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Nigeria Social Media Bill Draws Protests

FILE - A user checks applications on a smartphone.
FILE - A user checks applications on a smartphone.

Protesters marched to Nigeria’s National Assembly on Tuesday to denounce a bill they say would gag social media.

Critics of the bill say it is an attack on free speech that goes against Nigeria’s constitution. Mausi Segun, who researches Nigeria for Human Rights Watch, said the bill has been drawn for one single purpose.

“The intention is just really to stifle and to have a chilling effect on freedom of speech,” she said.

Segun objected to provisions in the bill’s text that would establish fines or jail time for people who use social media or text messages to circulate an “abusive statement” against institutions or individuals, as well as another provision that criminalizes the spreading of “false information.”

Segun said existing laws on defamation and libel would make the bill redundant.

The bill’s sponsor, Senator Bala Ibn Na’allah, could not be reached for comment.

The draft law passed its second reading last week in Nigeria’s Senate and will be sent to a committee.

Social media and text messaging services like Whatsapp are popular in Nigeria both for communication and for circulating news.

Subconscious fear

Prominent social media commentator Japheth Omojuwa said if the bill is passed, it would restrict people like him.

“That law is not going to be passed, but if it gets passed, it puts you in a situation where you’re mentally, subconsciously afraid to question those in authority and those in government. Where that to happen today, I definitely would not live in Nigeria, that’s the truth,” Omojuwa said.

The bill received a cool response from President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military strongman who cracked down on free speech in the 1980s.

His spokesman, Garba Shehu, issued a statement saying, “The president won’t assent to any legislation that may be inconsistent with the constitution of Nigeria.” The statement was published on Facebook.