This new bill could undermine freedom of press in Nigeria

The bill is on its second reading

It’s been over three weeks since Nigeria’s federal government, led by Buhari’s All Progressive Congress party, placed an indefinite ban on the social networking app, Twitter, following the suspension of the incumbent president’s account on the platform. Justified by the country’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed as a means to protect the country’s “corporate existence”, the unconstitutional ban has been challenged by many Nigerians within the country and in the diaspora, with the human rights organisation SERAP lodging a formal suit against the decision of the federal government.

Despite the many concerns about the online suspension on local networks and internet service providers, Buhari’s government seems adamant about cracking down on what they term as “fake news” and “falsehoods” which they believe have taken over our social networking timelines and undermined the image of Nigeria to foreign investors and outsiders. Earlier, following the announcement of the ban, many media and government organisations were asked to adhere to the suspension and either delete their accounts permanently or cease from sending out tweets from the country through VPNs. Now, it seems the government is taking this a step further and proposing a new bill that could undermine the right to freedom of the press within the country.

The Press Council Amendment Bill, if enacted, could pose great harm for journalists and media organisations based in the country. According to The Guardian, the bill attaches punitive sanctions to it including imprisonment for up to three years and payment of fines for breach of sanctions. The bill also proposes that social media networks must soon register with Nigerian regulators and have offices in the country as well as establisling a national Press Code and standards to guide the conduct of print media, related media houses and media practitioners. The piece of legislation is currently before the House of Representatives and is sponsored by the chairman, House Committee on Information, Segun Odebunmi (PDP, Oyo State).

While the bill is gaining traction now due to recent events such as the End SARS protests and the Twitter ban, it actually predates Buhari’s administration. According to reports, press unions have fought various iterations of the bill across the years since 1999 when the government was dragged to court in Lagos state. A decade later, in 2010, another court struck down the legislation, ruling that 17 out of its 39 clauses were unconstitutional but it was later appealed by the government and ruled in their favour. The legal tussle for and against the bill still hasn’t ended. While the counter-appeal for this case is yet to make its way through the country’s ridiculously slow judicial system, this hasn’t stopped the lawmakers for pressing on with the bill and holding a second reading.

Many media organisations within the country are already speaking out against this undemocratic bill. Mustapha Isah, the head of the Guild of Editors, described the government’s action as “an onslaught on press freedom”. It is yet to be seen how this recent reading will garner more favour for the oppressive bill but many fear that it is in line with the federal government’s continued crackdown on free speech following last October’s protests.

This is a developing story and it will be regularly updated.

[Featured image credits: Web/Guardian NG]

ICYMI: #TwitterBan: Nigeria indefinitely suspends Twitter