Many Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief on Tuesday when Senators finally decided to jettison the obnoxious Social Media Bill, SMB, which sought to “Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith,” promoted by Senator Bala Na’allah from Kebbi State. From the onset, we would like to point out that the Senators did not do Nigerians any favour; rather, they narrowly saved themselves from deserved damnation.
Presenting a report to the Senate during plenary, Senator David Umar, chairman of Committee on Human Rights and Legal Matters, stated that while the bill was meant to check “upsurge of frivolous petitions and publications in the social media”, would however “tacitly” impose on “the petitioners the work of investigation”.
According to him, the bill, when passed into law, would clash with extant laws capable of violating citizens’ rights. “Any law perceived as infringing citizens’ rights should be jettisoned,” Mr. Umaru stressed. “The passage of the bill cannot be supported as it will affect anti-corruption war of the Government. It will do more harm than good”, he said. This was what restored the sanity to the Red Chamber.
From all intent and purposes, the bill was designed to muzzle free speech, press freedom, as well as throttle any voice that seeks to bring the federal lawmakers or other public officials to accountability in Nigeria. It was an official nervous response to whistle blowers that use the social media platforms to expose corrupt politicians.
Democracy is meaningless without freedom of speech. Nigerians love democracy and the inalienable rights of freedom of expression it grants. It is therefore not surprising that, their responses to the SMB were uproarious. A peep into the bill revealed that if it had sailed through and passed into law, it would have empowered the law enforcement agencies to clampdown on freedom of speech and gag critics of federal lawmakers.
For instance, the bill which passed through second reading in the Senate had proposed seven years imprisonment or N5 million fine for any suspect who intentionally publishes false information that could jeopardise national security through electronic media. Also, the bill also prohibits anyone disseminating abusive statements through text message, Twitter, WhatsApp, or any other form of social media for a penalty of two years or a N2 million fine or both. Is there any better way to gag freedom of information and speech?
Proponents of the Bill had vainly advanced an argument that far from the widespread insinuations, the bill was designed to protect all institutions, groups and individuals, including the journalists from frivolous attacks through flagrant abuse of fundamental freedom of speech in a democratic government. Of course, nobody bought the lie.
In public information system, online and social media publications have overtaken the conventional media in terms of speed and wider coverage. It has come to stay as a most veritable tool for more mass participation and mobilisation in governance.
The true picture later emerged that what inspired the bill in the first instance is the aggressive and ‘offensive’ online publications and in the social media, activities that expose corruption, corrupt institutions and individuals in public office in which case the accused has no chance of fair hearing in order to balance or correct any misinformation arising from such publications that deliberately scandalise and bring persons to public disrepute.
But unfortunately for them, they failed to convince Nigerians on the matter. For obvious reasons, the SMB was ill-conceived and ill-timed, which was what made Nigerians critical of the bill to kick against it. That is why during the public hearing on the bill, the federal lawmakers got the taste of public angst rejecting the bill with a resounding ‘No’.
Since the advent of the social media platforms and internet revolution, no country has come up with such inhibitive laws to gag free flow of information. Communist countries such as China did not even conceive it. Why then Nigeria?