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.”
“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.
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.
“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 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 contravene 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
The bill, 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.”