In a hall that could conveniently sit 250 persons, as at 15 minutes past 10 AM, the total number of people in the Senate Conference Hall, room 0.22 of the Nigerian National Assembly were 22 [not excluding caterers and housekeeping] – Oh! None of the “high-table” members were present either.

By the time the hearing oragnised by the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters commenced at 11:45 AM, the audience were no more than 70 thereabouts, mostly made up of news reporters, which is a shame really especially for civil society who champion their opinions and call for action using social media. The committee was chaired by Senator David Umaru

Let’s press the history tab, to acquaint ourselves with the Frivolous Petition Bill 2015 (SB. 143) –  before proceeding to the Public Hearing.

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. However, the bill goes much further as we see in Section 3(4):

“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.”

The Senate Committee had in attendance Senator David Umaru, Senator Godswill Akpabio, Senator Chukwuka Otazie, Senator Bababjide Omoworare, Senator James Manager, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege and Senator Joshua Lidani; on the other end, the audience was composed of delegates who had made submissions to the committee on the Bill, social media champions, members of civil society, law practioners, news agents, national assembly staff and concerned citizens.

However, the absence of some key MDAs such as the Public Complaints Commission [PCC], The Nigeria Police, State Security Service, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission [EFCC], Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission [ICPC], Voice Of Nigeria [VON], Nigerian Communication Commission [NCC], Nigerian Bar Association [NBA], Federal Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who will clearly be affected by the passage of the bill came as a huge surprise. It also begs the question, are these agencies working in the interest of the citizens or for a selected few?

In the course of the hearing, we were informed that the IG of police supported the bill.

In his opening statement, Senator Umaru cited Section 4(2) of the 1999 constitution, adding that the public hearing underscores the importance of the senate and citizenry in enriching legislative actions with the aim of ensuring peace of the Federation of Nigeria.

On behalf of the special guest of honour, Senate President Bukola Saraki who was absent due to other pressing matters, Senator Akpabio reiterated the intentions of the bill to make having an affidavit compulsory following claims made in the media space. He expressed concern on the anxiety of Nigerians over the bill and said that Legislature is here to defend the rights of Nigerians and not pass bills that will gag the media.

When Justice Clara Ogunbiyi of the Supreme Court made her presentation on behalf of the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, it raised a lot of eyebrows! The CJN supported the bill! “This is because by the very use of the word frivolous, it connotes unseriousness, ill-motivation and suggestive of bad faith which is not within the contemplation of the constitutional provision of freedom of expression.” – Justice Mahmud Mohammed. Continuing, Justice Ogunbiyi went on to read out some recommendations of the CJN which included writing any petition as a formal complaint (idenetifying WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE and HOW), the use of personal home addresses and the inclusion of a time frame of 6 months for such complaints and grievances. On a side note, it is imperative to note how she kept hammering on the fact that about how peoples’ destiny and integrity had been affected by posts in the media sphere.

In a welcome contrast to the CJN, the Law Reform Council and Federal Ministry of Justice represented by Mr. P.C. Okorie and Mr. Francis Oyong respectively said the said the passage of the controversial bill will adversely affect media freedom and freedom of expression.

Mr Okorie noticed how “fluidly” the words petition, statement, complaints, inquiry and investigation are used, saying the bill was too open ended. He identified the other issues such as high illiteracy rate in Nigeria and the low number of high courts in localities as well as the current capacity of the judiciary.

“If such bill is passed, it would hamper internal investigations in MDAs” he said, noting that it would be impossible for staff to lodge complaints on issues in their offices, as the process would be more bureaucratic. Okorie added that if the senate saw a need to address excesses for petitions sent to law enforcement agencies, then the operating systems of the agencies should be reviewed, not necessarily proposing a bill.

Furthermore, addressing Section 3(3) of the Frivolous Bill, Okorie noted that various section in the Criminal Code [Section 60, 373] and the Penal Code [Section 391, 392] of the Nigerian Constitution had already covered the subject.

