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Digital Rights and Closing Civic Spaces in Nigeria

[By Seun Akinyemi]

 

The path to digital rights in Nigeria is rough and rocky. This can be credited to different attempts by the federal government of Nigeria to regulate social media. The journey to regulate social media started with the Cybercrime Act which was assented to by former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015. President Buhari has also made several attempts to regulate social media to silence dissenting voices. One of the most recent attacks was the 7-month Twitter ban for parochial interest while ignoring the importance of Twitter for citizens, businesses and even government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs).

The emergence of new media has turned the world to a global village and information is transmitted to global platforms in real-time. Today, we can access information (political, educational, entertainment, business, etc.) online through our mobile phones or computers once it is connected to the internet. 

 

Social media has revolutionised how people communicate and share information.  The expanding use of social media in Nigeria can be credited to the availability of smartphones, internet connectivity and data subscription which have become more affordable. As of January 2022, there were 32.9 million social media users in Nigeria. This is equivalent to 30.6% of Nigeria’s adult population (over 18 years old). The use of social media for disseminating and consuming information is not only left to citizens as MDAs in Nigeria have also embraced social media to reach out to citizens and get immediate feedback on policies. A good example is the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), which used Twitter very effectively to keep Nigerians updated on the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

 

 

The emergence of social media does not imply the neglect of traditional media because both have their audiences and at times, their audiences intersect. There are citizens, especially the older generation whose primary source of information is the traditional media while the youths’ primary source of information is social media. Both the traditional media and social media have remained potent tools of communication, and interestingly, according to several polls, most Nigerians still get their news from radio!

 

There have been several attempts by governments in Africa to regulate social media. Internet shutdowns, clampdowns and indiscriminate arrests of citizens for posts or comments made on social media; cyberbullying by the government and the proliferation of laws restricting the activities on social media are all violations of citizens’ online freedom.  A report from a cybersecurity company, Surfshark, shows that Africa has become the most censorship-intensive continent across the globe, responsible for 10 (nearly 53%) of the cases in 2021. Africa led the social media shutdown numbers during election days (3 out of 4 total cases were in Congo, Uganda, and Zambia). Many governments in Africa have also passed legislation to restrict the activities of their citizens on social media. Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda, Zambia, and DR Congo has either proposed laws or passed laws to regulate public activities on social media. Nigeria is also not left out.

 

It is true that cybercrime has now become an issue in Nigeria constituting a menace to our economic development and our reputation in the international community. This has necessitated an appropriate framework to guide and protect cyber activities in Nigeria.   The Cybercrime Act was enacted in 2015 to provide an  “… effective, unified and comprehensive legal, regulatory and institutional framework for the prohibition, prevention, detection, prosecution and punishment of cybercrimes in Nigeria. This act also ensures the protection of critical national information infrastructure and promotes cybersecurity and the protection of computer systems and networks, electronic communications, data and computer programs, intellectual property and privacy rights.” However, since this Act has been signed into law, it has become a tool of oppression in the hands of our political leaders. Citizens have been indiscriminately arrested and detained for posts and comments, governments and powerful elites found offensive.

 

Section 24 of the Act which focused on cyberstalking violates the online freedom of Nigerians and several Nigerians have been victims of this repressive section of the Act. Enough is Enough (EiE) Nigeria in partnership with Paradigm Initiative (PIN) and Media Rights Agenda (MRA) have challenged the constitutionality of Sections 24 and 38 of the Act in court. The case has been in the courts since 2016. They lost at the High Court and have appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended) and several international treaties to which Nigeria is a signatory. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Section 39 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution guarantee the freedom of expression for all Nigerians irrespective of social status.

 

The Minister of Information and Culture, Mr Lai Mohammed, has consistently reiterated the government’s commitment to regulating social media. On Tuesday, November  5, 2019, the APC-led Senate re-introduced a bill to regulate social media – Protection of Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019 by Mohammed Sani Musa (Senator, Niger East). This Bill is a replication of Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulations Act 2019. The Senator copied the Act without considering our differences in culture, social setting and political nature. The bill was thankfully thrown out at the public hearing stage. 

 

The Buhari-led administration suspended twitter  in Nigeria on June 4, 2021 because the social media platform deleted his tweet. President Buhari tweeted, “Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.” Many Nigerians regarded this tweet as inflammatory and invoked painful memories of the  Nigerian Civil War. The same comment was posted on Facebook but it was not deleted. Immediately after this suspension, on June 5th, the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, directed the Director of Public Prosecution to begin immediate prosecution of those who violated the federal government’s order suspending Twitter. A lot of Nigerians disobeyed the directive and bypassed the suspension with the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). There is no record of any Nigerian charged to court for using the platform despite the AGF’s directive. The worst of it was that in a media report of the AGF deactivating his

account, people spotted the use of a VPN on his phone although it is unclear whether he was using it on Twitter. There were several other government agencies and employees that continued to use Twitter despite the ban. They include – Bureau of Public Procurement; the Governor of Oyo State, Seyi Makinde; the Governor of Ogun State, Prince Dapo Abiodun; the Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai; and Akin Alabi, a member of the Federal House of Representatives (Egbeda/Ona-Ara Federal Constituency).

 

In addition to the rights of Nigerians this suspension deliberately infringed on, Nigeria also lost revenue. According to Netblocks Cost of Shutdown Tools, Nigeria  lost over $243 million during the twitter suspension. Nigeria was losing this amount of money when the country’s public debt stock stood at $86.6 billion.

 

On Thursday, July 14, 2022 the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court finally  held that the act of suspending Twitter by the Buhari-led administration was unlawful and inconsistent with Article 9 of the African Charter and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This became  the first step in the right direction of justice for millions of Nigerians whose rights were violated. No Nigerian court has ruled on the cases before it on the Twitter ban.

 

The role of social media cannot be underestimated; however, due to the constant abuse of social media by citizens, this makes it imperative for the government to prohibit some activities on social media and the internet generally. However, There are existing laws which the government can enforce that will not trample on the rights of citizens’ to freedom of speech. The National Assembly does not need to duplicate laws to cause confusion and silence dissenting voices. The National Assembly should work with the executive to enforce the existing laws and bring culprits to justice.

 

 – Seun Akinyemi is a Senior Program Associate at Enough is Enough (EiE) Nigeria | @erudit007 // Linkedin: Seun Akinyemi

 

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