By Charles Kumolu
MR Chijioke Udemezue who resides in the United Kingdom, UK is one of the numerous Nigerians in diaspora whose opinions on the internet influenced the outcome of the last general election in the country. A die-hard apostle of “change,” Udemezue is hardly critical of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration.
Even when some actions of the present government lack public approval, Udemezue would unusually not make any comments on his Facebook page and twitter handle, except on his online newspaper, where he publishes opinion articles written by other contributors.
Boundless freedom: When Vanguard Features, VF recently sought to know from Udemezue the reasons behind his strange silence on the happenings in the country since May 29, 2015, the Anambra State-born lawyer noted that as someone who supported the berthing of this government, it would be unfair to criticise the Buhari administration at this early stage.
Surprisingly, on December 5, 2015, the UK-based attorney reneged on this stance when he wrote about a nation of misplaced priorities on his Facebook page. ‘’A nation of misplaced dreams and priorities, a people who thrive in falsehood and deceit. Those of us who gave the present crop of lawmakers the benefit of the doubt, are appalled by the planned anti-freedom of speech bill being sponsored by those who benefited much from the boundless freedom on the cyber space. I hope what I have read in that line is wrong,” Udemezue wrote.
Freedom of speech
It takes no probing to know that Udemezue was irked by the plan to severely sanction anyone behind any opinion found offensive to public officials and institutions on the social media . The bill: The contentious bill titled “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith, was sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na’allah, a member of the All Progressives Congress ,APC, representing Kebbi Central Senatorial District. The bill seeks to compel critics of persons and institutions on the social media, to accompany their petitions with sworn court affidavit, or face six months imprisonment upon conviction.
It is also seeking a two-year jail term for any person who makes allegations or publishes any statement or petition in the newspaper, radio or medium of whatever description against another person, institutions of government or any public office holder.
In fact the bill included as its target, very personal and private means of communication such as SMS or text messages and WhatsApp, among others.
Apart from Na’allah, another Senator considered as possessing social media savvy, Senator Dino Melaye, had while the bill was being debated, decried what he called the growing ‘’unlawful activities” of some social media users in the country.
Melaye who many see as a beneficiary of new media, posited that social media operators should be held accountable for their reports and publications.
Melaye who was pissed by some publications about him in Sahara Reporters warned that if strict measures are not put in place to check the excesses of such some social media outfits, especially Sahara Reporters, the social media could truncate the nation’s democracy.
The anger: The bill which had passed through the second reading in the Senate, is being construed by many Nigerians as an affront on freedom of speech and a deliberate target at the critics of the members of the National Assembly,NAS.
To many discerning commentators, the progress the bill has made towards becoming a law within so short a time, appears shocking considering the fact that the Senate is not known to pass bills in a hurry.
“I presented the bill for its first reading on November 24 at the Senate and the second reading was passed yesterday (December 2),” Na’allah who was apparently referring to some of his colleagues, who both claimed ignorance of the bill, said.
Face saving moves: In the midst of the growing controversy, the Senate in move seen as face saving, explained that the proposed law does not intend to suppress the freedom of expression as guaranteed in Section 22 and 39(1) of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution.
Ploy to gag the press
The aim of the bill according to the Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Aliyu Sabi said it “is meant to protect all individuals and institutions, including journalists and social media users”.
Similarly, the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Godswill Akpabio has allayed the fears being expressed by Nigerians that the bill is another ploy to gag the press. Using his Twitter handle @SenAkpabio, the Senate Minority Leader said that they would not pass into law any bill with the aim of sending social media users to jail. “Dear Nigerians, go to sleep & stop worrying; nobody is going to send social media users to jail through the senate. It will not happen,” he twitted.
These explanations did not however assuage the anger of most Nigerians in the offline and online communities.
Restriction of human freedom
The Publisher of an online site, Elombah.com, Mr. Daniel Elombah is one of such Nigerians. He alleged that the Senate ‘“ is seeking to restrict the scope of human freedoms, growth of new platforms of social interaction and public accountability.”
Elombah who is an executive member of the Online Publishers Association of Nigeria, OPAN told VF that he was saddened because most of those promoting the bill had used the social and conventional media to get elected into their various positions.
He warned that if such plan is not strongly resisted by Nigerians, the media may soon experience more censorship.
“The summation of our findings is that this is both a “signalling as well as “a kite” that if not nipped in the bud, will open the doors to direct censorship, limitation of freedom and a deliberate attempt by law makers who having deployed the social media platforms and publishing platforms to gain office, want to control the lever,” Elombah posited.
Advancement of democracy
Similarly, the Publisher of Biztellers.com, Mr. Yemie Adeoye decried the move to gag the contents of social media outfits.
