there is no intention to make the process of passing this bill any different. “Accordingly, the Senate wants to re-assure the public about this. So, all those who are either for or against this bill or its part and any other one have ample opportunities to reshape it”, Sabi stated.
Different groups including Diaspora Nigeria Nationals Network, DNNN, with membership all over the world and its headquarters in New York, have called on Senate President Bukola Saraki to slam the brakes on the so-called bill, or risk members of the Upper House finding they are unable to travel in any direction whatsoever.
While many Nigerians want total freedom for social media users, many also would like to see an improved social media which will be able enhance better public mobilisation, sensitisation and true democracy in Nigeria through citizen sensitisation programmes.
With opinion against the bill daily gaining the ground only time has an answer to what will become of the bill.