Why the Nigerian Senate needs to scrap the frivolous social media bill

Barely four years after the Freedom of Information Act became law in Nigeria under the Goodluck Jonathan administration, an All Progressive Congress (APC) member of the Nigerian Senate, Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah, from Kebbi South has proposed a bill which will constrict public opinion via all mediums of communication.

The bill, “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith” passed the second reading yesterday and has since met with strong resistance from Nigerians, who are opposed to the prospective law.

Here are a few provisions of the bill.

Where any person through text message, tweets, WhatsApp or through any social media post any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2,000,000.00 or both fine and imprisonment.

This section of the bill directly limits the freedom of expression that currently reigns on social media. For example, Whatsapp broadcast messages are notorious for circulating dramatic and often untrue statements about government affairs. However, this bill attempts to hold people responsible for circulating those types of messages and more, which is quite frankly ridiculous.

Not withstanding anything contained in any law, it shall be an unlawful to submit any petition, statement intended to report the conduct of any person for the purpose of an investigation, inquiry and or inquest without a duly sworn affidavit in the High Court of a state or the Federal High Court confirming the content to be true and correct and in accordance with the Oaths Act.

Any petition and or complains not accompanied by a sworn affidavit shall be incompetent and shall not be used by any government institution, agency or bodies established by any law for the time being enforced in Nigeria.

This is where it gets interesting. This sections implies that Nigerians are no longer free to petition any government officials or parastatal on grounds of misconduct without a signed affidavit. What if the petition is an urgent matter? There are no provisions in the bill to support a matter of urgency. If a certain Senator or House of Representatives member misrepresents their constituency, does this mean the people s/he represents cannot institute an action against them without an affidavit? This report from September, shows that Senator Na’Allah is on the verge of being recalled by his people from the Senate house on grounds of gross misconduct. At the time, 30,000 signatures had been collected, which made up for about 51 percent of the electorate who voted him into office.

Any person who unlawfully uses, publish or cause to be published any petition, complaint not supported by a dully sworn affidavit shall be deemed to have committed an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for six months without an option of fine.

Any person who acts, uses, or cause to be used any petition or complaints not accompanied by dully sworn affidavit shall be deemed to have committed an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for a term of two years or a fine of N200,000.00 or both.

Apparently, anyone who publishes or uses a petition against earlier mentioned parties, will have committed an offence, while ‘adequate’ punishment is meted out to them – prison sentences or fines.

However, what the bill fails to outline is process. It is too open to subjectivity and fails to address how the offences outline can actually be proven.

This is the era of social media and technological advancement, but is the Nigerian government well equipped to monitor online activities of all Nigerians (indigenous and diaspora) to know when and what they posted on social media and deploying measures to arrest and prosecute them. It all seems frivolous, doesn’t it?

It seems hypocritical that Senator Bala Na’Allah, who is an APC member would attempt to silence the freedom of expression on social media when the APC was committed to using Facebook and Twitter during the presidential campaign that brought President Muhammadu Buhari to office. After all, the APC Facebook page had over 90,000 likes and their Twitter page had over 250,000 followers during the 2015 elections. Now that the elections are over, why is the APC attempting to deprive Nigerians of their right to an opinion on and off social media?

Despite the fact that the bill has passed a second reading, the Nigerian Senate needs to halt on passing it as a law due to the fact that the bill is a violation of freedom of speech. Quite frankly the government has more pressing issues they should be tackling, rather than focusing on harmless social media chatter.

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