By Punch Editorial Board
At a time major global media technology companies such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter have written openly to the United States President, Barack Obama, to demand less government surveillance, the Nigerian parliament is forging ahead with an obnoxious bill to curtail press freedom.
To the consternation of many Nigerians, a bill that seeks “a seven-year jail term for social media critics found guilty of inciting the public against the Federal Government” scaled the first reading in the Senate. Titled, “Computer Hacking, Anti-419 Bill”, and promoted by Gbenga Kaka (Ogun APC), the bill is an assault on the freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of speech as expressly guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution in Section 39, sub-sections 1 and 2.
Although the bill seeks stiffer punishment for internet fraudsters, who will be jailed for seven years upon conviction, the government is just hiding behind a thin finger to bring back the repression of the media. A clause inserted in the bill reveals the real intention of the government, which is apparently targeting individuals who may be using the social media to criticise government.
The high point of the latest offensive is in Section 13 sub-section 3 of the bill. It states, “Anyone, who intentionally propagates false information that could threaten the security of the country or that is capable of inciting the general public against the government through electronic message, shall be guilty of an offence and, upon conviction, shall be sentenced to seven years imprisonment or N5m (fine).”
Though the offending section was later dropped because, as the Senate said, it “could be abused at any point in time and could be misinterpreted,” media watchers should continue to monitor the controversial bill.
Rather, the parliament should be more concerned about a lack of official policy that has made the cost of internet access in Nigeria very expensive despite the attempts by some telecoms firms to install infrastructure. The government should reflect on the reaction of a former Vice-President, Abubakar Atiku, who said, “I’ve always told our political leaders to see (the) social media as a performance barometer, and not a threat.”
The (social) media gives a voice to the ordinary people to be heard about the activities of government. An administration that signed the Freedom of Information Bill into law two years ago cannot reverse the gains of such a law by curtailing the right of Nigerians to express their opinions about the same government on the social media.
Nigeria’s digital ecosystem is still evolving; it needs a strong, focused government policy to reach the heights that will help our democracy grow. We see the move to abridge the freedom of the press as a red herring, a diversion from the real issues plaguing the country. The Senate has not intervened in the infrastructure crisis facing Nigeria in the area of roads and power. University lecturers have just called off the strike they began on July 1; their counterparts in the polytechnics are in the fourth month of their own strike.
The obsolete Railway Act of 1955, which vests control of such a critical sector in the Federal Government alone, is hindering private sector investment, which is seriously slowing down the economy. There is also the issue of a lopsided federalism that favours an unnecessarily big central government. These are some of the germane issues that demand the urgent attention of our lawmakers.
We want to remind our legislators, who, ironically, are also actively using the social media to promote their causes on Facebook, Twitter and other channels, that there are enough laws in the books that deal with libel, slander, false publications and other infractions that the media could commit.
These laws should be tested first before any other one is made to restrict media professionals and citizen journalists from carrying out their constitutional duties. To counter claims of ignorance, these laws are circulated online in the United Kingdom by the authorities. Our legislators should stop this attempt to gag Nigerians on the social media, but devote their time to the real issues that can help develop the country.
The regular media should take up the fight to gag the social media in the National Assembly. The Nigerian media has had a long history of repression and the media organisations should make their voices count against a law that aims to bring back the insanity of the past.
Serious governments across the world are responding to the advent of the social media by opening up the space and legislating against criminals like paedophiles, not by hunting down commentators. In Australia, the government is controlling the space by restricting underage users (under-13) from cyber space. In the UK, access to some sites that promote terror, crime and paedophilia is blocked through the Internet Service Providers; the country does not regulate those who want to criticise the government.
By spreading education on the law of contempt online, governments in free societies are correcting public misconception that the internet is somehow a free speech zone to which the criminal and civil laws do not apply. It should be the case here.
Every attempt to suppress free speech is bound to fail in a free society. The parliament should throw out the bill before it subjects itself to further ridicule in the eyes of right thinking people.
Source: The Punch
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