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A Time To Look At Digital Rights And Freedom Bill Again

The clamour for social media regulation in the political space has become louder of late with many fearing that the “anti-social media” bill would be resurrected and passed by the National Assembly. 

While advocates of regulation suggest that it is necessary to curb the spread of false information, defamation, and cyberbullying, sceptics warn that such steps could easily lead to abuse. 

But many still argue that a regulation that aims to balance out the protection of citizens rights and curbing the spread of false information is what is required.

The Digital Rights and Freedom Bill which was introduced at the House of Representatives in 2018 seeks to “protect Internet users in Nigeria from infringement of their fundamental freedoms and to guarantee the application of human rights for users of digital platforms and Digital media”. 

It focuses on the right to communicate freely without fear of undue monitoring and interference, data privacy, unauthorised surveillance, all originally protected under section 37 of the 1999 Constitution. 

The bill also provides safeguards against abuse and provides opportunities for redress where infringement occurs. It seeks to protect the digital liberty of Nigerians, especially for journalists, bloggers, and political commentators.

Although the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill aims to protect the freedom of expression online, it makes room for exceptions such as the need to safeguard a major public interest,  and for the purpose of administration of criminal justice or prevention of crime. 

In other words, the government can intervene to protect public peace or bring a criminal to justice.

To restrict a person’s right to express themself, the government has to “prove that the expression is intended to incite imminent violence and there is an immediate connection between the expression and the occurrence of such violence”. 

This means it is the duty of the court to interpret if the publication is capable of inciting violence. 

Human rights, which includes the freedom of expression, is considered one key requirement in a democratic state. Social media has been a major tool used by Nigerian youth to advocate for their rights and voice their grievances. This was especially the case for the EndSARS campaign, which started in 2017.

The Nigerian government has, however, been working on regulating social media with two bills: the proposed National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill 2019 and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation and Other Related Offences Bill

The second bill apparently gives the government a huge power, including to shut down access to the Internet in regulating the spread of hate speech. Meanwhile, the civic space in Nigeria is already clouded with fear due to the Cyber Crimes Act, through which the authorities have justified arbitrary arrests and harassment of journalists. 

Section 3 of the Hate Speech Bill prohibits sharing statements “likely to be prejudicial to the security of Nigeria, public safety, tranquility, public finances and friendly relations of Nigeria with other countries”. But the words “prejudicial to the security of Nigeria” are open to a wide range of interpretation as the question of what constitutes national security cannot be easily answered. 

In its summary of the implications of social media regulation, Amnesty International stated that social media users will be punished for freely expressing their opinions, the government can arbitrarily shut down the internet and limit access to social media, and criticising the government will be punishable with penalties, including years in prison. 

The Digital Rights and Freedom Bill appears to provide a balance between the need to protect the freedom of expression and equally limit the spread of fake news, hate speech, and defamation.

President Muhammadu Buhari, however, declined to sign the bill last year, arguing that it covers too many technical subjects and “fails to address any of them extensively”.

He further stated that the technical subjects, which include surveillance and digital protection, lawful interception of communication, digital protection and retention, are currently the subject of various bills pending at the National Assembly.

“We therefore suggest that the scope of the bill should be limited to the protection of human rights within the digital environment to reduce the challenge of duplication and legislative conflict in the future,” the president’s letter to the National Assembly said.

A coalition of civil societies asserted in April 2019 that the president’s refusal to assent to the bill was too vague and he was not specific about what reviews were needed.

 “Our opinion is that the decision not to sign the Bill is nothing short of a   missed opportunity for Nigeria to send an important message to the rest of the world on its commitment to protect its citizens from abuse and create a positive regulatory environment for digital technology,” the CSOs said.

In 2019, Nnenna Nwakanma,  chief web advocate at the World Wide Web Foundation, urged the government to make the country a regional tech leader and said the Digital Rights bill was a step in this direction. 

“We’re urging the National Assembly to put this forward to the presidency for signature as a matter of urgency so Nigerian web users can be protected in an online environment that guarantees them the same rights online as offline,”  Nwakanma said.

Adeboye Adegoke, Senior Programme Manager at Paradigm Initiative, told  HumAngle that the bill was for everyone as it benefits everyone.  

“It is a citizen-led process,” said Adegoke. He acknowledged that the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill recognised that fake news and hateful comments are spread on social media and proposed that the power to adjudicate on such issues should rest on the court, instead of security forces.

“If the government is concerned about addressing hate speech and fake news, one of the things they need is to look at is a bill like that, which asserts the rights of citizens but also has a caveat where these rights will not apply, the need for judicial oversight and rule of law which also mitigates the use of government or security forces to intimidate citizen but allows the judicial process,” he said. 

The bill is back on the floor of the National Assembly and has passed its first reading.

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