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Social media regulation: Between failed attempts and Buhari’s current move

By Onyedika Agbedo, News Editor
26 June 2021   |   4:27 am
Not deterred by failed attempts in the past to regulate the social media space in the country, the Federal Government seems to have begun a fresh move to accomplish the mission with the suspension....

Social Media. Photo Econsultancy

Not deterred by failed attempts in the past to regulate the social media space in the country, the Federal Government seems to have begun a fresh move to accomplish the mission with the suspension of the operations of micro-blogging platform, Twitter, in Nigeria 22 days ago.

Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who announced the suspension in a statement in Abuja, alleged persistent use of the platform for activities capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.

Mohammed also disclosed that the Federal Government had directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately commence the process of licensing all Over-The-Top (OTT) media services in the country.

The current move was triggered by Twitter’s deletion of President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet in which he threatened to treat Nigerians “misbehaving” in “the language they understand” on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.

Buhari had in the said tweet cited Nigeria’s civil war experience between 1967 and 1970 and noted that most of those “misbehaving” by burning electoral offices and police stations were too young to understand the gravity of war.

In the tweet, he also threatened to deal with the arsonists, saying: “Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”

The tweet elicited millions of comments and widespread condemnation, with many Nigerians criticising the President, especially for making reference to the civil war in which millions of Nigerians, mostly of Igbo extraction, were killed.

Some Nigerians had called on Twitter to suspend President Buhari’s account, claiming that his tweet “expresses intentions of self-harm or suicide,” as stated on Twitter’s usage policy. The following day, June 3, Twitter deleted the message, alleging that the post violated its rules. On Thursday, June 4, it took one step further by also deleting the video of the tweet.

Like Twitter, Facebook, another social networking service, also deleted President Buhari’s post.

“In line with our global policies, we’ve removed a post from President Buhari’s Facebook page for violating our Community Standards against inciting violence.

“We remove any content, from individuals or organisations that violates our policies on Facebook,” said a Facebook’s spokesperson.

Since the government suspended Twitter from operating in Nigeria, it has adduced reasons upon reasons the social media space should be regulated even as it has, without hesitation, deployed relevant organs and agencies of government to realise the goal.

For instance, on June 10, the NBC asked all social media platforms and online broadcasting service providers operating in Nigeria to apply for broadcast licence. Director-General of the commission, Armstrong Idachaba, gave the directive in a newspaper advertorial wherein he noted that the NBC establishment code empowers the commission to ask the companies to be licensed.

The advertorial read: “The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) hereby directs every Online Broadcast Service provider and Social Media Platforms operating within the Nigerian State to apply and obtain broadcast licence for their service(s).

“Note that any online broadcast service provider that fails to obtain a licence will be considered an illegal entity.”
Ironically, a bill seeking to amend the NBC Act 2004 is still under consideration at the National Assembly, likewise the bill to amend the Nigeria Press Council (NPC) Act. The sponsor of the bills, Odebunmi Olusegun, had argued that they were aimed at moderating alleged recklessness of the media.

Speaking at a public hearing on the NBC amendment bill organised by the House on Wednesday, June 16, Mohammed asked the lawmakers to amend the NBC Act to empower the agency to regulate social and online media.

Section two (b) of the NBC Act states: “(1) The Commission shall have (the) responsibility of: Receiving, processing and considering applications for the establishment, ownership or operation of radio and television stations including (i) cable television services, direct satellite broadcast and any other medium of broadcasting.”

The Federal Government wants the commission to also be able to regulate the online media in addition to other channels of broadcasting.

“I want to add here specifically that Internet broadcasting and all online media should be included in this because we have a responsibility to monitor contents, including Twitter,” the minister stressed.

Also speaking last Tuesday at an investigating hearing organised by the House of Representatives committees on communication, justice, information and culture, and national security and intelligence on the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, Mohammed justified the Federal Government’s action, citing the Companies and Allied Matters Act 2020.

His words: “As regards operation of foreign companies in Nigeria, the law provides that a foreign company, which fails to take necessary steps to obtain incorporation as a separate entity in Nigeria for that purpose, but until so incorporated, the foreign company shall not carry on business in Nigeria or exercise any powers of a registered company.

