The Nigerian Senate is planning to regulate use of the internet with the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019, aka the Social Media Bill. Ifeoluwa Ogunbufunmi examines what is at stake.
The Social Media Bill, which passed the second reading stage in the Senate on Wednesday, November 20, is coming at a time when social media has been littered with fake news heightening government concern about internal security and community relations.
The Bill, if passed into law, seeks to prevent falsehoods and manipulations and will counter the effects of such communications and transmission by sanctioning offenders.
Under this Bill, a social media offence includes: the transmission of a false statement of fact; providing services to transmit a falsehood; and failure to check the use of this fake news on a platform by firms and telecommunication companies.
Senator Mohammed Sani Musa, who proposed the Bill about two weeks ago, based his defence on the need to thwart the influence of foreign ideologies and to serve as a check on the spreading of false information through the internet. He argued that this Bill is a firewall against people with “deep-seated prejudice” which invariably produces opinions capable of terrorizing people. To him, “the internet is a tool that many use to spread falsehood and manipulate unsuspecting users. Media outlets are also constantly publishing stories with false content that attracts users and benefits advertisers”.
As expected, Nigerians and digital rights activists are voicing major concerns about the Bill’s potential impact on human rights and democratic expression.
Adeboye Adegoke, a program manager at Paradigm Initiative, a digital rights organisation says, “No forward-looking country is seeking to gag their citizens’ rights of speech and expression in the guise of fighting fake news. The digital space must remain open if Nigeria wants to achieve its objective of building a strong digital economy.”
Considerable success has been achieved by using social media to propel mass action on political and socio-economic issues. In recent times, “Nigerian Twitter” (as it is fondly called), and social media platforms generally, have brought into the light, public officials and their seemingly “secret” acts —from bribery and corruption, internet fraud, sexual assaults, and huge election misconduct, the list is endless.
Most believe that the speedy moving of this Bill at the Senate is because the political class is pushing for a stronger shield against the public’s scrutinising eye. Others in support, believe that it poses a serious threat and danger to democracy.
Penalties for committing a social media offence under the Bill include a fine of up to N300,000 (£650) or three years’ imprisonment for individuals and up to N10 Million (£23,500) for corporate organisations.
The 36-clause Bill has now moved to the relevant committee stage, which is the Senate Committee on Judiciary. The committee is also expected to conduct a public hearing on the Bill and has been asked to report back to the Senate in four weeks.
The hope is that this Bill is quashed at the committee stage, at the public hearing.
Where the Bill proceeds beyond the committee stage, it moves to the third reading and is then passed by the Senate. The Bill will also be presented before the House of Representatives (lower legislature) for a concurrence. The final step for the Bill to be signed into law is the President’s Assent, which is required within 30 days from when the Bill is received from the National Assembly (the upper and lower legislature).
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