Nigerians fight back at social media gagging

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

An ongoing petition to stop the Nigerian Senate from passing the Social Media Bill as law continues to grow in numbers amid fear that the bill could stifle internet freedom in the West African country.

As of Tuesday, March 24 it was on the brink of hitting 100 000 signatures. However, outrage at the Nigerian government’s attempts to legally control social media in Nigeria is not new.

“This social media bill has been dragging for years now. We see it as information warfare,” said Minority Africa data editor Farida Adamu.

One of the aims of the Social Media Bill, or the Protection from Internet Falsehoods and Manipulation and other Related Matters Bill 2019 as it is officially known, is “to prevent the transmission of false statements/declaration of facts in Nigeria and to enable measures to be taken to counter the effects of such transmission”.

The bill mirrors Nigerian senator Bala Ibn Na'Allah’s unsuccessful 2015 Social Media Bill. It was canned before Nigerian Senate amid President Muhammadu Buhari’s disagreement with the bill’s ambiguity and hindrances to democracy, according to Nigerian newspaper The Guardian.

The present-day Social Media Bill had an unfavoured response at the public hearing on Monday, March 9. Amnesty International Nigeria handed over a memorandum to the Nigerian Senate as they believe the bill violates human rights.

Premium Times Nigeria reports that of the over twenty organisations present at the hearing, only the Nigerian army, Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and the virtually invisible Civil Voices Coalition were in favour of the proposed new law.

The article adds that the only information that can be found about the coalition is from a news platform “discussing the same subject matter” three days prior to the public hearing.

We’re used to manipulations as Nigerians. Politicians are in the business of getting as much as they can from the system,” said journalist and women and children’s rights activist Betty Abah.

Freedom of speech in Nigeria is stifled by local authorities. The country ranks 120 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

“Africa’s most populous nation has more than 100 independent newspapers and yet covering stories involving politics, terrorism or financial embezzlement by the powerful proves politics, terrorism or financial embezzlement by the powerful proves problematic,” the index said.

Local publication Vanguard reports that at an annual lecture held in Abuja, Nigeria on Saturday, March 21, senior special assistant on media and publicity to President Buhari Garba Shehu said Nigeria’s media need to be held accountable for misinformation they may spread.

"Social media is like a rogue elephant that seems out of control. But despite this notorious image, social media are powerful platforms.

"They enable politicians and activists to engage directly with people. Besides, groups that are marginalised by the traditional media use the social media to get their voices heard,’’ Shehu said, quoted by the daily newspaper.

Abah who is a visiting fellow at the University of York, England said Nigerians know very well about social media’s power and because of its unprecedented power of mobilization, Nigerian authorities are beginning to “feel the pinch”.

“In the UK, social media is vibrant but not as in Nigeria. They don’t engage with social issues as we do in Nigeria, such as the issue of impunity. I would say social media was created for Nigeria. People are beginning to question and you can’t silence them, not in the 21st century,” Abah said.

“We are Social” and Hoot Suite’s #Digital2020 report found that there were 27 million social media users in the country by January 2020, a 14% increase from April 2019. Adamu said as a 25-year-old, she grew up in the digital age, seeing and partaking in online mobilisation. She gave the example of North Normal, which advocates against sexual and gender-based violence in Nigeria.

Adamu said the ambiguity of the bill can affect such advocacy or reportage on social media.

The Social Media Bill states that it hopes to curb any “falsehood” that threatens the way of life in Nigeria, that can undermine national security, or “by reducing trust and undermining our shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities to foster the Country’s unity and integration”.

“What do they mean by national security? That is too vague and can be used against citizens,” she said.

Adamu said the kind of stories Minority Africa tells are of marginalised people in Nigeria.

She gave another example of covering stories about the oil-rich Niger Delta where she said her team has looked into human rights abuses such as oil spillages and lack of housing. Adamu said she was concerned that an ambiguous social media bill could inevitably silence the presence of such stories on social media.

“With a country rich in oil, why is the money not working for people? As long as they are desperate to hold onto power, they won’t want you to ask such questions,” Abah said.

While the Nigerian Senate is still to take a position on Nigerian Senator Muhammadu Sani Musa’s sponsored bill, HumAngle editor-in-chief Ahmad Salkida said he doubted the bill will fly.

“With the astronomical drop in oil prices, Nigeria is now dealing with a far more desperate situation of how to survive, the social media bill is the least of things anyone in government will consider for now.

“Also, the country is on the brink, there is no money even to prosecute the war on terror and other multiple conflict situations across the country,” he said.

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