The new anti-social media bill in National Assembly

National Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria

If what is being reintroduced as social media regulation bill in the National Assembly is a replica of some proposed legislations on the same subject matter that had earlier been thrown out by the legislature, it should be rejected and condemned because, if passed, it would be antithetical to the rule of law, violate the fundamental right of Nigerians to freedom of expression and could lead to crisis.

Beyond the fact that the nation’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression, it is crucial for survival of democracy as it enables dialogue, builds understanding, and increases public knowledge. When citizens can freely exchange ideas and information, their knowledge improves, which benefits their communities and societies. Freedom of expression also enables people to question their governments whenever they perceive any illegality, inefficiency or act of irresponsibility in the governance of the country, which helps to put the leaders on their toes and make them accountable.

It is unacceptable to restrict the freedom of the people to communicate their opinions and ideas and share information in a country where government cannot guarantee security of life and property as well as the welfare of the people, enshrined in the constitution to be the primary purpose of government; where there is no stable electricity supply, pensioners are suffering because of unpaid entitlements, where most of the roads are in bad shape, no potable water, no employment, no conducive environment for businesses to thrive and there is endemic and seemingly intractable corruption in high places where a few people share national wealth among themselves while majority wallow in abject poverty.

Rather than seeking to gag the people, especially critics, the government should take full advantage of the opportunities provided by the social media to build sincere relationship with the people, popularize and seek support for its policies and programmes and inject more transparency into governance.

Recently, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) alerted Nigerians to the reintroduction of a social media regulation bill in the National Assembly, which it said seemed to be a replica of the version of the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019, that sought to empower the authorities to unilaterally order the shutdown of the Internet, but was rejected by the lawmakers. A similar bill to regulate social media that was considered by the National Assembly in 2015 had also failed to pass into law after public outcry.

SERAP warned that if the 2023 bill, which has reportedly passed the first reading is the same as the 2019 bill, becomes law, it would impose disproportionate penalties on Nigerians solely for exercising their human rights, it would unduly restrict peoples’ right to freedom of expression and privacy. Essentially, SERAP urged the Senate President, Godswill Akpabio and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tajudeen Abbas to reject the bill and request the administration of President Bola Tinubu to drop any ongoing efforts to put pressure on Google, YouTube, TikTok and other social media companies to unduly restrict these fundamental human rights.

Before SERAP raised the alarm, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) had reportedly described the social media as one of Nigeria’s major problems and a monster, raising the fear that what is being reintroduced may not be different from what was previously rejected. The then Director-General, Balarabe Ilelah, was quoted as confirming that the social media regulation bill had been sent to the National Assembly to repeal and reenact the NBC Act, CAP L11 laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004.

Similarly, the Director, Broadcast Monitoring of the NBC, Mrs. Franca Aiyetan, reportedly disclosed the Federal Government’s engagement with Google or YouTube, TikTok to know the faces behind these social media platforms. But in a letter dated October 14, 2023, and signed by SERAP Deputy Director, Kolawole Oluwadare, the organisation rejected NBC’s description of the social media as Nigeria’s problem or a monster, warning that any regulation of it would have arbitrary and excessive effects, and cause incalculable damage, both in material and human rights terms.

Besides, SERAP argued that any regulation of the social media would be inconsistent and incompatible with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and the country’s international human rights obligations. The group enlightened Nigerians to the fact that under international law, all restrictions on the operation of social media companies and other intermediaries must comply with the requirements of legality, legitimacy, necessity, privacy and participation.

SERAP advised that rather than rushing to pass the social media regulation bill, the National Assembly should encourage the Federal Government to maximize opportunities around social media access and address the growing social and economic inequalities in the country.

Social media offers many opportunities to expand the civic space, facilitate public discourse and increase access to information for citizens. As information and communication technology grows globally, many citizens have begun to use social media and online platforms as means of political participation. Through these activities, they highlight the poor performance of public authorities and thus enhance public accountability and democratic governance.

Governments often complain about the use of social media for some unacceptable activities like spreading fake news, character assassination and making false allegations. While these practices are condemnable, controlling the social media is not the appropriate remedy, as this can lead governments to indulge in what is known as digital authoritarianism, which is the organized efforts of governments and other organisations to suppress civil freedoms through threats and restrictions in the digital space. Digital authoritarianism can include regimes leaking personal information of civil society activists, spreading fake news and conspiracy theories, performing invasive surveillance or threatening harm to activists to disrupt their work.

The Federal Government should save the country the embarrassment of violating its own constitution and international obligations by stopping the move to restrict freedom of expression of the people under any guise. It is not expected that the people will keep quiet with the myriad of challenges facing the country. They need to speak out with a view to drawing attention to their plight. The bill could lead to deterioration of the human rights situation in the country and carry major economic costs for all sectors, as well as exacerbate social and economic inequalities.

The administration owes Nigerians details of any ongoing discussion and engagement with Google, YouTube, TikTok and other social media companies to know what the engagements are all about and how they would affect the citizens. Nigerians, like their counterparts around the world, should be free to express their minds about happenings in their country.