We might all be a bit distracted by Miss ‘Rona and all the complications she’s bringing, but let’s not forget that it’s possible in the very near future, that social media may become a less safe avenue for free expression if the Nigerian Senate passes its proposed ‘Social Media Bill’.
Introduced on the 9th of November 2019, the bill titled ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019’ was sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa, representing Niger east senatorial district, with the aim of regulating the menace of hate-speech and fake news.
Hate speech is regarded as any public statement that ‘expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation’. Following the rise of the far-right across parts of the industrialised West, and social media granting access to billions of people around the world to share their thoughts in real time, concern has grown with regards to limiting the dissemination of fake news, and the propagation of hate speech.
With the general public calling on social media platforms such as Facebook & Twitter to be more robust in identifying and removing such content from their websites, governments around the world have also tried to introduce policies to combat hate speech. In Singapore for example, it’s a criminal offence to communicate a false statement of fact, and you could get a penalty of a jail term of up to 10 years, a fine of up to $100,000 or both. The bill also levels penalties on social media platforms which fail to emove content or display prominent corrections at the government’s direction. Observers believe that Singapore’s bill was the likely inspiration for Nigeria’s proposed ‘Social Media Bill’.
Senator Musa’s bill, would make it a punishable offence for an individual to transmit a false statement as fact, with prejudice to Nigerian society whether you’re within or outside of Nigeria. This covers the health and safety of the country’s citizens, influences the outcome of an election in Nigeria, amongst many other things. The punishment for this crime being “a fine not exceeding N300, 000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or to both”.
Many analysts are concerned that this bill, should it be passed through the senate would greatly infringe on people’s rights and could possibly be used as a tool for internet censorship, raising concerns that the bill’s true intentions may be to stifle political commentary and anti-government scrutiny in light of cases against journalists and publications like Premium Times.
A public hearing held on the 10th of March at the National Assembly saw most speakers, ranging from civil groups, government agencies and average citizens, on the day in opposition to the bill, highlighting the fact that the bill could be abused by authorities, essentially violating the Human rights of average Nigerians.
Speaking at public hearing, the executive chairman of the National Communications Commission (NCC) noted that the bill gives unconscionable power to the Police to be the judge and jury of proper internet content. The NCC and the broadcasting organisation of Nigeria (BON), amongst others agreed that most of the bill’s provisions were already captured in previous legislations such as the Cyber Crimes Act of 2015. Speaking further Sa’a Ibrahim, chairman of BON, remarked that the bill is “undefined and misleading”, adding that its purpose was not necessary.
Other groups have also voiced concern and resistance a the bill, a recent exhibition by Terra Kulture was held, showcasing artworks from various Nigerian arts with large social media presence, and encouraged participants and visitors alike to sign a petition against the bill. Protests also held in Lagos and Abuja, in opposition to the bill.
On our part, we can combat fake news by verifying information we receive online, before sharing it to other people.
While it’s important for us to take a definitive stand on fake news and hate speech, especially in a culturally diverse country such as Nigeria, we must ensure that the principles of free speech, and open discourse remain sacrosanct. Nevertheless, conversations such as these are vital to entrenching the values of democracy in our society. The bill has passed through its second screening, and with little public support, it likely will not become law, however we should not rule out a potential resurgence of the policy down the line.
There is an online petition against the social media bill with close to 100,000 signatures. The target is 150,000, you can sign the petition here.
Featured Image Credits: Web/ NATIVE
Djaji is a creative Vagabond, send me your takes on music and African culture @djajiprime