The current review of the proposed social media bill, sections 5, 12, 13, 24 and 33 reveal a blatant affront by the government to gag citizens and prevent future democratic protests. This development came as a fall-out from the recent #ENDSARS demonstrations that campaigned for the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), an end to police brutality, justice for victims of police brutality and accountability of police officers found culpable.
The proposed law is an attempt to undermine the country’s fledgling democracy, one where citizens freely exercise fundamental rights to freedom of expression, speech and the press; freedom of thought, conscience and religion, right to peaceful assembly and association, right to access to justice, and so on. Its adoption will criminalise these rights and empower the Law Enforcement Departments and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to prosecute dissenting voices at will.
If passed into law, the bill will grant the executive arm of the government the discretion to determine what can be termed “false news”. It will criminalise “false” declarations and statements of fact; and sections 3 (iv) and (v) prohibit the transmission of statements that may influence the outcome of an election and diminish public confidence in a public office, respectively. This is alarming considering the fact that we live in a country where facts are easily branded false news by the government.
In addition, the bill will clamp down on fundraising activities that may promote false declarations of facts via an online location. Not only is this particular item vague, it could effectively prevent future public protests from mobilising funds as seen in the #ENDSARS protests where funds were raised to provide food, water, legal, medical and other aid to protesters and victims of undue police clampdowns.
More alarming is section 12 which grants the LED access to order an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to block/disable end-user internet access to an online location or platform. This would effectively end C-governance (citizen-led governance) and E-governance seeing that the internet has been a medium for mobilising voices and executing online protests against unfavourable public policies. Besides that, Social media has been a forum for public opinions and poll taking for policy formulation and/or influencing.
The autocratic elements of the proposed law rely on its arbitrary elements for its enforcement which will be largely dependent on what the executive arm of government deems to be right or opines to be false. In order for us to sustain our democracy, we must not allow our country become one where communication and expression of opinions are criminalised.