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Nigerian Government moves to cage the last untamed media space

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In October 2017, radio presenter Nelly Kalu and SBM Intelligence partner, Cheta Nwanze were live on air hosting a midday talk show where they were discussing the historical account and fallout of the Asaba Massacre on the 50th anniversary of the terrible event. 

A phone call suddenly came through to the station’s GM that perhaps unknown to him, signaled the start of a new era in Nigeria’s quest for democracy. On the other end of the line was the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC), and the instruction was simple:

Shut the show down.”

The show abruptly cut to a commercial and just like that, the discussion was over. An important national conversation on a radio station with millions of listeners had just been nixed because someone with enough influence within the cavernous structure of Nigeria’s government did not want it to hold. 

While this was by no means the first time that the Nigerian government had killed an uncomfortable discussion using media regulatory power, it signaled that after the honeymoon period following President Muhammadu Buhari’s election in 2015, the gloves were finally off. 

The same month, the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) started making experimental moves in the same direction, this time with online media platforms in its sights. The Sunday Tribune reported that using the vaguely-worded Section 146 of the NCC Act, ONSA engaged an unidentified Lagos IT firm to block the IP addresses of more than 21 websites identified as “threatening national security.”

When the story emerged, the government quickly denied all knowledge of it, with Minister of Communication, Adebayo Shittu issuing a statement distancing the NCC from any attempt to gag free speech. Despite the NBC radio shutdown episode and rumours about a proposed bill to gag social media users in Nigeria, the consensus was that an administration led by Muhammad Buhari would not frontally attack press freedom and freedom of speech – reformed democrat and all of that.

Fire Manifests After Repeated Smoke Scares

In late 2018, when video evidence emerged of Kano State governor, Abdullahi Ganduje receiving what appeared to be US Dollar cash bribes, I called one of my former colleagues at The Other News on Channels Television to ask why they did not do anything with the video. I was informed to my amazement that a circular from the NBC had expressly forbidden TV stations from broadcasting the tape in part or whole.

This blatant and brazen act of press suppression largely slipped under the public radar because the videos had long since gone viral on social media. Whether or not NBC banned Channels TV from carrying out basic news reporting made no difference because Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram rendered such censorship moot and redundant. 

For this reason, despite a clear and unmistakable pattern of interference with media neutrality and press freedom for the past four years, Nigerians have been slow to catch on to the existential threat to their freedom of speech that this administration represents. Radio presenters have been yanked off-air in the middle of programs, TV stations have been gagged from broadcasting verified news content, and ONSA has tried to enact Chinese-style internet censorship against news websites and blogs that it does not approve of.

But everyone could at least talk about it from the sanctuary of social media platforms. American tech behemoths like Facebook and Twitter, which own all four aforementioned platforms and cannot be bullied by the Nigerian government all have a stated commitment to free speech. This has given most Nigerian social media users a false sense of security regarding their freedom of speech.

Now – inevitably – the government has turned its attention to caging the last untamed media space.

The so-called social media bill, which has flown through two readings in the Senate proposes among other things, that individual internet users can be targeted with unilateral internet access restrictions at the sole discretion of security services, access to specific internet sites (read “social media platforms”) can be unilaterally shut down nationwide by security services without any legal process, and that social media users are liable to face huge penalties including fines and prison terms for expressing views that security services may simply not like.

Breakdown of the Monstrosity: Social Media Bill Explained

The most important thing to note about the proposed bill is that it affects much more than just freedom of speech. If enacted, Nigerian citizens will no longer be protected by the rule of law as we know it. Currently, Nigerian citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of association under the 1999 constitution. If accused of any wrongdoing, a citizen is presumed innocent until proven guilty under Nigerian law. The Judiciary is also independent of the Executive, and the Executive is subject to the Judiciary and legal processes.

This all changes under the clauses of this bill.

The bill for example states:

” A person must not do any act in or outside Nigeria in order to transmit a statement in Nigeria, knowing or having reason to believe that it is a false statement of facts and…it will diminish public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of, or in the exercise of any power by the government.”

In plain English, this ambiguously worded clause means that any kind of story, be it a Facebook post, a tweet or a video that contains anything that portrays the Nigerian government in a bad light is now against the law. Under this bill, the journalist, Jafar Jafar’s secretly recorded “Gandollar” videos are now illegal because they undermine public confidence in the Kano State government by telling the truth about the governor.

Completely subjective and arbitrary “offenses” used the social media bill

Taking a video of SARS brutality and posting it online, or simply telling such a story – whether about yourself or anyone else – is now against the law. By telling Nigerians that SARS is a rogue law enforcement entity that robs, rapes and murders young Nigerians, you are “diminishing public confidence in the government.”

And your punishment?

According to the bill, a maximum fine of N300,000 or a prison term of three years may be imposed per charge. Put it this way: if you criticise any government institutions or personalities on 20 different occasions, you may be liable to pay a fine of N300,000 x 20 (N6m), or serve 60 years in prison.

What is more, the bill introduces something called an “Access Blocking Order.”

“Access Blocking Order”

This means that if for example, the hashtag #AbujaRaidOnWomen is trending on Twitter following an investigative story on Newswire as it happened four weeks ago, the government can unilaterally ban Nigerian ISPs from giving access to Twitter, much like how China’s Golden Shield prevents Chinese citizens from accessing Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It can also single out individuals and impose total or partial internet access restriction using the registration data held by their ISP (i.e MTN, 9Mobile, Airtel, Glo, Swift, Spectranet etc).

