Nigeria: Legislators should reject the Social Media Bill

A pending Bill under consideration in Nigeria has civil society concerned for freedom of expression in the country. Global civil society alliance CIVICUS, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN), and the Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGO) are urging Nigerian lawmakers to reject the ‘Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith Bill’, also known as the “Social Media Bill”. If passed, the proposed law will severely curtail freedom of speech and the opportunity to engage in critical political commentary online.

The Bill was introduced by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) for a first reading on 24 November 2015. It went through a second reading on 2 December 2015 and has been sent to a Joint Parliamentary Committee. While it is not clear when the Bill will go through its required third reading, the existence of the Bill, and the uncertainty of when it may be pushed through, is extremely worrying for proponents of freedom of expression, especially given a history of efforts to curtail online freedoms.

“We have received reports that Nigeria’s recently passed Cybercrimes Act 2015 has been used not against cyber criminals but against public spirited bloggers to deter them from publishing content against powerful and well-connected individuals,” said David Kode, Policy and Research Officer at CIVICUS.

Among many other restrictions, the Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill makes it illegal to post an “abusive” statement known to be “false” via text message or social media with the intent of setting the public against any person, a group of persons, an institution of government or other bodies. The concern is that the overbroad language of the Bill could have a chilling effect on online freedoms, creating fear amongst public spirited individuals who may refrain from posting comments online as they may be deemed “false” by the authorities.

If passed into law, the Bill could also negatively impact media and civil society freedoms. For instance, the Bill criminalises the publication of any statement, allegation or a petition with “malicious intent to discredit or to set the public against” any person, group or   institution in a paper, over the radio or in any other medium. This broadly worded provision seeks to empower authorities with ample powers to target civil society activists, journalists and others who criticise the actions of government officials or expose malpractices.

The Bill also makes it compulsory for anyone who intends to submit a petition or statement “on the conduct of any person for the purpose of an investigation, inquiry or inquest” to have an affidavit from the High Court or Federal High Court confirming the content to be correct before submission. This will make it more onerous for activists and civil society organisations to report cases of corruption, human rights violations or government excesses. Such processes will also discourage the institution of anonymous complaints against powerful individuals. 

The Bill also proposes huge fines ranging from ₦ 2000000 (approximately US $ 9900) to ₦ 4000000 (approximately US $19800) and prison sentences of up to two years for those found guilty of violating its provisions.

“The Bill is another attempt to limit freedom of expression, especially on a platform like the internet which has allowed citizens to connect with others to take appropriate joint action against government inaction at various levels,” said Gbenga Sesan, Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN). “Paradigm Initiative Nigeria has co-drafted a positive rights bill, the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, to codify the online rights of citizens, and we invite legislators to work with us by focusing on promoting openness and guaranteeing rights instead of taking actions that can hurt internet freedom in Nigeria.”

CIVICUS, PIN and NNNGO call on Nigerian lawmakers to reject the ‘Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith Bill’ in its entirety, as it imposes unwarranted restrictions on freedom of expression and online freedoms.