The International Press Institute (IPI) today expressed concern over the potential chilling effect of a controversial social media bill in Nigeria, urging lawmakers not to approve the measure and welcoming President Muhammadu Buhari’s pledge to veto it if passed.
The “Frivolous Petitions Bill” has drawn controversy for a provision stipulating that anyone who posts an “abusive” statement known to be false with the intent of turning the public against a person, group or government institution via WhatsApp, Twitter or through text message could face up to two years behind bars and two million Nigerian Naira (approximately €9,150) in fines.
Proponents say the bill is necessary to combat the spread of malicious falsehoods, but detractors argue that it would serve to curb free speech and target government critics. The bill, which Nigeria’s Senate advanced beyond a second reading, has been met with strong resistance across Nigeria, spurring a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #NotoSocialMediaBill and leading a presidential spokesperson to declare that Buhari “won’t assent to any legislation that may be inconsistent with the constitution of Nigeria”.
Another troubling provision would require that all petitions or statement intending to report misconduct be accompanied by a sworn affidavit. Failure to submit an affidavit would mean that the complaint could not be used in any official investigation, and the person who made the allegation would then face up to two years in prison and four million Nigerian Naira (approximately €18,300) in fines.
IPI’s Nigerian National Committee in a statement praised Buhari for having “rebuffed the Senate’s bid to lure him into an unwholesome anti-media dragnet” and it called on Nigeria’s Federal House of Representatives to ensure that the bill does not become law.
“Like the mainstream media, social media platforms are in need of self-regulation and should embrace the best practices, but the government cannot resort to regulation by toxic legislation…,” the group said. “The people’s right to free speech is inviolable.”
Senate President Dr. Bukola Saraki has responded to the criticism of the bill by saying that the bill would not be passed in its current form and that the Senate would ensure that it did not infringe on Nigerians’ freedom of expression. Potential changes, however, remain to be seen.
IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis urged Nigerian lawmakers reviewing the bill to make sure not only that it complies with free speech protections in the country’s Constitution, but that it also meets international standards on free expression.
“We are extremely concerned that the harm this bill could have on Nigerians’ right to share and receive information in the public interest far outweighs any potential benefit”, he said.