By Mobolaji Susan Ajibuwa, Kansas City, USA
An unexpected deluge of criticisms against an attempt by privileged members of the Nigerian upper legislative chamber, the Senate, to enact an anti New Media law on Monday forced President Muhammadu Buhari to openly distance himself from the legislative misadventure. President Muhammadu Buhari, who had come under serious criticisms of being the “hand of Esau” on the proposed law sponsored by lawmakers from his ruling party, All Progressives Congress (APC) said he would deny the bill which passed a second reading in record eight days, his assent if the law comes on his desk.
The influential Online Publishers Association (OPA) had suspected the administration of trying to re-harsh an infamous Decree 4 of 1984 through which Buhari as a military dictator muzzled and hampered the media. But Buhari came out on Monday proclaiming himself a champion of constitutionality. The controversial bill, although garnished as an endeavour to deal decisively with speculative and fraudulent publications on internet social platforms, is a misadventure to target and destroy Nigerian Online news organizations, particularly Sahara Reporters and others which operate from the diaspora. Apart from the APC sponsored bill, the new Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, has allegedly endorsed secret memos to ministries and agencies of the Nigerian government to deny accreditation and advertisement patronage to some marked down online news websites.
Correspondents of on-line news outlets were left out of the fact finding trip led by Mr. Lai Mohammed to the theatre of war in the North –East last week. Apart from the deliberate moves to cripple the online news organizations, beat organizations are being proliferated in ministries like Education to deny journalists operating with internet platforms access. Journalists who work with so-called mainstream newspapers, radio and television stations are encouraged and funded to denigrate their new media colleagues. Apart from the anti-New Media antics of Minister Mohammed, inspite of Buhari’s avowal of commitment to the freedom of expression and free press, presidential minders like Messrs Femi Adesina, Shehu Garba and pastor Laolu Akande are said to have advised and agreed with decisions taken allegedly in “national security interest” to deny accreditation to fellow Nigerians to freely practice and report from Aso Rock Presidential Villa.
President Muhammadu Buhari on Monday distanced himself from the proposed Social Media Bill currently being debated in the senate seeking to restrict Nigerians from “criticizing”, political and public office holders.
The president stated that the principle of the bill was inconsistent with democratic ideals of free speech enshrined in the constitution of the land.
He added that he had sworn to protect and uphold the dictates of the constitution and would not in anyway go against it.
Speaking through his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, president Buhari however stated that “he is not averse to lawful regulation, so long as that is done within the ambit of the constitution which he swore to uphold.
According him, free speech was central to democratic societies anywhere in the world.
“The President won’t assent to any legislation that may be inconsistent with the constitution of Nigeria”, he said.
He further explained that without free speech, elected representatives won’t be able to gauge public feelings and moods about governance issues.
“As a key component of democratic principles are so emotionally attached to free speech that they would defend it with all their might”, he said.
Malam Garba Shehu explained that President Buhari was fully aware of the public reservations about the proposed legislation but assured that there was no cause for alarm “because the Senate is a democratic senate.
The highly influential On-line Publishers Association, an umbrella organization for some pioneer new-media platforms based outside Nigeria and Nigeria-based news publishing websites described the initiative of the Bukola Saraki led senate to take its eye off the watch on critical legislations such as issues of pedophilia, copyright and intellectual infringement as a dubious misadventure.
The President of the on-line publishers association, Mr. Olufemi Awoyemi, drew a parallel line between the proposed law and the infamous Decree 4 of 1984, through which Mr. Muhammadu Buhari, as the head of a dictatorial junta, held the media and the Nigerian nation, by the jugular during his ill-fated military regime.
Below is the detailed statement by the association:
“We, the entire board and members of Online Publishers Association condemn in the strongest terms the motivation, process and purpose of the “Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith” which passed its 2nd reading at the Senate in a record eight (8) days; and is now set for a public hearing subsequent to its being referred by the Senate President, Bukola Saraki; to the committees on ICT, Judiciary led by the Ethics and Privileges Committee.
“We align with the Nigerian public in describing this action by the Nigerian Senate as pure idleness, and an abandonment of the electoral mandate to focus on laws for good governance to deliver increased welfare for the people. The Senate is seeking instead to restrict the scope of human freedoms, growth of new platforms of social interaction and public accountability.
