In from Etaghene Edirin . . .
It hit Nigerians, especially users of the social media, with a bang, more so because no one had any inclination of it, and the next thing they heard, it was heading for a second reading, on its way to being passed into law; “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith”, sponsored by Senator Ibn Na’Allah (APC, Kebbi South). It also compels petitioners to accompany their petitions with a sworn court affidavit, failure of which would attracts a six- month imprisonment upon conviction.
The bill proposes up to two years in prison or a N2 million fine, or both for anyone disseminating via text message, Twitter, WhatsApp, or any other form of social media an “abusive statement”.
Of course Nigerians were not fooled, they were mostly pissed that the Senate had wanted to quietly pass into law a bill that was widely condemnable, and sought to gag free speech. Many considered it an attempt to resurrect the famous but inglorious Decree 4, an instrument used by the then military administration of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari between 1984 and 1985 to gag the press, and horde a number of journalists into prison.
Ekiti State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr Owoseni Ajayi who expressed concern over the Anti-Media Bill noted that it was a throwback to the past, saying; the National Assembly must not allow itself to be used to bring back the Sedition Law that the British Colonial Masters used against our fathers, who fought for the independence of Nigeria.
Ajayi while noting that holders of public offices must be answerable to the people at all times, said that; “those of us holding public offices must be mindful of the temptation of seeing ourselves as being above the people. We are not God that cannot be questioned. In fact, nothing should be private about us that the public must not know.”
Ajayi in a statement issued in Ado-Ekiti, said the Ekiti State government was against the bill in its entirety, adding that; “that bill proposed by Senator Bala Ibn Na’allah is not different from Buhari’s Protection Against False Accusations Decree 4 of 1984, which was considered as the most repressive press law ever enacted in Nigeria.”
Nigerians, especially those from the civil society environment noted that it was a sneak move on the part of the senators to shortchange Nigerians who voted them into the chambers to protect the interests of their various constituents. Rather than that, the senators are seen as trying to protect their personal interests, and avoid scrutiny, or criticism of their activities as public servants.
They were angrier over the timing and speed to sneak the bill through the process of law making, as there was no call for public participation; public hearing or submission of contributions, sneaking it through first reading, before moving to second hearing, a bill truly considered to be against Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, stating that: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Also, Chapter IV section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution says, “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
The move by the Bukola Saraki-led Senate is even more suspect considering that it is coming at a time an online publication made startling allegations against the Senate president and a few of his colleagues, like Senator Dino Melaye, giving the impression that the bill is being pushed forward more as a survival tactic to protect a few individuals targeting a foe, than in the general interest of Nigerians or humanity.
Nigerians are not unmindful of the fact that the present ruling APC rode to power on the back of free press and an open electoral process aided by the use of the same social media, which the Senators now seem in a great hurry to criminalise, and subsequently suppress.
“This is indeed a paradox, as the APC during the last general elections used social media to marshal their change agenda and incite Nigerians against the PDP.
The bill, against the insistence and defence of a tiny fraction of the lawmakers has received wide condemnation from both within the county, and the international community.
Diaspora Nigeria Nationals Network (DNNN), with membership all over the world and its headquarters in New York, called on Senate President Saraki to “slam the brakes on the so-called Social Media Bill, or risk members of the Upper House finding they are unable to travel in any direction whatsoever”.
At an emergency meeting of the group on Friday, its members declared that if Saraki failed to take this measure, they would begin a process of including all Senators who vote for it, as well as their families and relevant associates, on the international no-fly list, “as they could constitute danger to the freedoms and lives of Nigerians including those beyond Nigeria’s borders whose views they find offensive.”
Many angry Nigerians wonder why proponents of the bill fail to realize that the offences the proposed bill seeks to criminalise already exist under Nigerian laws, including those on treason, defamation and libel, and why they cannot make use of such laws to protect their rights if they feel what has been said, or written against them is untrue.
Contributing, Kofoworola Ogundeji, a legal practitioner noted that censoring the primary means of communication in a country whose journey to democracy has just begun is a misplaced priority, and that it is an attempted ‘murder’ on the rights of Nigerians who use the social media.
According to him, it doesn’t matter what excuse the proponents put forward, it’s a wrong step in the wrong direction happening at the wrong time, and that the senators should know that no matter how much they try, Nigerians will not allow their scheme to pass the retrogressive Social Media Bill see the light of the day.
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