Senator Bala Ibn Naallah introduced the Frivolous Petitions (Prohibition etc) Bill, 2015 in December, 2015. The bill, titled, “An act to prohibit frivolous petitions; and other matters connected therewith,” is widely perceived as a smokescreen to regulate expression especially on the social electronic media (or social media), which led to its christening as the “Social Media Bill”. Giving credence to these widely-held perceptions, Senator Na’allah stated in an interview granted to Vanguard Newspaper of December 11, 2015 that: “I sponsored the bill to sanitize information flow on social media.”
Social media refers to “consumer-generated media” and has an ever-widening scope covering electronic platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Instagram among others, affording users the exchange of information through the internet. These electronic platforms are veritable products of the information technology (IT) sector, which has revolutionized the means of information gathering, processing, and sharing, globally. Indeed, it pulses with the potent power of shaping public opinion and making non-issues topical within seconds, at the punch of a button.
That the social media is one of the most powerful tools of the 21st century is not in doubt. According to the Nigerian Communication Commission, (NCC) – the regulatory body that oversees telecommunication affairs in the country – the number of active GSM subscribers was 152,000,000 as at December, 2015, and in the last quarter of 2015, internet usage among the various telecommunication networks hit 97.21 million. The above data indicates that more than half of the population of the country (estimated at 170,000,000 people) currently use the internet. Indeed today, social media is a very valuable platform for the dissemination of information and also serves as a vehicle for accessing public thoughts in the country.
The increasing recourse to social media platforms by many Nigerians to articulate their views on a variety of issues especially topical national issues has become noticeable and worrisome to political establishments, concerned interest groups and some individuals who opine that there should be some form of regulation of the social media sphere to prevent abuse. Recent trends (in particular, sprung from political dissensions) in the country, have seen the use of social media by some individuals as a vehicle for slander, denigration of rivals, and like purposes. This latter usage is what the Senator quoted above holds as the taint of the media, lending relevance to the bill. The controversial bill has few sections which, among other things –
- Demands that persons seeking to petition state authorities on the conduct of another person must swear an affidavit.
- Persons who publish petitions not supported by an affidavit shall be deemed to have committed an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to imprisonment for six months without the option of a fine.
- Any person who uses or acts on such a petition will also be deemed to have committed an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to a fine of a two-year prison term or N2,000,000.00 or both. The third section of the bill goes further to prescribe rather scarily that:
- Any person who in order to circumvent the law makes any allegation and or publishes any statement, petition in any paper, radio, or any medium of whatever description, with malicious intent, to discredit or set the public against any person or group of persons, institutions of government, shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction shall be liable to an imprisonment term of two years or a fine of N4,000,000.00.
The bill has thus triggered a lot of comments with many individuals, civil society groups and media stakeholders among others, kicking against the proposed legislation. Spaces for Change, and its members’ network have contributed to the ongoing debate, and reiterates as follows:
- There are Existing Legal Safeguards for regulating social media: The proposed legislation is a duplication of extant laws such as the Defamation and Sedition laws and the Evidence Act, 2011 and many more which clearly redress freedom of expression breaches. Besides, a petition whether online or by other media is not tantamount to a conviction, rather it only raises serious questions to be investigated by the relevant agencies. The inbuilt safeguards by the platforms’ service providers are regulatory as offensive materials are randomly taken down when reported or brought to their attention.
- The name of the unpopular bill is with due respect to the National Assembly a misnomer. It would have been better titled a bill to over regulate frivolous petition on social media.
- Indirect legitimization of lawlessness: It would lead to widespread human rights abuse by overzealous state security agents and unscrupulous politicians who would arbitrarily deploy the legislation to stifle free speech.
- The heavily-partisan leanings of the mainstream media have occasioned loss of confidence in the media. Majority of the citizenry now view the social media as arguably the unbiased mouthpiece for monitoring actors in the socio-political sphere. Social media has opened up the media space; and given citizens the opportunity to express and disseminate information at a much reduced cost, thus, amplifying their right to freedom of expression.
- The belief that the conduct of government business in Nigeria is shrouded in secrecy is widespread. This serves as a big incentive for abuse and corruption. Signing the Freedom of Information Act in 2011 which granted citizens access to information not covered under any secrecy law in Nigeria, has helped to expand the lids of transparency in governance.
- Due to poor draftsmanship, particularly the ignorance on how social media works as well as due to the lack of technology, and skilled manpower to enforce it, makes the bill inoperable. In other words, does Nigeria have the manpower and the infrastructure the regulate the activities of 0ver 90 million social media users? Is the government equipped to execute the bill (round up hundreds of thousands of people or even millions who sign up to an online petition on a subject that it deems illegal)?
- It is also ludicrous to prescribe that users of social media should only post petitions or better put report a breach of the law or likely breach of the law after they have deposed to an Affidavit. Question arises whether this is possible in this digital age where information travels at the speed of light. The philosophy of our criminal jurisprudence in trying to prevent an offence is anchored on ‘reasonable suspicion of belief’ and what amounts to a reasonable suspicion of belief is a question for the court to decide. Introducing an affidavit into this jurisprudence serves to deter citizens’ participation in the detection and prevention of crime because the threat of being accused of perjury looms large.
The issues of responsibility with regard to the regulation of social media and privacy concerns of users must be balanced with the need to protect those whose reputation may be damaged and may decide to seek redress. Any new legislation to regulate social media usage must take into consideration its distinctive feature of being a community of people with only virtual contact, and with no form of strict control (journalism ethics) as available in the mainstream media where content intended for publication is rigorously edited by an editorial board.
The National Assembly as the highest organ of government saddled with the responsibility of law-making must also take into consideration the dynamics of law -making in an ever evolving social, political, technological and economic environment. The law must protect the interests of every member of the society by advancing the common good of citizens, and should not be used as instrument of oppression. It would be noble at this point for the legislators to align with the naturalist school of law which argues that an unjust law, notwithstanding the fact that it went through the normal legislative process, is not law.
It is a fact that social media are the new towns, or cities or neighborhood bars, that is, the places where members of the public gather to discuss issues. Just as one would not take a conversation from the neighborhood bar and broadcast it as the truth, citizens need to be oriented to do own check and verification before reliance on data shared on social media.
The concern that social media is subjected to widespread abuse like any new innovation in the world is a legitimate one, but its advantages to Nigeria’s young and growing democracy far outweighs any disadvantages that it may possess. Freedom of expression has been and is still the hallmark of democracy and must not be limited under any guise, else democracy be robbed of its essential savour and citizens become programmed robots.
SPACES FOR CHANGE | S4C recommends the entrenchment of media that will allow victims of abuse to easily seek redress. Social media is an evolving sphere in information sharing, whose modus operandi is different from the mainstream media. S4C suggests that concerned IT professionals, civil society groups, behavioral psychologists, law makers, members of the judiciary as well as other relevant stakeholders convene to develop a comprehensive policy document offering clear guidelines on social media use in the country. This document can be codified into law rather than the present knee jerk response (being the bill presented) which only creates more problems in trying to solve one.
 Paraphrased. Original quote by Nic Newman is on page 12 of his Working Paper titled “Rise of Social Media and its Impact on Mainstream Journalism” see http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/The%20rise%20of%20social%20media%20and%20its%20impact%20on%20mainstream%20journalism_0.pdf accessed on April 02, 2016.
BY GODWIN OGLA, THE LEGAL OFFICER AT SPACES FOR CHANGE