Adeoye who is a member of the Guild of Corporate Online Publishers, GCOP said: ‘’ It is shocking how Senators who campaigned on platforms of various social and news media, would contemplate such a move at a time when Nigerians are queuing for days to access basic necessities like petrol, electricity and even security.”
To him, “The bill as proposed by Senator Ibn Na’Allah is to say the least, ludicrous and unreasonable especially in this age and time where social media advancement is contributing in no small measure to global technological and civil advancement, as well as the advancement of the democracy we hypocritically claim to be practising.
“ In Nigeria, Africa’s largest and most vibrant economy as well as home to most black men on earth, we cannot be plunging ourselves into retrogressive advancement,” he said.
Maintenance of standards: Although many commentators have cited the regulation of social media in some countries and the need to ensure the maintenance of standards, the online publishers insist that the Senate’s plan is not being driven by need to ensure standards in the media.
Jeremy Bender in a piece titled: Countries that Blocked the Internet observed thus: “Political censorship is alive and well in countries throughout the world.”
Similarly, Dana Liebelson in Social Media under Fire pointed out that some countries had at different times promulgated laws regulating or perhaps banning the freedom of expression on the new media for obvious reasons.
The report which was done with help from Google’s transparency report listed about 16 incidents in 11 regions since 2009 where such laws had been promulgated often in the wake of protests. VF also learnt that there laws in other jurisdictions guiding internet usage. Examples in the UK include the Computer Misuse Act, Electronic Communications Act (2000) and Electronic Commerce Regulations (2000).
Others are the Electronic Communications Act, 1999 of Australia, Electronic Transactions Act, 1999 of Australia, Measures on the Administration of Internet Information Services, 2001 of China, Electronic Transactions and Commerce Law No 2 of 2002 of Dubai, Act on the Dissemination of Publications and Media Contents Harmful to Youth of Germany, Digital Signature Act, 1997 of Germany, Child Online Protection Act, 1998 – United States and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 1986 of the United States among others.
‘’This is not the way nor is it the appropriate vehicle to ensure standards and it is nothing more than an attempt to muzzle public opinion under the guise of protection of individuals from false attacks,” Elombah said.
“Nigeria has extant laws that have now been shown to be inefficient, unworkable and inadequate by the actions of the lawmakers. Their response however falls short of the responsibility and mandate bestowed on them. This is a clampdown on the freedom provided for in the constitution of the Federal Republic to which they swore to protect. We align with the Nigerian public in describing this action by the Nigerian Senate as pure idleness and an abandonment of the electoral mandate to focus on laws for good governance and increased welfare for the people,” he added
Laws for good governance
Another online publisher who does not want his name in print said: “Our lawmakers are afraid of the fact that the country’s vibrant internet community is poised to serve justice to them by exposing their dirty deals. They need to be asked what they are scared of? It is an indirect way of introducing repressive media laws. The country had been on this path before, and this time, we will collectively refuse to travel on that road,” he said’
Adeoye, did not also differ on that. : “In my opinion, our Senators are either having too less on their to-do list or totally out of tune with the yearnings of the electorate, whom they swore by their election to protect and defend. They should sit down to conceptualise bills that would ensure every children of school age must either be in school or their parents be arrested. Bills that would finally put an end to looting of public funds should be debated on.”
Also reacting to this, the President of OPAN, Mr. Olufemi Awoyemi said:‘’The proposed bill immediately reminds the general public of the infamous Decree 4 of 1984 passed under military rule; one that took away our freedoms. The continuous attempt at gagging members of the public was again re-enacted in 2011, when the Senate attempted to pass a bill by another APC Senator; for which ironically, the current members of the Senate stepped down after extensive public outcry.
Extensive public outcry
This appears therefore to be an on-going project in the Nigerian Senate.
‘’The planned action by the Senator Bukola Saraki -led Senate seeks to negate Chapter IV section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution which provides that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”. Equally, it seeks to set aside the UN Charter: Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 which states that – “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Meanwhile, President Muhammadu Buhari, has distanced himself from the proposed bill.
The President speaking through his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, stated that the principle of the bill was inconsistent with democratic ideals of free speech enshrined in the constitution of the land.
Dictates of the constitution
He added that he had sworn to protect and uphold the dictates of the constitution and would not in anyway go against it.
President Buhari, however, stated that he was “not averse to lawful regulation, so long as that is done within the ambit of the constitution” which he swore to uphold, noting that free speech was central to democratic societies anywhere in the world.
“The President won’t assent to any legislation that may be inconsistent with the constitution of Nigeria,” he said. He further explained that without free speech, elected representatives won’t be able to gauge public feelings and moods about governance issues.
“As a key component of democratic principles are so emotionally attached to free speech that they would defend it with all their might,” he said.
Shehu explained that President Buhari was fully aware of the public reservations about the proposed legislation but assured that there was no cause for alarm “because the Senate is a democratic Senate.