Aspects of Social Media Bill in Nigeria that Should Scare You

One of the most trending bills in Nigeria in 2019 is the ‘Protection from internet falsehoods and manipulation and other related matters bill 2019’, popularly called the social media bill. The other one is the ‘Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill’ otherwise known as Hate Speech Bill. But the focus here is on the social media bill. Several Nigerians at various levels and sectors of the society have described the social media and hate speech bills as dangerous attacks on freedom of expression

Whenever this bill is mentioned, anger, hatred, tension, fear, and disgust are feelings that fill the atmosphere. Could be that those who express these feelings are unfairly not giving the bill a chance to be good or at least have good intentions? Could be ignorance that is making people express passionate hatred for the bill or are the ill feelings against the bill justified? This is why you need to know a bit about the bill to have an opinion based on knowledge about the bill.

How it started

The Nigerian government has recently stated its resolve to regulate the operation of social media and the information shared on them. Minister for Information, Lai Mohammed, has never hidden this intention as he has always reiterated it at various events whenever he gets the slightest opportunity to do so.

The current uproar against the social media bill has a quick history. The Nigerian Senate on Tuesday, November 5, re-introduced a bill that will regulate the use of social media in the country. The bill, ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019’ was one of the 11 bills read for the first time at the floor of the house.

That was not the first time the idea of passing a bill to regulate the use of social media was entertained by government. In 2015, there was a sponsored anti-social media bill but, the bill was kicked against by many Nigerians who believe it negates citizens’ fundamental rights and would restrict freedom of expression. It was then re-introduced in November 2019. The bill passed the second reading on the floor of the senate on Wednesday, November 20, 2019. This practically means the bill is well on its way to becoming law since it is only one more reading away from achieving that and getting assent by the executive.

The man behind the bill is Sen. Mohammed Sani Musa representing Niger East Senatorial district, a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC). He is the sponsor of the legislation. He said the bill was aimed at curbing fake news on the internet. That sounds cool but the action has been greeted by controversial reactions probably because people are seeing other things beyond the so-called aim of “curbing fake news on the internet”. Senator Musa, who is representing Niger East Senatorial District, reportedly said that his bill on social media was aimed at guiding the users and not to gag media practitioners in Nigeria.

Senator Musa had said in an interview with journalists, the re-introduction of this bill was aimed at ensuring sanity on social media. He said individuals who post false information on the internet, when found guilty would be asked to pay a fine of N150,000 or they are sentenced to three months imprisonment. Senator Musa also lamented that troll or bot accounts have been used to rapidly spread falsehood across Nigeria in a manner that now threatens national security.

The Senator added that any corporate organisation that refused to block false information after the regulating agency had alerted it would be asked to pay a fine ranging from N5m to N10m.

Here’s what Senator Musa said while justifying the bill:

“One of the disadvantages of the internet is the spread of falsehood and manipulation of unsuspecting users. Today, motivated by geopolitical interest and identity politics, state and non- state actors use the internet to discredit government, misinform people and turn one group against the other.

“The hoax about the demise of President Muhammadu Buhari in London and his purported replacement by one Jubril of Sudan, among others, are things that threaten the peace, security and harmony of our people.”

 “Penalty for defaulters goes up to N300,000 for individuals and up to N10 million for corporate organisations and imprisonment of up to three years or both.

It should be recalled that on June 26, 2018, the Chairman of the Nigerian Senate Committee on ICT and Cybercrime, Abdul Fatai Buhari, announced that the Nigerian government lay before the Senate a Bill set to regulate social media because many Nigerians were misusing it. So you need to note that the original genesis of this bill is traced to the government. This means it is actually the government that muted the idea of regulating the social media.

About the Bill

At least you now know the bill is actually called the ‘Protection from internet falsehoods and manipulation and other related matters bill 2019’. It contains 36 clauses which spell out what could be described as the good and ugly sides.

