Nigeria’s “frivolous” anti-social media bill just won’t go away

Sen. Bukola Saraki speaking during Social Media Week Lagos. Feb. 2016
Sen. Bukola Saraki speaking during Social Media Week Lagos. Feb. 2016
Image: SMW Lagos
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Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, played an influential role in driving transparency and change during Nigeria’s elections last year, as citizens shared images of verified results from polling units around the country ahead of formal results being announced.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s 10-month old government recognizes both the advantages of the technology—as well as the challenges it may present. This might have been what prompted the introduction of a so-called “social media bill” to the Nigerian Senate a few months ago. Nigerian internet activists and civil society groups have protested the bill’s vague wording and possible draconian punishment for saying the wrong thing online.

Perhaps in a bid to counter the perception Buhari’s government is readying to bite the hand that supported its path to power, there was a high-profile political presence at the continent’s leading social media confab, Social Media Week Lagos, late last month. (Quartz was a media partner of the event.) Senate president Bukola Saraki and the executive director of the Nigerian Communications Commission were among the speakers.

The bill, officially titled, “An act to prohibit frivolous petitions; and other matters connected therewith is being challenged by activists as a backdoor route to penalize anyone online who expresses dissent against the government, with vague and disproportionate restrictions that do not strictly adhere to legitimate purposes. If the bill passes, people convicted under the legislation face jail time and fines of up to 2 million naira ($10,000).

Sen. Saraki was quick to try allay activists’ fears during Social Media Week, describing the bill as “dead on arrival“.

“As far as I am concerned, we are all on the same side. It is like any bill, it has to go through processes,” Saraki said. “I strongly believe that there is a role of the social media platform in our governance. You’ve helped in the election, you’ve helped in improving governance. So I don’t think there is anybody who will want to ensure you don’t play that role.”

But activists have been paying attention to the machinations of the Nigerian senate on this matter.

Nigerian internet activist Gbenga Sesan described the bill as “vaguely worded, misguided legislation”.

Earlier this month, Sesan and novelist Deji Olukotun issued a statement detailing their concerns: “The language in the draft bill is so broad that it’s not clear that internet users would even understand how to comply with the law,” the statement read. “It would be difficult to determine whether a post is intended to ‘set the public against’ a vaguely defined group.”

Sesan and other civil society groups have good reason to be cautious. Two weeks ago, at a public forum in Abuja to discuss the bill, Nigeria’s chief justice Mahmud Mohammed expressed support for the proposed legislation, saying both individuals and corporate bodies would be safeguarded against frivolous abuse and misnformation.

“The very use of the word frivolous, it connotes unseriousness, ill-motivation and [is] suggestive of bad faith which is not within the contemplation of the constitutional provision of freedom of expression,” Mohammed said,

The internet has posed a vexing problem for governments across the continent who find themselves faced with a form of media expression and freedom that is difficult to control. Unlike shutting down a few radio and TV stations or blocking distribution of newspapers, governments are unable to shut down millions of social media users who may or may not even be in legal jurisdiction of the government in question.  In countries like Congo Brazzaville, this weekend, and  Uganda last month, governments have blocked social media or switched off internet communications altogether in a bid to prevent citizens accessing information during the electoral process.

There is no suggestion today that Nigeria’s government would enact any such restrictions, as Buhari will likely want to avoid being associated with a bill which might remind older Nigerians of his military government’s attempts to curtail press freedoms more than 30 years ago.

The concerns of today’s Nigerian political elite seems to be that the millions of people using social media will somehow misuse those platforms to attack individual politicians and government bodies. It could set a dangerous precedent for Nigeria and Nigerians if the bill gets passed in any form.

“It’s not only Nigeria’s leadership, free expression, and innovation that are at stake. In internet law and policy, even when a law is beaten back,” Sesan and Olukotun said, “it often gets reanimated in legislatures across the globe.”