#EndSARS: New Anti-Social Media Bill and Nigeria’s unhappy Youths

Lai Mohammed

The government is again demonstrating its zero tolerance to criticism of any sort and the current move to resurrect the earlier defeated bills against free speech, which the lawmakers were trying to foist on Nigerians as anti-fake news bills will further drive the country towards authoritarianism, which is obviously far from the tenets of democracy which the nation is practicing now

By Anayo Ezugwu

The Northern States’ Governors’ Forum, political leaders, and traditional rulers from Northern Nigeria, on Monday, November 2, declared their support for the federal government’s move to regulate social media. They called for major control mechanism and censorship of the social media practice in the country.

The governors, in a communiqué issued by Governor Simon Lalong of Plateau State, after the meeting in Kaduna with traditional rulers and other key stakeholders in the region, said that the move would check the spread of fake news in Nigeria. He said: “The meeting took note of the devastating effect of the uncontrolled social media in spreading fake news. Therefore, it calls for major control mechanism and censorship of the social media practice in Nigeria.”

This is not the first time the federal government is proposing to regulate social media. Realnews recalls that attempts by the government to regulate social media dated back to December 2015 with the proposal of a “frivolous petitions” bill which prescribed jail time and a $10,000 fine for social media posts found to be in contravention of the proposed law. Yet, the bill was withdrawn six months later in the face of widespread public criticism.

In 2019, a bill to regulate social media, proposed by a lawmaker of the All Progressives Congress, APC, was also rejected after opposition by many Nigerians.  With renewed calls for regulation now coming from the federal government, the latest attempt could come in form of the resurrecting the two existing bills earlier proposed and discussed by the National Assembly – the “Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill” and the “National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill.” Both bills seek to “address disinformation and dangerous speech, but their primary target is social media.

But critics have said that the federal government is simply trying to stifle critical and dissenting voices. They also questioned whether social media is the cause of unending insecurity in the northern part of the country. For instance, in Plateau State, dozens of people had been killed this year in a series of murderous hits.

Apart from Plateau State, in Kaduna State killing of innocent citizens have not only become a recurring event, but Nigerian soldiers also massacred hundreds of Shiites with impunity. In Zamfara, hundreds of people had been killed and tens of thousands displaced this year alone. While the #EndSARS protests were ongoing, bandits stormed a village in Tungar Kwana in northern Zamfara and killed 20 people.

How does a democratic country like Nigeria control the social media space? Countries like North Korea, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh that regulate social media are not democracies. Even if Nigeria takes the China route by erecting a firewall that can block IPs, filter searches, erase content, and swamp people with pro-government propaganda, they are too inefficient to sustain thought flows on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, or YouTube.

According to available statistics from the Nigerian Communications Communication, NCC, more than 120 million Nigerians are using internet. From the statistics, it is obvious that the social media is a force in today’s polity. And the recent #EndSARS protest across the country is a case study that social media is indeed a force.  For instance, the organisers of the protest arranged the protest effectively and efficiently largely through social media platforms. Their mobilisation of persons locally and globally, fundraising, legal, medical and security services, and protest protocols were all done online. That success was evidence of the possibilities of modern technology.

Many Nigerians and groups are worried over government’s intentions to regulate social media, saying that the federal government cannot legislate morality. The Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, has rejected the alleged move by the government. Kola Ologbondiyan, national publicity secretary, PDP, described it as unconstitutional, anti-people and attempt to silence Nigerians.

Ologbondiyan said the attempt to censor the social media was targeted at muzzling outspoken Nigerians. This, according to him, is particularly against youths, media and civil society organizations demanding for accountability and competence from government.

He said it would also silence citizens from exposing cases of corruption, injustice, human rights abuses and constitutional violations by government officials. “Our party rejects the claims that the regulation bill is targeted at checking fake news. This is because our nation already has enough implementable laws to counter the dissemination of fake news and punish offenders,” he said.

Ologbondiyan said instead of curtailing citizens’ constitutionally guaranteed rights, government should rather take steps to reassure Nigerians of efforts to address corruption, treasury looting, abuse of human rights, nepotism and unaccountability. He advised the government to become more accountable, particularly in exposing corrupt officials, including those alleged to be involved in diversion of funds voted for COVID-19 palliatives.

On its part, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, has threatened to sue the National Assembly and the Northern Governors’ Forum if any social media bill is passed and signed by President Muhammadu Buhari. SERAP said this in a tweet while reacting to a proposal by the northern governors for more social media regulations in the wake of the #EndSARS protests.

The tweet read, “We’ll sue the Northern Governors’ Forum and the National Assembly if any social media bill is passed and signed by President Buhari. Nigerians have a right to freedom of expression online. We won’t accept any illegal attempts to interfere with that right #NoToSocialMediaBill.”

As the debate over social media regulation rages, the recent Lekki massacre has showed that the government cannot claim to be above board on the issue of fake news. For example, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State contradicted himself on what happened on October 20; the army lied and later confessed their role, a federal minister miraculously found a camera at the scene of the incident, and the Attorney General of the Federation added another twist by saying that hoodlums in army uniform perpetrated the violence. These contradicting statements and comments from government officials on the Lekki massacre can rightly qualify as fake news from official quarters.

– Nov. 6, 2020 @ 17:55 GMT |

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