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September 19, 2020
Sally Suleiman
Editor's Picks Opinion

DIGITAL FREEDOM ADVOCACY By: Sally Suleiman

A government that doesn’t serve the people has ultimately failed the country. I implore our government, organizations, and fellow esteemed Nigerians to lend their voice to this cause, so we can protect our right. In November 2019, the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria launched two bills which sparked an outrage on the internet. Several netizens vehemently rebuked these bills because they were regarded as infringements on our rights, particularly our freedom of speech and expression. Despite the alleged good intentions of these bills, the fact remains; if we become bystanders while the government makes these bills into laws, the mass will suffer.

Although the Nigerian civil society reprimanded these proposed laws and it was assumed to be the end, it recently came to light that they were merely pigeonholed. The Senate insists on proceeding with their draft of these incorrigible laws. In a country that is supposedly democratic, these laws represent the opposite of what we stand for. To help you understand how these projected laws can negatively affect our society, please delve deeper.

What do the bills say?

– The first one is simply referred to as the ‘Social Media Bill.’ Meanwhile, on paper, it is “The Protection from Internet Falsehoods and Manipulation and Other Related Matters Bill, 2019.” The bill is sponsored by Sen. Muhammad Sani Musa, who believes this undemocratic approach will curb the spread of “Fake News” in Nigeria.

– Secondly, the ‘Hate Speech Bill,’ also called the ‘Bill for an Act to Provide for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches and for Other Related Matters.’ This bill is sponsored by Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi.

The assumed purpose of the Bill, as stated in the preliminary part is:

“An Act of the National Assembly to promote national cohesion and integration by outlawing unfair discrimination, hate speeches and to provide for the establishment, powers and functions of the INDEPENDENT NATIONAL COMMISSION FOR THE PROHIBITION OF HATE SPEECHES, and for purposes connected therewith”

The downsides of the submitted Bills

● Infringements on our freedom: In spite of our constitutional protection, Nigerian lawmakers deem it fit to create laws that nullify the previous, and most important, ones. The government will ultimately exercise control over any information the ordinary citizen divulges online. Our rights that will be violated if these Bills pass include freedom of expression, right to fair hearing and legal aid, alleged innocence, and freedom of association.

● Oppression: These laws can be likened to being in a relationship, where you aren’t allowed to voice your concerns to your partner for fear that they will lash out. It is TOXIC and is a No-No. Social media has been a powerful tool in helping the common Nigerian speak out against oppression and injustice. Many lives were saved through the power of the Internet even when they were endangered by authorities, such as SARS and the Police force.

● Manipulation of News content: Once these bills are made laws, they will affect the credibility of News disseminated by Journalists and media platforms. Now the government will exclusively be in charge of the News that can be dispersed to the public and can conveniently filter such. Also, this could affect the financial benefits of the Nigeria Press.

● Exertion of poisonous Authority: In this area, we are looking at censorship, the possible termination of NGOs, broadcast media, and more. The possibility of any of these happening is a poison to our society.

Note that I have barely scratched the surface. The extent to which these laws could affect us is obscure. In Nigeria, the freedom of expression is protected by section 39 (1) of the Federal Republic of Nigeria constitution. By criminalising our digital freedom, the Nigerian government will exert fundamental control over our right to express ourselves freely. For many of us, the Internet or social media platforms are where we can freely express ourselves, state an opinion, or call out oppressors. The thought of this being taken away from you should gear you to lend your voice. We can’t let them disregard our constitutional protection by enforcing these laws.

In retrospect, the Nigerian government has always shown their fixation in restraining our media, even though we currently have more than 100 independent newspapers. In 2011, Nigeria was delineated by the Freedom House as “partly free” in the Press report that year. Presently, Nigeria is ranked 115 out of 180 countries survey on the Global Press Freedom index. The basis for the low rank is because of the murder, maltreatment, and detainment of journalists in Nigeria. Reporters without Borders also cited Nigeria government’s assay to recoil the civil society space as another reason for the ranking.

It appears to be history relentlessly recurring. Declaring our digital freedom as a crime is an act of instilling fear where there needn’t be. There are more reasonable measures that can be taken to mitigate the risk of Fake News. Reportedly, these Bills were integrated into the Nigerian Senate from Singapore’s laws. Other democratic nations have similar laws that don’t infringe on their citizen’s rights. Nigeria should emulate them, not Singapore.

Once again, I beseech you, dear Nigerians, to take action against these preposterous Bills while we still have the opportunity. We must spread the gospel that #InternetNoBeEnemy. I, Sally Suleiman, together with CFL (Centre for Liberty) say NO to the ‘Social Media Bill’ and the ‘Hate Speech Bill.’

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