The ‘good’ side

On face value the bill is supposed to have a fair intention. The major fear is that it might be abused by government or some other person to engage in a witch hunt inimical to freedom of the press. Senator Musa said the bill was aimed at curbing fake news on the internet. There’s no one that won’t want fake news to be curbed, especially given the devastation fake news could cause in the society.

When you take a close look at the bill you will see a footnote in the document that reads as follows:

“This Act is to prevent Falsehoods and Manipulations in Internet transmission and correspondences in Nigeria. To suppress falsehoods and manipulations and counter the effects of such communication and transmissions and to sanction offenders with a view to encouraging and enhancing transparency by Social Media Platforms using the internet correspondences.”

Among the bill’s aims and objectives are the following words:

“To prevent the transmission of false statements/declaration of facts in Nigeria and to enable measures to be taken to counter the effects of such transmission; to suppress the financing, promotion and other support of online locations that repeatedly transmit false statements/declaration of facts in Nigeria.”

Stepping this language down, this is a bill that seeks to check the spread of falsehood, fake news and regulate the social media space as we know it, in defense of national security. This confirms what Senator Musa said which prompted the introduction of the bill. This is supposed to be the good side of the bill or what the bill really set out to achieve. Now let’s checkout why people are really worried about the bill.

The worries

This bill has really caused uproar and outrage among Nigerians both in the country and in the Diaspora. Their worry is premised on possible abuse of the bill. Reactions are numerous so we can’t present them here. Let’s just show you why people are worried about the bill.

The social media bill contains overbroad provisions that unduly restrict access to and use of social media and seems designed to gag freedom of expression. For example, section 3, which relates to the transmission of false statements of facts, contains provisions against sharing statements “likely to be prejudicial to the security of Nigeria, public safety, tranquility, public finances and friendly relations of Nigeria with other countries”. This is not clear at all. How do you determine what is “…likely to be prejudicial to the security of Nigeria, public safety, tranquility, public finances and friendly relations of Nigeria with other countries…”? Government and people in power could easily abuse this to punish critics of government policies and actions, and anyone who asks difficult questions could find themselves liable for ‘diminishing public confidence in the government.’ The bill is set to criminalize those who breach the law with punitive measures like fines and imprisonment of up to three years solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. This is a major source of worry to many Nigerians.

See exactly what the bill says about transmission of false statements of facts;

(1) A person must not do any act in or outside Nigeria in order to transmit in Nigeria a statement knowing or having reason to believe that :-

(a) the transmission of the statements in Nigeria is likely to :-

(i) be prejudicial to the security of Nigeria or any part of Nigeria;

(ii) Be prejudicial to public health, public safety, public tranquility or public finances;

(iii) Be prejudicial to the friendly relations of Nigeria with other countries;

(iv) influence the outcome of an election to any office in a general election or a referendum;

(v) incite feelings of enmity, hatred directed to a person or ill‑will between different groups of persons; or

(vi) diminish public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of, or in the exercise of any power by the government.

This clause applies where :-

(a) a person that is an internet intermediary fails to comply with a Part 4 Regulation or Remedial Order; (b) the subject material is being transmitted in Nigeria on an online location; and

(2) Subject to subClause (3), a person who contravenes subClause (1) shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction :- (a) in the case of an individual, to a fine not exceeding N300,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or to both; or

(b) in any other case, to a fine not exceeding N10 Million.

(b) Where an inauthentic online account or a bot is used :-

(a) to transmit in Nigeria the statements mentioned in subClause (1); and

(b) for the purpose of accelerating such transmission, the person is guilty of an offence under that subClause, shall be liable on conviction –

(c) in the case of an individual, to a fine not exceeding N300,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or to both.

There might be serious trouble for your internet provider too. Check out this section;

(1) A person must not, whether in or outside Nigeria, make or alter a bot with the intention of :-

(a) transmitting, by means of the bot, a false statements of fact in Nigeria;

or (b) this clause applies where :-

(a) a person that is an internet intermediary fails to comply with a Part 4 Regulation or Remedial Order;

(b) the subject material is being transmitted in Nigeria on an online location; and

(c) the Law Enforcement Department is satisfied that one or more end‑users in Nigeria have used or are using the services of an internet access service provider to access that online location.

