By Osai Ojigho
The International Telecommunications Union, ITU, the UN specialised agency for ICTs, estimates that as at the end of 2019, 53.6 percent (4.1 billion people) of the world are using the Internet. (https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx).This shows how digitally connected the world is now more than ever. It also shows how extensive the reach of the internet can be in terms of information dissemination.
In Nigeria, it is estimated that there will be 132.4 million internet users in the country in 2020 rising to a projected number of 187.8 million by 2023 (https://www.statista.com/statistics/183849/internet-users-nigeria/). So, the potential is huge in the country and possibilities endless. Mobile technology contributes largely to increasing access and opportunities to explore the internet.
In addition to availability of information, internet access has also promoted what is now described as the digital economy or internet economy or web economy, where goods and services are exchanged online and money made from using the internet or providing content on the internet.
More than ever before, a lot of us are booking travel, meals, groceries, tickets, subscriptions online and the ease of payment options will continue to promote online as an option. However, the benefits which internet brings has also contributed to the challenge of fake news, misinformation, disinformation and dangerous speech.
This in turn as led to some attempts by governments across the world to regulate at the least or to ban internet access at the worst.
The introduction of the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill i.e. the Social Media Bill, by Senator Sani Mohammed, is one of many attempts that have arisen in recent times to control the internet, online services and social media.
It also mirrors a trend by certain governments across the world such as China, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and North Korea were social media is heavily controlled and others like Singapore, Turkey, Russia and Iran where laws have been passed to restrict internet freedoms which have directly or indirectly limited rights to privacy, freedom of expression, personal liberty, freedom of association and assembly.
For example, in Singapore, where protection of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA) came into effect in October 2019, there have been arrests of governments critics and political opponents, giving the impression that the law seeks to control opposition and dissenting voices rather than to address the issues of fake news and false information.
One major problem of the Social media bill has it currently stands is its attempt to abrogate powers to the law enforcement agency. The Nigerian Police which is the foremost law enforcement agency has faced numerous allegations of corruption, excessive use of force, brutality, torture and many other violations of human rights that it is shocking for a law that seeks to protect against false information is giving such wide powers and discretion to the law enforcement agency.
More substantially, is the propriety of the social media bill with regards to freedom of expression in Nigeria. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Nigeria has ratified provides that: Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
Article 9, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights provides that: “Every individual shall have the right to receive information; Every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.” WhileSection 39(1) of the Nigerian Constitution, 1999 (as amended) emboldens the two provisions by stating that
“Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
International law and the constitution go further to state the circumstances and the conditions that must be fulfilled before any restriction on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression is permitted. The Three-part test derived from the guarantees in Article 19 of the ICCPR, can be described as follows: 1. Principle of legality (predictability and transparency); 2. Principle of legitimacy; 3.Principle of necessity and proportionality.
The United National Human Rights Committee in General Comment No. 34: Article 19: Freedoms of Opinion and Expression (2011) had stated that it is the responsibility of the state to show that any law limiting the right to freedom of expression passes the Article 19’s three-part test.
The provisions of the Social Media bill as currently presented presents more grounds for justifying a restriction and would most likely have the effect of stifling free speech, limiting media freedoms, penalizing legitimate businesses and interests and criminalizing young people who essentially use social media as a tool of expression and communication.
The provisions are so broad that anyone would be caught and lead to self-censorship.
The criminalization of expression would not satisfy the legitimate principle and would increase the risk of violating the provisions of the bill thereby further confusing what is right from wrong. The overall effect, therefore, is an attack on freedom of expression in Nigeria.
The question is who will benefit from this law and do we need lawmakers to be restricting fundamental freedoms rather than addressing the root causes for fake news, and false information in Nigeria.