Oh, and it can also ban all Nigerian IP addresses from accessing NewsWireNGR.  Or Premium Times. Or Sahara Reporters. Or the Daily Punch. Or any other website someone in power does not like. It will be the NBC – Channels TV situation all over again, but on a national level and with unprecedented reach.

In other words, the government will have complete power and control over all information in Nigeria. If the thought that comes to mind is North Korea, that is because this is exactly what the North Korean experience is.

It gets even worse.

The bill states that any individual subject to a blocking order is not allowed to appeal against it at the high court unless they first apply to the relevant law enforcement agency to cancel the order – and the request is rejected. This means that if you are blocked from accessing the internet, you are not allowed to take the issue to court unless you first of all beg the police or whoever imposed the order to remove it, and they reject your request in writing.

In other words, your case will never make it to court.

The Executive dictates to the Judiciary under the Social Media Bill

It still gets worse if you keep reading to the bottom. The bill says “The High Court may only set aside a Part 3 regulation [if]…” If you missed the significance of this, here we have a draft law that empowers the Executive to not only dictate to the judiciary on whether or not it can hear a case, but also on what verdict it is allowed to reach. There is no law in any kind of democratic society anywhere on our planet where a law can dictate to the Judiciary whether it is allowed to entertain a case and what verdict it is allowed to give, based on the express instructions of the Executive.

In case you have still not realised what the “Social Media Bill” represents, allow me spell it out for you in plain English – it is the bill that effectively ends all your rights and legal entitlements as a citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. If this monstrous draft legislation becomes law, you are no longer entitled to free speech, freedom of association, presumed innocence and the right of fair hearing.

This bill is a Trojan horse that will end our 20 year-old Democracy as we know it, and turn Nigerians into lowly subjects of a lawless security state, existing at the pleasure of whoever is in power.

Feudalism, it’s called.

Civil Society Luminaries Including Segalink, Kato, Itodo Weigh In

Prominent lawyer and anti-police brutality activist, Segun Awosanya is one of several civil society and human rights personalities who have voiced their clear disapproval of the proposed social media bill. In an interview with NewsWireNGR, he said the bill is an attempt by elected officials to escape accountability and act with impunity by removing the only reasonably efficient feedback mechanism that currently  exists within Nigeria’s political space.

SeGun awosanya a.k.a. segalink speaks about social media bill

Ndi Kato, ED, Dinidari Foundation believes that the reasoning behind the bill stems from a basic fear of feedback by elected representatives in the Senate who have decided to “make the people the enemy” instead of doing what they were sent there to do. According to her, social media is the only opposition voice in Nigeria, which is why the government seems to be scared of it.

Ndi kato criticises “enemies of the people”

Samson Itodo, Executive Director, YIAGA Africa, places the proposed bill in the context of the concurrently proposed “Hate Speech Bill” which prescribes similar uni!lateral judgments and punishments for speaking, and the NGO Bill, which seeks to severely limit the actions of NGOs in Nigeria. According to him, there is a definite attempt by the 9th Senate to shrink the civic space in Nigeria.

Samson itodo excoriates “ill-intentioned” bill

For Cheta Nwanze, Nigeria’s security agencies lack the capacity to enforce the bill according to its purported spirit, which means that its application will be subjective and haphazard. This, he tells NewsWireNGR, opens up the distinct possibility that the bill will be used as an instrument of repression targeting individuals who have been labeled as political enemies.

Cheta nwanze weighs in

Summing up the bill and taking no prisoners in his assessment, Hassan Idayat, Executive Director at the Center for Democracy and Development, (CDD) told NewsWireNGR:

“The introduction of the anti-social media bill is a frontal attempt to gag free speech and stifle accountability. Aside from social media giving previously excluded members of society a voice, it has promoted accountability. In real time, citizens can now whistleblow and hold elected officials accountable. It is that right that sponsors and supporters of the bill are trying to take away. 

It is only in Nigeria that legislators make laws primarily to protect themselves and not the citizens. The obnoxious law will further impoverish citizens and further drive away investment from the country. The law is so draconian that it gives law enforcement agencies control over social media and makes it possible for citizens go to jail for expressing their views.

I will like to expressly state for a government afraid of “another occupy naija” protest ever taking place, they will with their own hands take Nigerians to the street with their anti people legislations and policies. In saner climes, they are not regulating social media but instead promoting digital literacy and engaging tech companies on the matter of addressing the challenges of misinformation and disinformation.”

Don’t Believe in Ghost Stories Yet? You’re In One

To many, the constitutional power heist currently being attempted in the Senate is too far-fetched to believe. Capital punishment, prison terms and Black Mirror-style extreme individual targeting and censorship for merely expressing opinions is what happens in North Korea, China, Rwanda and Cuba – certain!y not in Nigeria. Nigeria is not “the type of place where such things happen.”

Despite our extensive history of military dictatorship, Nigeria has never at any point been the stereotypical African dictators’ paradise filled with quiet, self-effacing people who never talk back and offer little opposition. Why would anyone even attempt to take on such a bone-headed, unwinnable fight against nearly 100 million angry Nigerian internet users?

For any who subscribe to this school of thought, it would be instructive to note that even people within the current administration have expressed disbelief about whether there is an attempt to stifle free speech, only to be rudely surprised by their own distance from the ruling cabal and the murky agenda driving the policies it pushes.

Former Communication Minister Adebayo Shittu mentioned at the outset was one of such people. Speaking to the Sunday Tribune in 2017, Shittu categorically stated:

“President Muhammadu Buhari or any of the people working for him will never do or encourage anything that will amount to gagging of the press.”

Following Buhari’s reelection in 2019, Shittu was not retained.

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