Open letter to the Nigerian Senate on the matter of the Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill (aka “Social Media” Bill)


Distinguished Senators,

We are a coalition of Nigerian, African, and international organisations writing to you about the proposed Frivolous Petitions (Prohibitions, etc) Bill that has provisions for social media regulation. We believe that the bill is a dangerous encroachment upon free expression and we urge you to reject it from further consideration. The use of social media is a mainstay of free expression in the digital age, and criminalising its use under the guise of “frivolous petitions” will adversely impact human rights while violating the principles underpinning Nigeria’s own constitution.

Background and relevant law

The bill, introduced by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah, is officially called “An act to prohibit frivolous petitions; and other matters connected therewith,” and has been nicknamed “Social Media Bill” by concerned citizens. The bill requires any person submitting a petition to the government to have an accompanying affidavit. This requirement would harm government transparency, making it more difficult, and costly, to complain about public services or graft. However, the bill goes much further. Section 3(4) states:

Where any person through text message, tweets, WhatsApp or through any social media post any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and / or group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction shall be liable to an imprisonment for 2 years or a fine of N2,000,000 or both such fine and imprisonment.

Nigeria’s constitution provides strong free expression protections (Art. 39). Furthermore, Article 66(2) of the Revised Treaty of the Economic Community of West African States stipulates protections for the press. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Nigeria has ratified, also guarantees the right to freedom of expression (Art. 9). These protections were reaffirmed in the 2014 judgment in the case Lohé Issa Konaté v. Burkina Faso finding that imposing criminal penalties for defamation fails to comport with Nigeria’s obligations. Internationally, free expression is protected under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the United Nations (UN) has specifically stated that the right to free expression applies to the online world — including social media platforms. In 2011, then UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression Frank La Rue specifically called for decriminalizing defamation.

The bill violates Nigerian law and international law

The bill’s overbroad language would have a chilling effect upon free speech online. A user cannot be sure how to comply with the law, or know whether their posts are intended to “set the public against” an undefined group or the government. At the same time, the bill is illogically specific, and does not justify its targeting of WhatsApp, a private messaging application, and Twitter, a microblogging platform. In this way, the bill criminalizes defamation against individuals or groups, as well as dissent against the government, with wholly vague and disproportionate restrictions that do not strictly pursue legitimate purposes. These fatal flaws fail to comport with international human rights standards and domestic law.

The bill also presents unbalanced and short-sighted policy calculations. This bill cuts against Nigeria’s spirit of openness and support for a vibrant free press and an innovative internet ecosystem. Journalists would be at risk of criminal penalties for reporting on public officials, silencing a crucial tool to combat corruption and encourage accountable governance. Already the continent’s largest economy, Nigeria has 15 million Facebook users, and its technology sector is rapidly expanding. This restrictive law will only harm innovation and deter investment.

We also note that this is not the only legislation that criminalises free expression in this way. The unrelated Cybercrime Act of 2015, now in force, imposes strong penalties (3 years in prison or N7 million) in the name of security under sections 24(a) and 24(b), again violating the right to free expression.

Recommendations

We were encouraged by President Muhammadu Buhari’s indication that he will not support a law that violates free speech, and by the statement credited to the House of Representatives that they will not do anything to close the space for free speech. We also remind you that civil society groups have drafted the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, a forward-looking proposal that will promote human rights while enabling Nigeria to thrive economically in the digital age.

Specifically, we urge you to:

  • Reject the Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill (aka “Social Media Bill”) in its entirety
  • Ensure that, should the Senate choose to continue with the process of considering the bill, the required public hearing before the third reading of the Social Media Bill is announced publicly and enables full civil society input and participation
  • Amend or remove the penalties under Section 24(a) and 24(b) of the Cybercrime Act of 2015
  • Support the Digital Rights and Freedoms Bill, as a guarantor of human rights in the digital age.

We are available to meet with you about this matter at your earliest convenience.

Sincerely,

Access Now
Africtivistes
Association for Progressive Communications
Centre for Information Technology and Development
Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC)
Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)
Committee to Protect Journalists
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Enough is Enough Nigeria
Freedom House
International Service for Human Rights
Internet Sans Frontieres
Media Rights Agenda
Paradigm Initiative Nigeria
PEN International
PEN Nigeria
Rudi International
Social Media Exchange (SMEX)
Web Foundation
West African Journalists’ Association
Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum