A Chinese proverb says, “The cobra will bite you whether you call it Cobra or Mr. Cobra”. What this simply means is that changing the name of a thing or person does not change what they are neither does it transform what they are made of.
We recall vividly that when the Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith was first introduced in the Eighth Senate in 2015 upon the sponsorship of Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah, many Nigerians took to various platforms to express their displeasure with the Bill stating that it was a clear means for the Federal Government to gag the media. Due to the public outcry, the Bill did not make it into law. If the Bill was passed into law, people found guilty of making false remarks on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other similar media, would be liable for two years in jail or pay N2 million fine.
However, Senator Mohammed Sani Musa has recently sponsored a bill titled Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019 which he said would curb fake news on the internet. This Bill seeks to criminalize individuals and organizations that disseminate fake news on social media.
The Senator was quoted to have said “I as an individual may decide to remain in my room or office and then draft something I know very well is false because I want to hit at someone. I will decide to draft and throw on social media. Waiting few seconds, it’s on there. Before you know it, it has been shared all over. I have a passion for IT and I know what it takes to disseminate your information, it is like the speed of light”.
The aim of the bill is to prevent transmission of false statements and/or declaration of facts in Nigeria and statements that are likely to threaten the peace and security of the country and her allies, influence the outcome of elections, incite feelings of hatred towards a person or group of individuals and cause a distrust between the government and the people. It also seeks to take measures to counter the effects of such transmissions. It also extends to bodies financing such activities and to deter malicious behaviors of online bots. It also mandates the Police to issue regulations on false declaration of fact.
The bill, if passed, could have social media users who share false information sentenced to prison or asked to pay a fine or both. Corporate organisations who “refuse to block false information” after they have been alerted by a regulating agency could be fined as well. Finally, Telecommunication agencies, too, could face yet-to-be-determined sanctions if they “allow their network to be used to disseminate false information.”
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human right proclaim freedom of individuals and groups to freely seek and exchange information, provides legitimacy for the operation of the media globally. From this universal convention, media organizations across the world derive their legitimacy.
The Nigerian 1999 Constitution in its Section 39(1) for example guarantees the right to freedom of expression and the press on the one hand thus: “every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”. Subsection (2) added that “without prejudice of subsection (1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish, and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, idea and opinions…”
Every person is accorded the freedom of expression including the freedom to hold opinion and to receive and impact ideas and information without any interference. For impacting ideas, holding opinion and information, it is necessary that the individual should have the right to any media of his choice. The freedom of expression can therefore be exercised orally or in writing through the print as well as electronic media. For the proper exercise of the right, subsection (1) of section 39 of the 1999 constitution has extended to the ownership or the establishment and operation of any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas, and opinion to the public. This right can be exercised through several ways. A person may choose to express his ideas and opinion or conceal the information he obtained by any means available to him.
The constitution does not place any restriction on the acquisition of information with respect to the concept “expression” used in the section 39 of the constitution. Expression can be effected through variety of ways; it can be done through sign or gesture.
In the wake of this reintroduction, some well-meaning Nigerians have come out to condemn the move. Deji Adeyanju, a well-known activist, reacted to this attempt at social media censorship. He said “We will mobilize Nigerians against the Anti-Social Media Bill just reintroduced in the National Assembly. We killed it before and we must kill it once again. This is an assault on Freedom of Expression enshrined in the constitution. The Anti-Social Media Bill will affect everyone. It will take away our freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without government interference. We know that with Lawan and Gbaja, the Anti-Social Media Bill is as good as passed but we as citizens must do our part. This is what Buhari always wanted to do since 2015”.
The bill seems an attempt to silence critics and dissenting voices and this is an endangerment of democracy. Our leaders cannot claim they run a democratic system of government when they seek every means to gag contrary opinions. Why would a government that enjoyed the benefits of social media and in fact, won based on social media campaigns seek to saw off the ladder that once installed it into power? The existing laws are enough to address all possible crimes in using social media, why do we need to create new ones to silence dissenting voices?
Active citizens! If you value your freedom of speech, visit shineyoureye.org to get your senators’ contact details and engage them.