“Hence, flowing from this background, a foreign company as Twitter cannot be clothed with the legitimate rights to operate as a company registered in Nigeria, as they are not licensed, accordingly.

“Notwithstanding the foregoing, it is also observed that the operations of Twitter in the Nigerian social space is not legally permissible when it is used in airing of information that endangers the life and security of the majority of citizens of Nigeria.”

Mohammed claimed that Twitter’s suspension is backed by international laws, including articles 24, 25 and 26 of the African Union on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection (CCPR).

According to him, the government would not hesitate to suspend other social platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Google hangout, if they are found to be promoting posts or statements capable of destroying the country.

The government has been talking tough. But would it succeed, having failed in this very cause before? It could be recalled that efforts by the current administration to regulate the social media began in November 2015 when the then Deputy Senate Leader, Ibn Na’Allah, sponsored the Frivolous Petitions Bill, 2015 (SB. 143) in the Senate. The bill, otherwise known as anti-social media bill, was read for the first time on Thursday, November 24, 2015. On Wednesday, December 2, 2015, the Senate debated on the general principles of the bill and after extensive deliberations, read it for the second time and referred it to the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, which was asked to report back with its recommendations.

On May 17, 2016, the committee recommended that the bill be withdrawn, stressing that if passed into law, it would affect the anti-corruption war of the Federal Government and do more harm than good to President Buhari’s administration.

The recommendation read: “The Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters to which was referred a Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith, having considered the same, reports negatively thereon and accordingly recommends that the Senate withdraws the bill.”

The Chairman of the committee, David Umaru, had also argued that the passage of the bill would conflict with some provisions of extant Acts – Penal Code, Criminal Code and the Cyber Crime Act, which, according to him, have sufficient provisions to address the issues that the Bill sought to tackle.

The Senate, in line with the recommendation of the committee, withdrew the bill from further legislative consideration to the relief of many Nigerians who saw it as a ploy to deprive them of their right to freedom of speech and expression and decried it from day one.

But undeterred, in March 2018, the then Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, Abdullahi Aliu Sabi, introduced a bill seeking prohibition of hate speech in the country, otherwise known as Hate Speech Bill. The overwhelming public outrage against the bill forced the lawmakers to withdraw it. Nevertheless, in a show of perseverance, the Senate reintroduced the bill in November 2019.

According to the sponsor, the bill was aimed at eliminating all forms of hate speech in the country. The bill defined hate speech as a comment that insults people for their religion, ethnic and linguistic affiliation, among others, and prescribes death penalty for certain offenders.

“Any person who commits an offence under this section shall be liable to life imprisonment and where the act causes any loss of life, the person shall be punished with death by hanging,” the bill stipulates.

It also proposed jail term of not less than five years or a fine of not less than N10 million or both for offences like harassment on the basis of ethnicity and racial contempt.

It further proposed establishment of a national commission for the prohibition of hate speech that would be saddled with the responsibility of discouraging persons, institutions, political parties and associations from advocating or promoting discrimination or discriminatory practices through the use of hate speeches; promoting tolerance, understanding and acceptance of diversity in all aspects of national life and encouraging full participation by all ethnic communities in social, economic, cultural and political life of other communities.

Also in November 2019, a bill titled Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019 (SB.132) was introduced in the Senate. The sponsor of the bill, Mohammed Musa, had argued that it would help to curb fake news on the Internet.

“It is a legislation that will guide how we can tolerate our activities on the social media. False information has been disseminated so many times and they have caused so many chaos in different parts of the world,” he argued.

In March 2020, the Senate held its public hearing on both the Hate Speech Bill and Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, where many Nigerians kicked against them, insisting that one of the most important tenets of democracy is citizens’ right to freedom of expression.

This is the same argument Nigerians are putting forward amid the current attempt by the government to check the excesses of the social media in the country. However, some Nigerians believe the government is in the right direction this time around, as the following report will show. But only time will answer the question of whether the government would succeed or fail in this fresh drive.