By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor & Joseph Erunke with agency reports
ABUJA — The Senate and the House of Representatives are set for an epic battle over perceptions that the Frivolous Petitions Bill introduced in the Senate could erode the change mantra that brought the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, to power in the last elections.
The opposition of the House to the bill to gag mainstream media and the social media was articulated by House spokesman, Abdulrazak Namdas. He spoke just as the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate, Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah, told Vanguard that there would be no going back on the bill which he claimed arose from the need to stop blackmailers and intimidators on social media.
Na’Allah, deputy majority leader of the Senate, said no amount of indignation from the public would compel the legislative body to abandon the bill midstream.
The bill, entitled, “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith,” proposes a two-year jail term or a N2 million fine or both for anybody that posts or broadcasts false, abusive statements on social media.
We can’t close space for free speech
Flaying the bill following the late Tuesday meeting between President Muhammadu Buhari and members of the House of Representatives, Namdas said: “As Chairman, House Committee on Media, I must say that we cannot close space for free speech.
“We came on the platter of change and it was this social media that brought us to power and we are making effective changes on that. I think we should live with that,” Namdas was quoted by NAN as saying.
He said: “We would like to ensure that there is free speech. And the only thing we try to enjoin is that journalists, who are trained, who know the ethics of journalism, should also join the social media activity so that we can differentiate between the grains and the chaff.
“I think that is most essential, but we should not leave it for just those who think they can just post anything. Ideally, I think it is very important that we allow free speech. With time we will get to the level that we can regulate. For now I think Nigerians will rely on them.
No amount of indignation’ll stop us
However, reiterating the determination of the Senate to forge ahead with the bill, Na’Allah in an interview with Vanguard said: “I sponsored the bill to sanitize information flow on the social media. The social media is a very valuable platform for dissemination of information and it has helped this country greatly but of recent we have seen some few ‘bad eggs’ who have turned it into a business venture.
“They collect money from people and go into the social media to tarnish the image of their political opponents. It is against this backdrop that we felt people should behave responsibly on the platform.
“They ask you to bring money or they post things that will portray you in bad light or alternatively they collect money from other political opponents and post unfavourable things about you. This is not going to augur well for this country.”
Na’Allah said issues between the President of the Senate, Dr Bukola Saraki and Saharareporters.com did not influence the bill as he said he was until recently ignorant of any issue between the two.
“I didn’t even know the Senate President has an issue with the Sahara Reporters until after Senator Dino Melaye raised a point of order on it on the floor of the Senate last Thursday.
“We had in our legislative agenda, the idea of making sure that this country is ruled by law and we are of the view that the only way this country can move forward is if there are laws and they are enforced and that was why the ICT committee of the Senate was created.
“We felt the need that all these things must be regulated. All the areas where we have seen hitches in our democratic journey, we want to make sure that they are corrected.”
He said some people just want to misinform the public on the bill, adding: “Don’t forget that the bill is going to go through public hearing wherein; the public is going to say their mind on it.
He noted: “There, they will speak on whether the bill is desirable or not but as a Senate, we should be seen to do something and the public should have a say in it but the public cannot blackmail us into saying that we cannot sit down and make laws for the country.
“If you have freedom of expression, it is not absolute. The fact that you have freedom of expression does not give you the licence to continue to go and make allegations against people because those people too have their own right, which is called dignity of human person.”