The 8th Assembly And The Proposed Social Media Bill, By Gloria Adagbon
The Nigerian Senate is seeking to pass a bill that would regulate the social media, an essential channel where Nigerians engage on national issues. The social media define and shape the narratives in the polity, be it political, social, economic or otherwise. It is the the platform where Nigerians demand prudence, accountability and transparency in governance.
To underscore its importance as an e-governance tool, the Head of Public Policy for Facebook in Africa arranged a training session for Nigerian Senators which was designed to help them communicate in a more effective manner with their constituents. The impactof the social media on our day-to-day existence is revolutionary.
It is the revolutionary impact that could be the probable cause of the perceived fears by the 8th Assembly to regulate its activities. The proposal is highly controversial and has been met with huge criticisms from Nigerians. It is an over ambitious bill to limit free speech and gag Nigerians from criticising public office holders.
To understand why this attempt by the 8th Assembly is perceived as an attempt to gag Nigerians, it is necessary to look at the Proposed Bill titled “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions” and the offending part, the Social Media Bill.
It says, “Where any person through text message, tweets, WhatsApp or through any social media posts any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2,000,000.00 or both fine and imprisonment.”
In my view, this is nothing but an attempt to restrict access to the Internet and social media, scare off its users, curtail free speech and opinions in a repressive manner. Nigeria does not need this backward trend.
It is disturbing that the 8th Assembly is seeking to criminalise the social media by oppressive regulations. Strictly speaking, the regulations on the conduct of affairs may not necessarily be a bad thing, if it is sought to restore balance and responsible reporting. Consequently, seeking to regulate the reporting of falsified information especially by bloggers who spring up overnight to disseminate unfounded allegations and disappear the next day is welcome. On the other hand, seeking to clamp down on the reporting of activities of public officials for accountability purposes, especially when transparency is needed to cleanse the polluted system, is a bad development and undermines the principle of free speech in our democracy. Therefore, the right balance must be struck between these two.
The underlying intentions of the 8th Assembly is to prevent Nigerians from digging into their affairs and from coming under public scrutiny, especially when they are found to be wanting in the discharge of their public duties. Listening to the senators voice their concerns, showed their frustrations of social media criticisms which is understandable but that should never become the basis upon which to silence the people. It is inconceivable that out of the critical problems facing the Nigerian state, the priority of the 8th Assembly is the regulation of social media. Something is not right.
If Nigerians are venting their anger due to the problems they are facing, is the the 8th Assembly not supposed to be concerned and propose Bills that can address the problems facing the people? When this 8th Assembly was sworn into office, Nigeria had and still has critical issues that borders on near emergency situations in various sectors of the economy and across the country. One is yet to see any seriousness of the Senators to address the problems facing the country. For most part, Nigerians had severally tried to call the Senators to order and check their excesses through the same social media.
Although, the Senators may perceive the social media as a torn in the flesh, it must be stated to all concerned that social media is the VOICE and only channel through Nigerians air their views and / or concerns on governance and national issues. Therefore, any attempt to criminalise its usage and gage the people is in bad taste.
The so called proponents of this bill benefited from social media which were largely responsible for the successes recorded in the 2015 Presidential elections against the Peoples Democratic Party. I do not think President Muhammadu Buhari who acknowledged the role the social media plays would support such move to gag Nigerians on social media. Again, President Buhari fully is against corruption and would not seek to gag anyone for exposing corruption. At a time when the focus of the President is for an open, transparent and accountable governance, one wonders why the 8th Assembly refuses to key into such agenda that would benefit the country instead of moving hurriedly to gag the social media.
The social media potential to drive transparency and accountability in public office cannot be overemphasised and the 8th Assembly must recognise this fact. It is used to receive and disseminate information, it brings the people closer to the government and provide a platform for national conversations. Undoubtably, there are positive and negative side. The positive side far outweighs the negatives. Besides, such negatives can be regulated by already existing laws governing Cyberspace.
To pass such a bill into law is an outright infringement on the fundamental principles of freedom of speech and expression. Again, it is difficult to judge the intent of an opinion, and to send someone to prison for two years on such frivolous account is unconscionable and a crime against humanity. The Nigeria Senate must shelve its plan to gag Nigerians. They must look to other laws which can adequately regulate “making allegations or publishing information with malicious intent to discredit others”, whether in public or private sector. The social media has come to stay and will remain.