SERAP drags Nigerian Senate to UN over repressive media bill. Is this new bill the return of decree 4?

 

The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has sent an urgent appeal to David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, requesting him to “you 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”.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was copied in the urgent appeal.

In the urgent appeal dated 3 December 2015, and signed by SERAP executive director Adetokunbo Mumuni the organisation said, “We are seriously concerned 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.”

But what is contained in this bill that makes it very worrying?

The bill is titled: “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith”, is sponsored by Senator Ibn Na’Allah, APC, Kebbi South. The bill provides for an option of N4 million for persons convicted of false newspaper, radio and television statements and N2 million for offenders of false phone text messages or messages on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or WhatsApp. The bill also punishes alleged malicious intent to discredit or set the public against any person or group of persons, institutions of government.

On the social media, the bill read: “Where any person through text message, tweets, WhatsApp or through any social media post any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2,000,000.00 or both fine and imprisonment.”

“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,” the organisation said.

Let’s compare the sections of this bill with the words of decree 4.

Drafted on March 29,1984, Decree No. 4 was the most dreaded, most repressive and the last press law enacted in Nigeria. It was promulgated during the military regime of Major General Buhari which did not take kindly to press criticisms.

 

The law was drafted to punish authors of false statements and reports that exposed the Buhari administration and or its officials to ridicule or contempt.

Section 1, sub-sections (i), (ii) and (iii) of the law – the most formidable section – provided that:

Any person who publishes in any form, whether written or otherwise, any message,rumour, report or statement, being a message, rumour, statement or report which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offence under this Decree.

 

Any station for wireless telegraphy which conveys or transmits any sound or visual message, rumour, report or statement, being a message, rumour, report or statement which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Government or the Government of a state or a public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offence under this Decree.

 

It shall be an offence under this Decree for a newspaper or wireless telegraphy station in Nigeria to publish or transmit any message, rumour, report or statement which is false in any material particular stating that any public officer has in any manner been engaged in corrupt practices or has in any manner comiptly enriched himself or any other person {Gazette, 1984).

Earlier in March this year, Then Presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, now President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari was speaking at an interactive session with members of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), in Abuja.

Buhari assured the media of a new friendship if he comes to power.

“Concerning the Decree 4 of 1984, I have to assure you that the time for that is over. That was part of military administration and dictatorship, but I have also promised you that I am now a converted, and converted democrat. Therefore, I want to assure you that I am going to be a friend of the media and this time, I will work well with you as friends and partners in the development of the nation, and that is my promise to you.”

 

He also promised to ensure freedom of the Press and expression, saying: “I want to give you my full assurances that in this democratic dispensation, I will ensure that the Nigerian Constitution is upheld. This includes respect for the media, respect for the right to free expression and freedom of speech. I have said elsewhere that I cannot change the past. But I can change the present and the future. Dictatorship goes with military rule as do edicts such as Decree 4.”

The organisation also said that, “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,” the organisation also said.

SERAP believes that the bill falls far short of international requirements of legitimacy, necessity and proportionality,” the organisation added

According to the organisation, “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. The Internet cannot enable citizens and others to participate in governance or critique government policy if they cannot freely access information, use social media services, or if they fear being sent to jail simply for expressing their views.”

According to the organisation, “The Senate has set in motion a process to accelerate the passage of this obnoxious bill. SERAP is seriously concerned that if passed into law the bill would go directly against Nigeria’s international legal obligations, including under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Convention against Corruption to which Nigeria is a signatory,” the organisation said.

The organisation said that, “While it is important to protect personal integrity in social media, a clean, transparent and accountable government that has nothing to fear will not use this ground as an excuse to undermine the sacred right to freedom of expression.”

SERAP therefore asked the Special Rapporteur to:

  1. Publicly express concerns about the proposed bill and insist that the National Assembly of Nigeria should withdraw the bill
  2. Urge the National Assembly in particular the Senate to protect freedom of expression online in line with international standards
  3. Urge the National Assembly to allow free space for expression without fear of criminal prosecution, and not to contemplate impermissible restrictions to access internet and social media
  4. Urge the National Assembly to promote and facilitate access to the media in the country
  5. Urge the National Assembly to ensure that in the exercise of its legislative duties it complies with Nigerian international human rights obligations and commitments

 

 

 

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