A bill that will regulate the use of social media in Nigeria yesterday suffered a major setback as stakeholders, including Amnesty International, Nigerian Union of Journalists, NUJ, and Civil Society Organisations, CSOs, asked the Senate to kill it without delay.
The position of the stakeholders in the bill set the Senate on the path of confusion at the public hearing it organised by the Senator Opeyemi Bamidele-led Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters to seek the buy-in of Nigerians.
At the Public hearing, the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, PLAC; International Press Centre, IPC, NUJ, Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD; DAAR Communication, Nigeria Communication Commission, NCC; Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria, BON, individuals, among others, called for the complete discountenance of the bill.
Senator Bamidele had said there was no clapping of hands as one of the grand rules, but people still clapped in support of those who were not in support of the bill.
While the CSOs said the bill was completely unnecessary, others noted that the bill would only serve the interest of a few at the detriment of the generality of the nation.
According to them, the bill will not only infringe on human rights but also violate human rights and freedom of speech because of the manner it was structured.
The bill, among others, seeks to prevent the transmission of false statements/declaration of facts in Nigeria and enable measures to be taken to counter the effects of such transmission.
It also deals with the regulations guiding internet intermediaries and providers of mass media services.
On regulations, the bill stated that the Inspector General of Police shall make regulations necessary or convenient for carrying out or giving effect to the administration and enforcement of the Act.
The aims and objective of the bill, according to the sponsor, are, "to prevent transmission of false statement/declaration of facts in Nigeria and enable measures to be taken to counter the effects of such transmission.
"To suppress the financing, promote and other support of online locations that repeatedly transmit false statements/declaration of facts in Nigeria," amongst others.
The penalty for non-compliance, according to the bill, "for individuals, is a fine not exceeding N200,000 or 12 months imprisonment or both, and in any other case, a fine not exceeding N5 million.
"The police may issue an access blocking order directing the NCC, to order an Internet Service Provider, ISP, to disable access by end-users in Nigeria to an online location where a false declaration is being transmitted."
The bill added that ISPs who fail to comply could face criminal charges and be subjected to a fine of up to N10 million.
But speaking at the event, Coordinator, Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room and Executive Director of PLAC, Clement Nwankwo, called for the jettisoning of the bill.
According to him, the bill has huge ramifications that can threaten the fabric of Nigeria's democracy and the achievements of its outlined fundamental objectives that are aided by the deployment of social media tools which facilitate citizen participation and engagement with their representatives in the 21st century.
Nwankwo, who spoke on behalf of the CSOs, noted that the bill, if passed into law, would be a threat to human rights, and urged the Senate to discountenance the bill.
On its part, NUJ, faulted the bill, saying it would pidgeon-hole Nigerians from freely expressing themselves, adding that it was an unnecessary proliferation of laws in the country.
Though NUJ agreed that fake news was bad, it, however, noted that there were other ways of regulating social media, adding that further legislation on the bill should stopped.
NUJ's National President, Christopher Isiguzo, who called for the withdrawal of the bill, described it as worse than coronavirus.
"We are totally opposed to this bill. We want to appeal to the sponsor to withdraw this bill. When the people are suppressed, it endangers democracy," he said.
Kicking against the bill, NCC, said the bill gave too much power to the Police and other security agencies.
Executive Vice President of NCC, Umar Dambata, noted that certain provisions of the bill were difficult to implement, adding that these provisions had already been covered by other laws.
Insisting that the bill had general drafting anomalies, Dambata said: "It is our opinion that National Assembly will need a redraft, so that it can be aligned with existing legislative drafting."
Supporting the bill, the Nigeria Army said even advanced democracies of the world still had a way of regulating the media.
The Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, who was represented by Major General Solomon Udoma, said false information undermines leadership, destroy peace and threaten unity.
Head, Media and Public Affairs of the Nigeria Governors' Forum, NGF, Abdulrazaq Barkindo who represented the forum, said the position of governors was still being collated.
According to him, the governors will want to get input of legislators of their states before forwarding their position.
While the Chairman of BON, Saad Ibrahim, said the bill appeared to be undefined, he stressed that some parts should be deleted if it must be passed.
He, however, described the bill as unnecessary.
Represented by Samson Itodo, Yiaga Africa said it completely rejected the bill and aligned with other civil society groups that support its rejection.
He said the bill would duplicate laws already in existence, adding that any attempt to regulate social media would infringe on the right of the people and advised that the Bill should be killed.
Also kicking against the Bill, Chairman of DAAR Communication, Raymond Dokpesi, Jr. said his company was completely opposed to the bill and should be trashed.
He said it was difficult to align the bill with public interest, adding that the bill attempted to take away the right of fair hearing and give monopoly to authorities or government establishments.
Also kicking against the Bill, Executive Director, IPC, Lanre Arogundade, said: The bill could be used to curtail the internet rights of journalists and other professionals. The bill should, therefore, be dropped in its entirety."
The Publisher of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, said the bill was not designed to protect Nigerians.
