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Imagine
being arrested for making a tweet on twitter or making an instagram post. The
Federal Government is attempting to legalise the prosecution of anyone who they
believe posts any statement on social media which they deem as hateful or fake.
The “Hate Speech”and “Social Media Bill” have been a major issue for debate
ever since the legislative arm of government introduced these billsin 2019 as
an attempt to put a restriction to the use of social media in Nigeria. To
justify theseproposed bills by the legislature, the President refused to sign
the Digital
Rights Bill
which was a bill to protect the rights of Nigerians in the
digital space.

 These bills drew massive criticisms from all
sectors in Nigeria with the hashtag #SayNoToSocialMediaBill
trending on Twitter as a result, the implementation of both bills were put on
hold. However it gained a new momentum shortly after the #EndSars Protest when the
Minister for Information stated that there is no going back on the Social Media
Bill.

The
Social MediaBill formally called “Protection
from Internet Falsehood andManipulation Bill 2019
”which aims 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”” (see
Section 1). It prohibits statements on social media deemed “likely to be
prejudicial to national security” (Section 3 (b) (i), “those which may diminish
public confidence” in Nigeria’s government (Section 3 (b) (vi). The Bill
proposes these offenses be punishable by a fine between 200,000 Thousand Naira
to 10 Million Naira and/or a prison sentence of 3 years (Sections 3-5). The bill
seeks to permit law enforcement agencies to order internet service providers to
disable internet access to customers (Section 12 (3).

The
Hate Speech Bill criminalises what the government perceives as hate speech
particularly in Section 4 which
provides for sanctions of life imprisonment and the death penalty if that supposed
hate speech resulted in the death of another.

 

 

 

CONTRAVENTION OF BOTH BILLS TO THE CONSTITUTION

The
Nigerian Constitution is supreme to any other law and any law that is in
contravention with the Constitution shall be deemed null and void. The Social
Media Bill and the Hate Speech Bill appears to be a threat to freedom of
speech, freedom of the press, and right to private life as enshrined in Sections 37 and 39 of the Constitution.The
United States courts have reiterated their stance against the enactment of laws
that criminalises hate speech as such laws are in violations of the right to
free speech to the United State Constitution. An example of such ruling is the case of Matel v Tam (2017) No. 15-1293.

In
addition, Section 26 of the Cybercrimes
(Prohibition, Prevention) Act 2015
makes similar provision to the hate
speech bill but with lesser punishment such as 10 Million Naira fine or 5 years
imprisonment so of what use is the creation of another law relating to hate
speech so of what use is the creation of another law relating to hate speech.

The
punishments contained in both bill are totally extreme moreso as the term “hate
speech” is subjective. Legislatorsadvocating for the bill claim it is necessary
in the interests of security, peace and unity but the language of the bill is
one that creates discomfort and vague criminal offenses that would allow the
authorities to prosecute peaceful criticism of the government.

CONCLUSION

With
about 29.3 million users across Nigeria, social media is a critical tool for
shaping public communication and enlightenment. It is true that social media could
be misused at times however, everything in life has its advantages and
disadvantages. The implementation of these bills would violateinternational laws
protecting freedom of speech.

Some
have used China as an example on their justification in supporting the bill.
One thing they should realize is that China is not a multi-party democratic
country like Nigeria is supposed to be. Threatening the freedom of its citizens
is threatening the peace of the country.

Also,
the lack of sincerity of this government is another reason for the massive
rejection of these bills. You may recall that this administration is the
biggest beneficiary of this purported hate speech as they were unfiltered with
the heavy criticism of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration.

One
of the pillars of rule of law in a democratic society is the enforcement of
Fundamental Rights of which Freedom of Speech is inherent. Regulating social
media is like limiting freedom of speech which is antithetical to democratic
society. Nigeria’s constitution, like African and international human rights
laws protects the right to freedom of expression and provides that any
restriction to this right must be justifiable in a democratic society. If these
bills are passed, the government will be empowered to shut down the internet as
what they will deem hate speech or false news may be subjective or relative.

Freda Odigie is a Legal Practitioner at E.A
Otokhina& Co.

You can contact her on freda.odigie@eaotokhinaandco.com