(2) Law Enforcement Department may direct the NCC to order the internet access service provider to take reasonable steps to disable access by end‑users in Nigeria to the online location called in this Clause an access blocking order), and the NCC must give the internet access service provider an access blocking order.

(3) An internet access service provider that does not comply with an access blocking order shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding N1 million for each day during any part of which that order is not fully complied with, up to a total of N10 million.

(2) A person who contravenes subClause (1) shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction :-

(a) in the case of an individual, to a fine not exceeding N200,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or to both; or

(b) in any other case, to a fine not exceeding N5 million.

There is already the Cyber Crimes Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act, which already cover many of the offences the new bills seek to address. They’ve also been allegedly used as tools to gag freedom of expression in Nigeria. The social media bill is coming in to join the fold of such dreaded bill. Also to be followed by the hate speech bill. Nigerians are worried about this.

Allegations of Plagiarism defended

Amidst the controversy and outrage generated by this bill, Senator Musa was accused of plagiarizing the contnent of another similar bill passed in Singapore. The Senator has since defended this allegation through his twitter handle @Sani313Movement, where he explained that the similarity between his draft bill and the Singaporean Statute on the same subject was in order.

PUNCH reported that a copy of the Singaporean legislation on the same subject matter, which surfaced on social media on Saturday, November 23, 2019, revealed that the title and most of the contents of Musa’s bill currently undergoing debate at the National Assembly were the same.

This prompted a lot of social media commentators alleged that the Senator’s bill was plagiarised from an Act that was recently signed into law by the Government of Singapore.

For instance, a video broadcast, released by Frederick Odorige of the Global Coalition for Security Democracy, stated that the title of the bill was copied from the ‘Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019’ of the Republic of Singapore.

He said the Act was passed by the Singaporean Parliament on May 8, 2019 and assented to by President Halimah Yacob on June 3, 2019.

Concerning the title of the bill, Odorige alleged that Musa “ingeniously substituted the word ‘online’ as used by the Parliament of Singapore for ‘Internet.’”

The other parts of the title and most of the other contents of the bill, according to him, were exactly the same as that of the Singaporeans.

However, Senator Musa came out strongly in defence of the bill. Here’s what he tweeted:

“It is posterous (probably wanted to say preposterous) that this is said to be an instance of plagiarism. All over the world, Legislation in other Jurisdictions do influence the form and substances in other jurisdictions, particularly and Present the same or similar challenges of regulation.

Examples of these are bound in Company Law Reforms, Trade Mark Legislations and Securities Regulations across the globe. The problems and challenges of regulating internet activities cuts across jurisdictions.

It is therefore INEVITABLE THAT LESSONS BE DRAWN FROM OTHER JURISDICTIONS IN FASHIONING OUT WORKABLE SOLUTIONS IN OUR OWN COUNTRY.

Legislations across the globe are PUBLIC DOCUMENTS and National LEGISLATIONS DO NOT CLAIM RIGHT OVER THEM AS TO FORM THE BASIS FOR PLAGIARISM OVER THEM, their effectiveness being limited to the territorial jurisdiction of each sovereignty. – Sen. Sani Musa 313”

Well, the fact is that the bill is out there and could become law any moment. The allegation of plagiarism did not prompt lawmakers to throw it away. So let’s focus on what it might mean to freedom of expression if it eventually becomes law.

Summing up

So what do you think about this bill? Are people’s fears justifiable? We agree that just as every other thing in Nigeria, the bill when passed into law is open to abuse. This is where the worries are justified. If those in government will not use this bill as a weapon against opposition or to punish those who say what government does not like, then it is a welcome development. But whether that is possible in Nigeria is what many who oppose the bill doubt.

The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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