Nigerians raise alarm over controversial Social Media Bill

Plan to overhaul internet laws will curtail fake news, supporters say, but critics cry foul over threat to free speech.

Alsiasi_Agencies

Tens of thousands of Nigerians have banded together online to call for the scrapping of a bill which, they say, threatens to roll back internet freedoms in the country.

The proposed legislation – officially named the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019 – would allow Nigeria’s government to cut off internet access or block specific social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter at its own discretion.

“The law enforcement department may direct the NCC [Nigerian Communications Commission] to order the Internet access service provider to disable access by users in Nigeria to the online location and the NCC must give the Internet access service provider access blocking order,” it says.

Otherwise known as the Social Media Bill, the proposed act also contains provisions prohibiting statements online deemed “likely to be prejudicial to national security” and “those which may diminish public confidence” in Nigeria’s government – offences that would be punishable by fines of up to 300,000 Naira ($825) or imprisonment for up to three years.

Legislators backing the bill, which is advancing through Nigeria’s Parliament, claim it will enhance security, peace and unity in Africa’s most populous country by curbing the spread of “false statements”.

But critics argue it could gag free speech, with many now speaking out via the very platforms they say are at risk of being curtailed.

More than 85,000 people have signed an online petition demanding the bill be done away with. The bill’s “aim is to curb our use of social media with the reasoning that the Senate wants to curb the spreading of false information when in reality they want to limit our freedom of speech and our right to criticise them”, the petition says.

A campaign on Twitter saw the #SayNoToSocialMediaBill hashtag top the platform’s trending charts in Nigeria recently.

“The Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill … is a backdoor approach to silence critical voices in Nigeria,” said Adeboye Adegoke, a digital rights advocate and programme manager at the Nigeria-based social enterprise Paradigm Initiative.

“[It is a] dangerous path to tread … [and] will serve to provide a legitimate justification for many illegitimate things that the Nigerian government already do,” he told Al Jazeera.

Legislative progress
Despite the opposition, the legislation has continued its passage through Nigeria’s legislature, passing a second reading and subsequent vote in the Senate in late November.

It has since been moved to the Senate’s Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters for a period of further consideration which could last up to four weeks.

Senator Godiya Akwashiki, a spokesman for the Nigerian Senate, said the open discussions would allow for citizens’ concerns over the effect of the bill to be aired.

“Nigerians still have a say over the bill during the public hearing,” Akwashiki told Al Jazeera. “[It] is an opportunity for the general public to express their views, in order [for them] to be captured in the bill.”

A spokesman for President Muhammadu Buhari meanwhile told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity that the government had “not made a position” yet on the act, which was introduced by legislators and has not been sponsored by the administration.

Rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised the alarm over the bill’s possible effect on public discourse in a country with an estimated 113 million internet users, 30 million of whom are active on social media.

“Social media is one of the last remaining places where Nigerians can express their opinions freely,” Seun Bakare, programmes manager for Amnesty’s Nigeria branch, said in a statement on December 4.

“The harassment of journalists and bloggers and the introduction of the Cyber Crimes Act have already shrunk the civic space and created a climate of fear,” Bakare added, citing a 2015 piece of legislation that criminalised a broad range of online activity.

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