Mr. Francis Oyong representing the views of the Attorney General of Nigeria, Justice Abubakar Malami, said that laws are not made to be exclusive instead they are made in the interest of the citizens of a nation. Reading part of the AJNs submission to the committee, Oyong noted that Section 1 of the intended Frivolous Bill does not create a crime as there was no provision in the statement.

Mr. Oyong posed a critical question to the Senate committee on the issue of the affidavit – “Does an affidavit make a statement to be true?” As the general understanding of an affidavit, is that it’s a document made in the belief of the person swearing it. The proposed bill also violates the constitution & other treaties Nigeria is a signatory to.

The general consensus of both legal parties was that the passage of the bill will be an impediment to the current administration of President Buhari’s drive to expunge corruption as whistleblowing was integral and freedom of expression is key to democracy especially in Nigeria.

This bill seeks to threaten freedom of expression in a country said to practicing democracy – by the way, democracy is characterised by free speech and its objective to say that law as it is, where Divine or man-made, are subject to human interpretation]. Nigeria has 15 million Facebook users, the third most active African country on Twitter [2012] and over 97 million mobile internet subscriptions, a sizeable contribution to the technology sector. If passed as it is, the bill will only hamper further development of Nigeria’s internet and communication system.

Also, the feedback mechanism that is essential in communication would become non-existent as there would be an increase in lack of faith of law enforcement agencies in helping the populace. In a time where audiences are encouraged to send in eye-witness reports to news agencies, how would this law support information dissemination?

Senator Omo-Agege citied an instance of a false Avatar on Facebook posting that a candidate has withdrawn from election, on the eve on going to the polls and asked if the existing laws treat this?

It seems to be that certain individuals in the Nigerian society would rather not be talked about and so on, but with such ostentatious lifestyles in the midst of hunger and need in Nigeria, will questions and allegations not be raised?

A sentiment that was somewhat expressed once the floor was opened for civil society – the senate committee was barraged [well they had it coming *chuckles*]

Popular Twitter champion and Editor-In-Chief, 15 Past 8 Media Group @MrAyeDee identifies fragile egos and that the bill should be discarded ingloriously in the dustbin of history. He added that the dynamics of engagement on social media is quite different from physical human interaction, “People tend to gravitate towards known persons [people with identities] on social media and most times people do not the heed faceless”, adding that people could sue for libel and defamation as made available through the Nigerian constitution.

Gbenga Sesan @gbengasesan Executive Director, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria did not mince words in expressing disappointment with the CJN and Supreme Court’s stance on the Frivolous Bill. He said the passage of the bill would be licence the death of whistleblowers in a country that hasn’t brought the killers of late Bola Ige, the Attorney General of the Federation since 2001! Sesan also called to note that anonymity cannot be removed from information sharing as its essential.

Yemi Adamolekun of Enough is Enough Nigeria addressed the erroneous impression that calling for Public Hearing is a favour to citizens, rather a responsibility of the Senate reacting to Senator Omoworare’s @jideomoworare comment that the Senate is not mandated to hold a public hearing. EiENigeria is currently running a campaign calling on Nigerians to add their voices and votes to stop the passage of the Frivolous Bill [You can get involved by calling 014408464]

Aisha Yesufu, @AishaYesufu who describes herself as an aggrieved mother of the kidnapped Chibok Girls’ who have been missing for over 600 days said if not for social media, where else would the agitation for the release of the girls come from? She identified some recent successes of social media #FreeEseOruru and #BringBackOurGirls. In buttressing Yemi’s point on the public hearing, Yesufu had these words: “As a citizen, I’m the highest office holder in the land & our senators are responsible to me.”

From the body language of the senators, it was obvious that they had a supportive stance on the bill even though both Senator Omo-Agege and Senator Lidani said that the public hearing is purposely for the collection of public opinion as Senator Omo-Agege said he was expecting comments on the issue of responsibility of persons on social media.

Only last month at the Social Media Week 2016 held in Lagos, the issue of the regulation of social media was brought up in a debate #BBCAfricaDebate [You can listen to the views here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03jxdyr]

We say #NoToSocialMediaBill as it’s not only freedom of expression and leadership that are on the line in Nigeria, but the very essence of democracy which social media has helped to shape. We will not be strangled of our oxygen!

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