Freedom Of Expression, The Infeasible Concept In Nigeria

 Freedom Of Expression, The Infeasible Concept In Nigeria

On June 1, 2021, Nigeria’s 78-year-old president via Twitter referenced the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970 while threatening fire and brimstone on alleged clamourers of secession in Nigeria. In his words, ” We would treat them in the language they will understand”. A few hours later, the tweet was deleted for violating Twitter’s guidelines on Inflammatory comments.

The Federal Government of Nigeria in response to Twitter’s measures, announced the indefinite suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, an action people worry is part of its plan to promote an anti-social media law.

In Nigeria, social media has been and still is instrumental in shaping public discourse that influences social justice which somehow threatens the government of Nigeria.

One of the ideals that define a democratic system is the functionality of the rule of law. Freedom of speech, access to information, are both fundamental human rights protected by Nigeria’s 1999 constitution in sections 22 and 39, Laws the Nigerian government constantly ignores as seen through its history.

History Of Nigeria’s Laws Against Freedom Of Expression

 Since the ’90s, there has been political intolerance towards the media, social media as government officials have been known to jail its critics, fire employees who do not promote or approve of their views and ideas as well as the subjection of the media to scare tactics and intimidation, through threats of possible imprisonment.

The Republican Constitution Of 1963

Section 25, a re-enactment of section 24 of the independence Constitution of 1960 states that every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference. However, sub-section 2 of section 25 disabuses the absoluteness of the law.

The subsection states that nothing in section 25 invalidates any law that is “reasonably justifiable in a democratic society in the interest of public order, public safety, public morality or public health…”

The clause allowed for the restrictions to the freedom of expression and would go on to birth more restrictive laws in the history of Nigeria.

 Decree No. 4 Of 1984

Considered the most dreadful law against the media, Decree No. 4 was promulgated on March 29, 1984, during the military regime of Major General Muhammadu Buhari.

The law was drafted to arrest and punish journalists and writers that exposed the Buhari administration or ridiculed officials of the administration.

Section 1, sub-sections (i), (ii) and (iii) of the law – the most formidable section – provided that:

Any person who publishes in any form, whether written or otherwise, any message, rumour, report or statement, being a message, rumour, statement or report which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offence under this Decree.

Any station for wireless telegraphy which conveys or transmits any sound or visual message, rumour, report or statement, being a message, rumour, report or statement which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Government or the Government of a state or a public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offence under this Decree.

It shall be an offence under this Decree for a newspaper or wireless telegraphy station in Nigeria to publish or transmit any message, rumour, report or statement which is false in any material particular stating that any public officer has in any manner been engaged in corrupt practices or has in any manner corruptly enriched himself or any other person {Gazette, 1984).

The law also gave absolute power to the Head Of State to ban a newspaper and revoke the license of any wireless telegraph station in any part of the federation, if the action was determined to be in the interest of the nation.

Two Guardian reporters, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor were among the victims of Decree No. 4.

Decree No. 2 Of 1984

Also promulgated during the Buhari regime, this law allowed the detention and incommunicado of any Nigerian citizen for up to three months without charge. It gave broad authority to the National Security Organization (NSO) while outlawing every form of civil protest and worker’s strike.

According to Amnesty International, about 150 people, including renowned journalist and teacher, Tai Solarin, were reported to have been detained under Decree No. 2 in 1984.

Former Biafran leader, Chukuemeka Ojukwu, was among those detained under the decree. He was later released without charges.

Musician and popular critic of the Buhari regime, Fela Kuti was arrested in September 1984 and accused of attempting to unlawfully export foreign currency. He was handed a five-year jail sentence by a military tribunal.

Amnesty International reported allegations that important defence witnesses, including customs officials, were prevented from testifying at Fela’s trial.

Cyber Crime Act of 2015

Despite President Buhari’s rejection of the bill, referring to it as being “inconsistent with democratic ideals of free speech enshrined in the constitution of the land’, In 2015, the Cybercrime law that allowed the president a level of legal control over social media expressions was enacted.

This law was used to abduct, arrest and detain 5 known bloggers in Nigeria.

Under the guise of Section 24 of the act which carries a fine of up to 7 million naira (USD 22,000) and a maximum three-year jail term, Musa Babale Azare was detained in Abuja in August 2015 for allegedly criticizing the state governor, Muhammad Abdullah Abubakar on Twitter and Facebook. Azare was denied access to his lawyer and was taken 450km from Abuja to a police station in Bauchi state to have his statement taken.

Hate Speech and Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bills Of 2019

Though never passed to law, these bills would be considered the deadliest bills against freedom of speech and expression in today’s Nigeria.

One would have thought that the President’s virtuous words on the ideals of democracy and the rule of law would be upheld, but surprisingly, the 2019 Hate Speech and Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bills were championed by the government.

The bills aimed at giving authorities arbitrary powers to shut down the internet, limit access to social media, and make criticizing the government punishable by imprisonment or death.

The bill proscribed a death sentence for people found guilty of “hate speech”. Vice President of Nigeria, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo said that the Federal Government of Nigeria planned to classify hate speech as a form of Terrorism, and offenders would be charged under the Terrorism Prevention Act, as amended.

This brought about the debate of whether the classification of hate speech as an act of terrorism infringes on the right to free speech and whether its criminalization was not an outright infringement of freedom of expression as provided in the law.

Suspension of Twitter and Move To Regulate Social Media

This government’s whimsical decision to suspend Twitter is unfortunately not backed by any legal mandate of our present constitution. For a fact, the decision goes against both our constitution and international law which provides that any restriction to rights online must be provided in law, according to a legitimate aim, and limited to only what is necessary and proportionate.

The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa also provides that any restriction to freedom of expression must “serve a legitimate purpose, necessary in a democratic society.”

One cannot determine the legitimate purpose of shutting down a network that is vital for social justice aside from the idea that the present government has zero-tolerance for anyone/ organization/ media that threatens to expose its uncanny knack of violating the legal rights of its citizen. A harrowing reminder of a similar historic regime of 37 years ago.

Not only is the government suspending twitter, but the federal government has also ordered all social media platforms operating in Nigeria must be licensed by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC).

Other social media platforms used by Nigerians include Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, amongst others.

Here are a few other laws that aim at suppressing the free flow of information and expression in the country;

  • The Evidence Act
  • The Public Complaints Commission Act,
  • The Official Secrets Act
  • The Federal Commissions (Privileges and Immunities) Act
  • The Statistics Act
  •  The National Securities Agencies Act

All these laws affect the effectiveness of the Freedom of Information Act as they are loopholes that can be utilized to avoid obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. 

Patsy Nwogu

A writer focused on data journalism, health and data analytics.

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