At a public hearing on Nigeria’s social media bill held in Abuja last month, the voice of Chris Isiguzo, president of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), rang clearly across the room: “This bill…seeks to pigeonhole Nigerians from freely expressing themselves.” The NUJ is “totally opposed” to it, he said.
This strong opposition was echoed by multiple other civil society groups, according to local media reports and a recording of the hearing posted on Twitter with the hashtag #SayNoToSocialMediaBill by Paradigm Initiative, a local digital rights organization. By contrast, a Nigerian army representative welcomed the bill for “reasons of national security,” telling the hearing it would supplement an existing cyber warfare command. The local Guardian newspaper reported in 2018 that the command was established to combat fake news.
At the time of publication, it was not clear whether the COVID-19 crisis would impact the timeline for consideration of the bill, which was scheduled to be sent for a third reading by the senate in April. On March 24, Nigeria’s National Assembly began a two week shutdown with possible extension based on the public health response, Mohammed Sani Musa, a senator from Niger State who is sponsoring the bill, told CPJ. False information related to the coronavirus was an example of the need for the legislation, he said.
Nigeria’s Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019 says that individuals who transmit statements that authorities determine to be “false,” likely to “influence the outcome of an election,” or “prejudicial to the security of Nigeria,” may be imprisoned for up to three years or fined up to 300,000 naira (US$844) or both, according to CPJ’s review of the text. Offenders who are not individuals face fines up to 10 million naira ($27,247 USD). Another section of the bill introduces fines for companies who fail to comply with orders to disable Nigerians’ access to content.
Musa told CPJ that the bill was intended to “mitigate the propaganda of fake news” that travels at the “speed of light.” He said it was important in addition to existing cybercrime legislation, though he did not provide specifics. Nigeria’s 2015 cybercrime act has been used to arrest journalists who criticize officials on social media, as CPJ has documented.
Musa told CPJ the bill was guided by online controls in other jurisdictions, including Singapore, the U.K., the EU, and the United Arab Emirates—where a cybercrime law was passed to suppress criticism on social media, observers have told CPJ. CPJ found strikingly similar language between Singapore’s 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act—which CPJ has condemned—and Nigeria’s social media bill, notably in sections denoting prison time for individuals who post “false statements of fact.”
“If there’s a society like Nigeria, we feel imprisonment is necessary,” Musa said, arguing for deterrence as a tool to manage speech online. He was, however, open to the bill being amended or even dropped. “Any bill that is going to infringe on the fundamental freedom of every Nigerian…I would be against it,” he concluded.
CPJ asked four Nigerian journalists what they thought about the bill. Their answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Ajibola Amzat, editor with the privately owned International Centre For Investigative Reporting (ICIR), based in Abuja
You say we should not share information or transmit information that is false, and then we begin to ask, well, what is falsehood? When you say people should not transmit false information—false information according to who?
Now [the government] realizes that the Nigerian media is getting more critical and having a better sense of awareness of what is going on, and Nigerian people are getting to know a little more about the hypocrisy of the government, and they are talking more freely about it. That is what [the government] does not want to happen, and that is the purpose of bringing up this kind of bill.
The parts that say you can’t transmit information that may affect national security, you can’t transmit information that you know is false, you can’t transmit information that you know will influence the outcome of elections. It’s something that can actually put journalists into easy problems, because you don’t know what the government will consider as “national security.”
How can you jail somebody for saying something? If you think what somebody is saying is false, then bring out the truth, so that the falsehood and the truth can stand together and then people will decide for themselves. But you cannot go ahead and criminalize people, that is like trying to kill people’s spirit to talk.
And don’t forget, apart from journalists, the organization who carries such information is also going to be sanctioned. So the media organization will also pay if you are found to be the one who published such information or misinformation. It’s an attempt to gag the media.
This kind of boldness is coming from places like China and Singapore, and other places where the freedom of expression is being repressed. Nigerian democracy is already broken, but it is going to be more shattered if this kind of bill would be allowed to pass.
The laws that even enable journalists to do their jobs are often disregarded. I mean the laws, like the FOI [freedom of information] law, should enable journalists. Most of them [government agencies] don’t have regard for that law…many agencies of the government are not disclosing information vital for public interest. Those are the laws that are supposed to enable the work of journalists. But those laws are just laws on paper. And now [they] bring some other laws to criminalize what journalists do.
Yecenu Sasetu, health reporter for the privately owned Kiss FM radio station, based in Abuja
As a media person, if this is passed into law it’s going to stifle my voice because the government is going to be in control. They are going to be in control of our online presence.
Now if, as a journalist, I put out content online and the government decides this is “fake news,” of course it won’t fly. Yes, I’ll be penalized. A whole lot of things that we need to put out we may not be able to put out, because it is going to put fear in a whole lot of media people. They will feel they do not want to anger the government.
So you cannot criticize, you cannot give opinions. It’s going to really stifle the voice of traditional media. Forget about the regular, everyday person that just wants to put out content—it will stifle the voice of every media person.
There has been a lot of criticism of the present administration. People are not getting what they expected, especially in terms of the economy. There is insecurity, there are just a whole lot of issues. People come online to vent. People do not really have access to their representatives, their lawmakers, their elected government officials, so the only way they really get to vent is on social media.
I would say it’s just a bid to get people not to say so much, not to be as critical of the government as they are right now. I would say it’s just a bid to control everything and everyone.
Chris Kehinde Nwandu, publisher of the privately owned CKN News site and president of the Guild of Professional Bloggers of Nigeria, based in Lagos
Some of us have been arrested in the past. I personally was arrested about five years ago, and I stayed about two weeks in jail for some of the information I published [on social media].
For me and my organization, we believe there is no need for another law, the social media bill or whatever. We already have enough laws. In 2015 there was the cybercrime law, but they are trying to come up with another law. We sense there are some political motives behind it.
This may be a law to give more ammunition to some people, to put some level of fear into the minds of journalists. Some people are just trying to wither down the voice of the media, to shut them up. Democracy is about free speech.
I am not totally against a law that regulates what people do. Across the globe there are certain standards that are expected of professionals. [But] this is not China. This is not North Korea. This is not Cuba or one of these countries. This is a democracy.
Amrah Aliou, reporter with the federal government-funded Search FM radio station, based in Minna, Niger State
In Nigeria, the only way people get to talk [and] express their views is on social media. They get to hold politicians and policy makers accountable the only way they can reach them, which is on social media. And so far it’s been working well, because the government feels out of place and tries to right their wrongs.
For example, in Niger State we are battling with potholes, terrible roads jam-packed with trailers and heavy duty cars, to the extent that sometimes these vehicles get stuck or fall off and there are oil spills. People feel fear for their dear lives, so most times they snap [photographs of] these incidences and try to question the government on social media, tagging some notable handles. This has, in a way, put the government to order. They try to right their wrongs [and] in turn post it [their actions] on the same social media through their aides. So social media to some extent has impacted positively on the changes the people get to enjoy.
[Editors’ Note: This article has been changed to correct the spelling of Amrah Aliou’s name.]