President Muhammadu Buhari, yesterday, distanced himself from the proposed Social Media Bill currently being debated in the Senate seeking to restrict Nigerians from “criticizing” political and public office holders.
This is just as the United Nations is considering the petition filed by rights group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), against the bill
The President speaking through his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, stated that the principle of the bill was inconsistent with democratic ideals of free speech enshrined in the constitution of the land.
He added that he had sworn to protect and uphold the dictates of the constitution and would not in anyway go against it.
President Buhari, however, stated that he was “not averse to lawful regulation, so long as that is done within the ambit of the constitution” which he swore to uphold, noting that free speech was central to democratic societies anywhere in the world.
“The President won’t assent to any legislation that may be inconsistent with the constitution of Nigeria,” he said.
He further explained that without free speech, elected representatives won’t be able to gauge public feelings and moods about governance issues.
“As a key component of democratic principles are so emotionally attached to free speech that they would defend it with all their might,” he said.
Shehu explained that President Buhari was fully aware of the public reservations about the proposed legislation but assured that there was no cause for alarm “because the Senate is a democratic Senate.
The bill, however, has passed second reading in the Senate.
UN hears petition on the bill
Meanwhile, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. David Kaye is considering the urgent appeal against the bill
In a statement, yesterday, by SERAP executive director, Adetokunbo Mumuni, the organisation said: “SERAP can confirm that the Office of the Special Rapporteur is now considering our petition. We have received communication from Marcelo Daher at the Office of the Special Rapporteur to this effect. The Special Rapporteur has also requested a copy of the bill, which SERAP has promptly sent to Marcelo Daher.
“SERAP appreciates the prompt attention to this matter by the Office of the Special Rapporteur. We urge the UN to pursue this matter to a satisfactory conclusion by ensuring that the Nigerian Senate is not allowed to strangulate media freedom and social media in the country,” the group said.
According to the group, “the only option for the Senate now is to withdraw this obnoxious bill without further delay and end this international embarrassment. SERAP will be prepared to withdraw the petition at the UN if the Senate can follow this honourable path.”
SERAP, last week, sent an urgent appeal to Mr. David Kaye requesting him to “use your good offices and position to urgently request the National Assembly of Nigeria, specifically the Senate, to withdraw a bill which if passed into law would undermine the internationally recognized right to freedom of expression and press freedom on the internet in the country.”
The urgent appeal
Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was copied in the urgent appeal.
In the urgent appeal, the organisation expressed serious concerns “that the National Assembly of Nigeria will any moment from now pass a bill to jail for two years and fine anybody or group of persons who send any alleged false text message or post false message on the social media against another person.
“SERAP is concerned that rather than increasing universal and inclusive access to the Internet for all Nigerians, the National Assembly of Nigeria is working to undermine access of citizens to the Internet. Yet, freedom of expression entails the ability to both speak and receive information, including through the social media and other generated content services such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and chat applications.
“By initiating this bill, the National Assembly is impermissibly restricting the ability of the citizens to use these tools to communicate, connect, and seek independent sources of information.
“SERAP also contends that the bill will restrain access to Internet and social media, curtail the freedom of the press, and online content in illegitimate, disproportionate, or otherwise unlawful and abusive ways. The real targets of the bill are social media and human rights defenders that might be critical of government policies or report on corruption involving high ranking government officials.
“International law provides that any restriction to rights online must be provided in law, pursuant to a legitimate aim, and limited to only what is necessary and proportionate. SERAP believes that the bill falls far short of international requirements of legitimacy, necessity and proportionality.
“The bill will also have chilling effect on freedom of expression in the country, as it will create an atmosphere of fear among bloggers and online activists who may not post critical commentary on Facebook or other social media platforms for fear of being sent to jail.”