“Having engaged and consulted widely with stakeholders in the country, including members of the National Assembly and the ruling government; we offer our support to the “Public March” being organized by ‘The Freedom of Information Coalition in Nigeria; on the National Assembly and across the nation on Tuesday, December 08, 2015; amongst the many other lawful steps to be taken individually and severally to not only stop this unjust law but to hold the lawmakers more accountable.
“The proposed bill immediately reminds the general public of the infamous Decree 4 of 1984 passed under military rule; one that took away our freedoms. The continuous attempt at gagging members of the public was again re-enacted in 2011, when the Senate attempted to pass a bill by another APC Senator; for which ironically, the current members of the Senate stepped down after extensive public outcry. This appears therefore to be an on-going project in the Nigerian Senate.
“The planned action by the Senator Bukola Saraki led Senate seeks to negate Chapter IV section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution which provides that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”. Equally, it seeks to set aside the UN Charter: Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 which states that – “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
“We believe that online publication and social media use is a welcome disruptor consistent with the aspirations of Nigerians and we offer credible, integrity laden and purposeful lawmakers a different approach that adopts a strategy of assisting the Senate to re-orient any bill that would improve, sanitize and expand the frontiers and penetration of responsible online publishing and social media use.
“There are laws in other jurisdictions guiding internet use from which we can learn useful lessons from. Examples include the Computer Misuse Act (1990) –UK; Electronic Communications Act (2000) – UK; Electronic Commerce Regulations (2000) – UK; Electronic Communications Act, 1999 – Australia; Electronic Transactions Act, 1999 – Australia; Measures on the Administration of Internet Information Services, 2001 – China; Electronic Transactions and Commerce Law No 2 of 2002 – Dubai; Act on the Dissemination of Publications and Media Contents Harmful to Youth – Germany; Digital Signature Act, 1997 – Germany; Child Online Protection Act, 1998 – United States; and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 1986 – United States; to mention a few.
“The summary of our position is thus: If the Senate is really interested in providing national interest governance over the use of the internet or electronic communication, as indicated in Sections 3 and 4 of the proposed Bill (bearing in mind the cybercrimes bill of 2014), there are other areas of intervention that can be in public interest such as copyright/intellectual property, anonymity/pseudonymity regulation, editorial rules compliance, obscenity, privacy, child molestation, pedophilia, harassment, competition rules etc.
“The attempt to jump from petitions/affidavit to electronic communication is dubious at best with no clear guidance on interpretations for intent, petition, and other issues covered under the Freedom of Information Act and protection of whistleblowers.
“They are two different issues. While the emphasis on affidavits seeks to tie the hands of the petitioner with a threat of perjury, the extension violates basic human rights, and runs counter to the letter and spirit of certain extant laws: the mischief that the law maker seeks to address in this regard is however already taken care of by other extant laws, to wit: the laws on libel and defamation.
“The relationship between government and new media may be complex, but it may well be the case that majority of the people expect government to control offensive or dangerous media and communications, whether old or new; but not to shield dubious, corrupt and fraudulent conduct by public officials.
“Therefore, instead of seeing censorship as an untoward governmental intrusion into a domain of legitimate private choice, we believe a more constructive engagement with key stakeholders can elevate the subject to the domain of public interest and help guide an ill-informed Senate towards more enlightened direction.
“Finally, in pushing ahead with this bill, the Nigerian Senate has only succeeded in representing itself as a “Threat” to Democracy.”
Nigerian On-line journalists do not view the current exercise by the Senate as an isolated affair. It took the intervention of former President Goodluck Jonathan and his then media adviser, Dr. Reuben Abati, to get individuals like Jackson Ude, Omoyele Sowore, Oladimeji Abitogun and Churchill Umoren off the official harassment list of the State Security Service (SSS).
The Nigerian on-line news community broke every barrier and irresponsible inhibitions to expand the frontiers of truth and objectivity in journalism.
At a time when traditional media organizations went into complacency and complicity on high level deceit, corruption and mendacity in governance, the online community, especially in the diaspora, shattered the ceilings and democratized Africa’s media space.
Many of the hitherto army of unemployed youths in the country are re-trained and hired by some on-line news outlets.
The attempt to destroy on-line journalism is seen as serious economic sabotage as well.