He said the Nigerian Constitution was outdated, adding that government should be thinking of amending it to meet the yearnings of the people.
On its part, the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC, which was represented by Dr Esa Onoja, said the agency was neither for nor against the bill, adding that as an endorsement agency, it was duty- bound to enforce any law passed.
Supporting the Bill, the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, SCIA, represented by Alhaji Yusuf Chinedu, said there was the need for the bill, but noted areas in the constitution that would infringe on the rights of Nigeria should be examined.
Similarly, Action Group on Free Civic Space, AGFCS, called on the Senate to protect and defend the constitutional rights of citizens.
It stated: "On the face of it, the Social Media Bill (SMB) is promising to prevent the transmission of false statements/declaration of facts in Nigeria. However, numerous provisions of the bill disclose intentions that have enormous potential not only to stifle constitutional freedoms but also crush civil liberties."
Earlier, Chairman of the Committee, Opeyemi Bamidele, said the National Assembly, which is the bedrock of constitutional democracy, would not shy away from its mandate of making laws that will stand the test of time.
He also explained that because of the controversy the bill has generated, the Senate resolved to organize the public hearing to hear the position of the public.
He emphasized that the objective of the bill was to curtail hate speeches and fake news, adding that the bill would not stifle free speech as social media remained the only avenue the people could criticize corrupt governments.
Earlier in his remarks, sponsor of the bill and Chairman, Committee on Senate Services, Senator Mohammed Sani Musa, All Progressives Congress, APC, Niger East, said the bill was not designed to muzzle the freedom of speech of Nigerians
He added that nobody would block the social media of any Nigerian.
Senator Musa said: "The bill is not an attempt to stifle free speech or dissenting views; it is rather an opportunity to address a growing threat which, if left unchecked, can cause serious damage in our polity and disrupt peaceful coexistence."
Declaring open the public hearing, President of the Senate, Senator Ahmad Lawan, said the Senate has never assumed the position of knowing it all, adding that the public hearing was a crucial one because of the passion the bill has generated.
Lawan noted that the Bill has generated a lot of interest, adding that "We need to listen to ourselves. The passion is not unexpected because the bill relates to the Internet. The Internet has become central to our lives, as it has reshaped how we live, work and interact.
"Like every other innovation, it has had its positive and negative sides. While it has somewhat made communication easier, faster and even cheaper, it has also affected our ability to easily trust some information.
"When this kind of situation arises, we should interrogate all the sides in the divides on a continuous basis. Doing this will lead to a better understanding of the dimensions and provide an agreeable way forward.'
"I agree that matters of freedom of speech and the inalienable rights of man are issues we should not compromise. I also agree that the right of an individual ends where the rights of another individual begins.
"The Senate's eventual position will be partly dependent on the committee's report. Your support in enriching this report is, therefore, very important."
Meanwhile, Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, yesterday called on Nigerians, including the media, organized civil society and all pro-democracy groups to unite against moves to pass the obnoxious anti-social media bill at the National Assembly.
The party stated this yesterday in Abuja in a statement signed by its spokesman, Kola Ologbondiyan, saying its call was predicated on the decision by the Senate to "commence a public hearing on the bill, which is being pushed by anti-democratic individuals in the Buhari Presidency, who seek to gag Nigerians, suspend our constitutional provision of free speech and foist a dictatorial system on our country."
The statement read: "It is time for Nigerians to eschew all political, sectional and religious differences and stand in unity against a bill that is clearly designed to suppress and silence the people, emasculate institutions of democracy, particularly the media, take away the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech of citizens and turn them into conquered people without a voice, in their own country.
"It is clear that this bill is part of the anti-democratic moves to further emasculate the 1999 constitution (as amended) ostensibly as a prelude to foisting a full totalitarianism in our country, where citizens will no longer have the right to freely hold or support opinions."
"It is obvious that the reason for this bill is to suppress democratic rights and prevent Nigerians, the media, civil society groups, pro-democracy organizations, the opposition and dissenting voices from freely criticizing the atrocities, abuses, incompetence, corruption, security compromises, nepotism and general misrule that have pervaded the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration.
"The frenzy to pass this bill further exposes the intolerance of the Buhari-led administration as well as the desperation to cover its atrocities for which it is mortally afraid of public criticisms.
"The PDP expresses worry that the Senate listed the unconstitutional and anti-people bill for second reading procedures even when Nigerians across board had reached a consensus in rejecting the bill, given its underlying fascist tendencies.
"The party holds that our nation already has appropriate laws guiding the boundaries of free speech and opinion, which the authorities can enforce within the ambit of constitutional provisions, in the case of any violation.
"Our party insists that Nigeria is a democratic state governed by the provisions of our constitution. Our citizens will therefore not allow any attempt by anybody to foist fascist laws tailored to suppress their rights and freedom as a people.
"The PDP therefore urged the leadership of the National Assembly to resist all pressure from enemies of our democracy to pass this unconstitutional and anti-people bill."