Participants at a Senate public hearing on the "Frivolous petition Bill 2015 (SB. 143)" also known as anti-social media bill expressed concern on the draft law. Our correspondent chronicles their position on the bill.
Except for the Chief Justice of Nigeria, (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed and some senators who threw their weight behind it, other participants that spoke at the public hearing on the bill aimed at controlling the social media, kicked against its passage.
The bill was sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na'Allah representing Kebbi South Senatorial District of Kebbi State under the All Progressives Congress (APC).
The public hearing was organised by the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters to gauge and collate public opinion on the bill as protests trailed it second reading last December.
The hearing which was held at the Senate was a replica of the episode of December, as participants insisted that the bill must not see the light of the day. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and online platforms publishers stormed the National Assembly days after the bill scaled through second reading, kicking against it.
The bill, "an Act to prohibit frivolous petitions; and other matters connected therewith," prescribed stiff penalties for social media offenders and false petitioners.
Seeking to prohibit frivolous petitions and abusive statement through text messages, tweets, WhatsApp and other social media platforms, the bill mandates a petitioner to swear an affidavit either at a federal or state a High Court.
Declaring open the public hearing, the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, said the reactions that trailed the introduction of the bill were not unexpected, describing them as good features of democracy, whereby people participate in matters that relate to their welfare and well-being.
Saraki, who was represented by the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Godswill Akpabio, said the National Assembly was mindful of the fact that laws are made for the people and that for any law to stand the test of time, the process leading to its passage must be all-inclusive.
"The National Assembly will not pass any bill that will gag the media or infringe on the rights of the citizenry as we are aware of the critical role played by the media to enhance good governance and in deepening democracy.
"As lawmakers and stakeholders in the democratic process, we have the responsibility to make laws that will hold people accountable for their actions, through transparent and open processes. The introduction and referral of the bill to a committee is just one of the legislative processes of lawmaking, "he said.
Saraki called on Nigerians to contribute in reviewing the country's constitution by making submissions to the Constitution Review Committee on areas they feel should be amended.
But the CJN, Justice Mohammed stressed the importance of the passage of the bill. Represented by Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi of the Supreme Court, he said in recent times, there have been upsurge in petitions that are of great concern in the emergence of the country's democratic process. He expressed concern of multiple anonymous petitions being the order of the day across arms of the government.
"Suffice to say that the freedom of expression within the ambit of the Constitution, as laudable as it may be, there must however be boundaries and limits to adhere to, especially with the exuberant, frivolous and unguarded write-ups in the print media, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter etc, " he said.
According to him, the menace of incessant frivolous petitions in the country, if not addressed and nipped in the bud will constitute a very serious clog in the wheel of Nigeria's democratic process.
"The idea behind the bill is in my opinion laudable and auspicious. This is because by the very use of frivolous, it connotes unseriousness, ill-motivation and suggestive of bad faith which is not within the contemplation of the constitutional provisions of freedom of expression.
"The measure to curb the excesses is however not meant to serve the purpose of denial of access to information, nor is meant to do away with checks on the executive, legislative and judicial recklessness as well as accountability of stewardship in all facets of public office," he said.
He said the aim of the bill should be for the purpose of ensuring that whatever information was disseminated to the public, it must come from a legitimate, genuine and a known source which is identifiable and meant to safeguard the best interest of the public for the purpose of good administration and governance.
Senator James Manager (PDP, South) commended the CJN for his comments and recalled how an online medium posted a false news about the nullification of the election of Senator Akpabio. He noted that this was what this bill seeks to check.
Also, Akpabio aligned himself with the remarks of Manager pointing out that "At the beginning, the public was misinformed about the bill. nine-five percent of EFCC's petitions are frivolous and politically motivated and we have been wasting billions of Naira chasing frivolity."
But the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), said the bill when passed, would violate the African Charter on human rights.
Malami, represented by an Assistant Director in the ministry, Patrick Oyong said what the bill seeks to regulate is being regulated by the law of defamation.
"The bill is unnecessary, having regard to existing laws. If we enact the law the way it is structured, it will lead to judicial condemnation, "he said.
Also, the acting Chairman of the Nigerian Law Reform Commission, Barrister Kefas Magaji, said the demerits of the bill outweigh its merits in a democratic and transparent system of governance where whistle- blowing has become an integral part globally.
Represented by Chibuke Okorie, he said the existing criminal and civil laws, if properly activated and implemented can sufficiently address the mischief the bill seeks to check.
"It is necessary in a democracy that the legislature refrains from enacting any legislation that has tendency or that may be perceived as capable of unduly abridging the fundamental rights of the citizens to privacy and free speech. It is for this reason that the Commission does not support this bill in its present form, "he said.
In his submission, the publisher of Breaking Times, Anthony Ehilebo, said when the bill passed through second reading, over 15 million persons spoke against it in various online platforms.
"Going further to criminalize free speech is against the tenets of democracy. I think we should even go further to encourage people to engage the Senators on social media because there is a disconnect," he said.
A civil rights activist, Muktar Dan'Iyan, said the bill was dead on arrival and must be discarded and dumped in the dustbin of history.
Also condemning the bill, the Director of New Media of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Deji Adeyanju, said the debate on the bill showed that it was sponsored to protect the reputations of the Senators.
"If we must progress, the lawmakers, especially the Senators must begin to consider issues affecting Nigerians and not their reputations," he said.
The chairman of the Committee, Senator David Umaru, said a decision would be taken on the bill after the public hearing.