The imbroglio raging in the National Assembly over the Frivolous Petition Bill 2015 (SB. 143) that was sponsored by Deputy Senate Leader; Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah of the All Progressive Congress from Kebbi State have made tongues wag, considering the fact that it could limit the right of Nigerians on the use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The bill which will basically curtail and monitor the activities of Nigerians who engage in social media to either castigate, ridicule, condemn, and praise the government of any given society, may put an end to Nigerians’ right of expression, most especially online.
This is another form of checkmating the activities of journalists, as social media has become a fast finger form of disseminating information to the general public.
Reports suggest that anyone found guilty of posting or broadcasting false or abusive statements on social media may face a two-year jail term or a N2m fine.
In a democratic setting where the fundamental human rights are well spelled out in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, it would be barbaric to deny Nigerians the access of using the social media.
Most governments know that freedom of the press is a strong instrument that can’t be denied except when it’s a military government where the leader can maneuver the laws in order to favor his reign.
The argument that the bill would check irresponsible journalism or misguided, virulent or defamatory statements on social media does not hold water.
To start with, there are enough laws within our legal framework that already cater for such areas like defamation (comprising libel and slander), treason, sedition, incitement etc, therefore, coming up with another act of National Assembly on the selfsame subject may be rightly construed as an attempt to muzzle free speech.
The 1999 Constitution (as amended) itself gives the media the power to operate with unfettered professional latitude within the confines of law, when it provides in its Section 22 thus: “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people”. Furthermore section 39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution gives freedom of expression to every citizen, including those commenting on social media, when it provides thus: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
Although, the Senate had maintained that the proposed law would not gag social media users, an argument many stakeholders have rejected, it is also in the same line that when given the opportunity to implement such a bill, the people become the victim at the end.
Several stakeholder groups are already kicking against this bill for its anti-freedom of speech nature. The Nigerian Guild of Editors, for instance, has opposed the bill and urged the Senate to suspend all the proceedings with respect to the bill unconditionally. The Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, has defended the bill, saying that it only seeks to stop the activities of the irresponsible.
Godswill Akpabio, the Senate Majority Leader said the bill is not intended in gaping anyone’s opinion but aimed at frivolity.
“It’s not just a function of safeguarding democracy but also safeguarding the finance. The reason why we are having difficulties is because some are based on envy, frivolity and jealousy,” he said.
Also, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, expressed support for the Bill which he said would protect the interest of Nigerians if passed.
”The fact is freedom of expression in the Constitution has to be within bond and not be at large. The bill is very laudable going by the fact that it uses the word frivolous,” Justice Mohammed said.
“The bill is not out to curb or check excesses and recklessness of all arms of government, its aim is to ensure that only facts are disseminated to the public.
It is not meant for vengeance but it is out to safeguard the rights and privileges in the Constitution.
It will serve the purpose of verifying the origin of a petition and provide the relationship between parties involved,” he said.
It is true that some people tend to abuse the use of the social media as a form of making derogatory and abusive comments which does not help the importance of the internet, however, it would be an injustice to restrict the people’s rights through this bill.
Nigerians have the right to express their personal opinion through social media. This allows the exchange of ideas, analysis of different opinions. The country cannot rely on the biased thoughts of political personas. Freedom of expression will allow for the spreading of some brilliant and innovative ideas coming from any mediocre individual.
The Federal Ministry of Justice and the Law Reform Commission have kicked against the passage of the Frivolous Petition Bill, popularly referred to as the “Anti-Social Media Bill”.
Patrick Etta-Oyong, an Assistant Director, Legal Drafting Department, Ministry of Justice, who represented the ministry, said that the bill was “not justifiable in a democratic setting”.
He said: “What the bill seeks to prohibit is being regulated by the law of defamation in Section 375 of the Criminal Code.
It is our view that there is no need for this bill to be passed in the form it is. “Even if you expunge the affidavit, there is some form of stress on the citizens.”
Interestingly, President Muhammadu Buhari has dissociated himself from the controversial bill. According to his Senior Special Assistant (Media and Publicity), Garba Shehu, the President is committed to upholding the freedom of expression of Nigerians, among other human rights and freedoms.
Going by this statement, it would be contentious for the senators to embrace this bill that has brought about so many talking points.
The priority of the senators at the National Assembly should be to focus on how to alleviate the alarming rate of poverty and improving the epileptic nature of the power supply in the country instead of wagging over the controversial social media bill.
Besides, the level of insecurity, unemployment and economic downturn should form a major topic for discussion, considering the fact that most Nigerians are finding it difficult to live a comfortable life. These are issues the senators are expected to dwell upon in order to better the situation of the masses.
It would be wrong if the senate went against the rights of Nigerians in a democratic state by approving the social media bill. Perhaps, the need to put into cognizance that they are a mere representation of the masses at the assembly should draw the line between fairness and injustice.