The controversial Social Media Bill passed second reading at the Senate on Tuesday. Since its introduction, the bill has sparked outrage among Nigerians especially among users of the internet. The outrage and condemnation from Nigerians increased after the second reading of the bill at the Senate, after which its details were made public.
The bill, ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019,’ seeks to guide how activities on the internet can be tolerated as well as curb fake news on the internet.
Mohammed Musa, who sponsored the bill, said it seeks to address the growing threats which if left unchecked, can cause serious damage to our polity and disrupt peaceful existence.
He also argued during the lead debate that one of the disadvantages of the internet is the spread of falsehood and manipulation of unsuspecting users.
Although the bill was passed by a voice vote, indicating that a majority of the lawmakers supported it, four senators, apart from the sponsor, spoke in its support during the debate.
The four are: Ibrahim Gobir (APC, Sokoto East), Abba Moro (PDP, Benue South), Elisha Abbo (PDP, Adamawa North) Bala Na’Allah (APC, Kebbi South).
Chimaroke Nnamani (PDP, Enugu East) was the only one who spoke in opposition to the bill. Perhaps coincidentally, the four lawmakers who spoke in support of the bill have a history of online criticisms of their actions. In this analysis, we review these criticisms which could have influenced the senators’ decisions to support the bill.
Nigeria Social Media Bill Supporters (Senators)
Sponsor: Mohammed Musa
Mr Musa, the sponsor of the bill, has tried to convince Nigerians of the need for such law.
He has also assured that the provisions of the bill were not meant to gag the media.
Prior to sponsoring the bill, Mr Musa was exposed as benefitting from contracts by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Before the general elections, it was discovered that Mr Musa is the Managing Director of Activate Technologies Limited, whose company supplied the machines used in printing the Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs). Then, he was the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) for Niger East Senatorial district.
The INEC chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, who confirmed that the lawmaker was indeed a contractor with the electoral umpire, said Mr Musa’s political inclination will not affect the commission.
“No electoral officer will be compromised. The integrity of the process is protected,” Mr Yakubu said.
1. Abba Moro
In his contribution during the debate, Mr Moro said lawmakers have in one way or the other been victims on social media.
“I think all of us here have been victims of the spread of falsehoods and the manipulation of the internet has caused a lot of havoc to some of us. And so, I rise to support this social media bill believing that it will protect the society against unscrupulous elements within our society.
“I think all of us here acknowledge that where one’s right stops, another one’s right begins. And therefore, I think that if we allow an unbridled manipulation of internet and the spread of falsehood, the society will be at the mercy of these elements.
“If we leave this to continue the way it is spreading, to take root in Nigeria, I feel that at a certain point, we may find it difficult to come to terms with the damage that it may do to the society,” he said.
He added that fake news is dangerous and the spread of falsehood is even more dangerous and should be dealt with “before it develops into a canker-worm that will consume the rest of the society.”
Mr Moro, who was a Minister of Interior, has been criticised on the internet for many years.
During his term as a minister in 2014, he supervised a poorly planned recruitment exercise by the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) on March 15, which caused the death of about 14 applicants across Nigeria.
The victims died in stampedes caused by the poor organisation of the recruitment tests in Abuja and other cities.
Apart from the deaths of the applicants, Mr Moro and others are also believed to have defrauded the applicants of hundreds of millions of naira and were prosecuted by the anti-graft agency, EFCC.
Many Nigerians online called for his sack as a minister and criticized his candidacy despite his corruption probe.
2. Elisha Abbo
The Adamawa senator became popular after PREMIUM TIMES published a video showing him slapping a woman in a shop in Abuja. Mr Abbo was criticized online by many Nigerians, who also demanded his prosecution.
On Tuesday, while supporting the bill, he described internet falsehood as a cancer that could consume the nation.
“As a matter of fact, the issue of fake news, if it is not regulated… It is a cancer waiting to consume all of us.
“A situation where someone will sit down in the corner of his room, conceive a lie, develop a lie, spread that lie and in some cases, even syndicate the distribution of these lies. He posts it from the corner of his room and in a matter of minutes, it’s been read in America, in England, in Australia. A lie from a corner of a room.
“Even conventional media that are regulated by government are suffering from this kinds of falsehood. So, I am supporting this social meia bill holistically and I stand up again to say that this bill is good and if we cannot regulate spread of falsehood, it will consume all of us tomorrow,” he said.
During his speech, Mr Abbo did not link his support for the bill to the criticisms he received online for his action. Although Mr Abbo publicly apologized for his action, he pleaded not guilty when he was charged to court.
The Senate also set up an ad-hoc committee to investigate the matter. The committee has done so and submitted its report but the Senate is yet to consider the report.
3. Ibrahim Gobir
Mr Gobir was the first to support the bill.
In his contribution, he complained about how anyone could fabricate false information that could tarnish the image of a person.
“To be candid in Nigeria today, somebody can just sit down somewhere in a little room and begin to spread fake news and before you know it, it has damaged you completely.
“And I’m telling you, if any wrong information is sent out, out of 100 people, at least (some) will take it to the Senate and because of that, there is need to regulate it and make sure that we punish offenders. I support this motion and I think that it should be given expedited passage,” he said.
Although Mr Gobir has maintained a relatively low profile in the Senate, he was a victim of internet outrage when he opposed the Gender Equality Bill introduced in the eighth Senate.
Mr Gobir and some other lawmakers rejected the bill arguing that it was both anti-Islamic and unconstitutional. The bill was eventually rejected by the Senate amidst criticisms from Nigerians.
4. Bala Na’Allah
As one of the senators in his contribution, Mr Ma’Allah said he has been “vindicated by the bill.”
This is not unrelated to the fact that he sponsored a similar bill in the previous Senate which sparked outrage across the country, and was later withdrawn.
His bill titled “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith” sought to compel critics to accompany their petitions with sworn court affidavit, or face six months imprisonment upon conviction.
It also sought to punish any person who unlawfully uses, publishes or cause to be published, any petition, complaint not supported by a duly sworn affidavit.
The bill passed the second reading before President Muhammadu Buhari distanced himself from it, saying he was committed to free speech. The lawmakers were forced to withdraw the bill.
Mr Na’Allah was criticized by many Nigerians for sponsoring the bill.
Although the social media bill was proposed by a lawmaker, many Nigerians believe it has the tacit support of the Executive.
Officials of the federal government, particularly the information minister, Lai Mohammed, have repeatedly insisted on the need to regulate social media.
“But our concern has to do with the abuse of social media by those who are bent on spreading fake news and hate speech, and the dangers inherent in that are for our national peace and unity. We have no hidden agenda.
“As I have said many times, no responsible government will sit by and allow fake news and hate speech to dominate its media space because of the capacity of this menace to exploit our national fault lines to set us against each other and trigger a national conflagration,” Mr Mohammed said earlier this month.
Mr Mohammed had earlier said the Buhari administration “would look to Singapore and other countries with social media regulations to formulate a coherent policy for Nigeria.”
It has since been learnt that the social media bill proposed by the lawmaker was largely copied from existing law in Singapore. Although the president had distanced himself from the former bill and said he will not take away the freedom of speech from Nigerians, he has however, been quiet about this one – which is not to say he is not unaware of the bill.
One justifiable reason for his response is the fact that he has also been a ‘victim’ of internet bashing especially before the election and after his re-election.
In late 2018, there were claims that the president died during his medical trip and was loned by a Jubril from Sudan. Mr Buhari had to come out and refute the claims. On several occassions, he has been bashed on social media for either goofing or talking out of point at international gatherings.
Only recently, there were claims on social media that the president was getting married to the Minister of Humanitarian and Disaster Management, Sadiya Umar. Nigerians went as far as posting wedding invitation cards for the wedding.
Having passed second reading, the lawmakers are expected to hold a public hearing where stakeholders and interested parties are expected to air their views about the bill.