Reactions are growing in Nigeria over recent plans by the government to regulate social media. The government has previously taken strong action to regulate social media. For instance, in November 2019, two Nigerian senators at the National Assembly from the ruling party introduced bills that would regulate the use of social media in the country and fight fake news and hate speech on the internet.
The two bills, “Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill” and the “National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill”, have generated debates among Nigerians and civil society groups.
The Catholic Church has been at the forefront in condemning the proposed social media bills which they say are an “attack” on fundamental human rights, especially freedom of expression, provided first by God, then the constitution and other international legal documents and conventions such as the Universal Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
“The government should not think of regulating social media. They should be very careful. You cannot regulate what you are not in control of. The best thing to do is for you to check yourself and re-focus, if the social media messages are against you,” said Fr. Mike Nsikak Umoh, the director of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria. “Government should concentrate more on the formation of the characters of the youths, there are so many social and behavioral problems caused by wrong use of social media which the government can correct for the general good of the society,” he said.
Umoh noted that the plan to regulate social media would be unsuccessful in the end. He asked the government to instead focus its energy in development initiatives and social reformation rather than thinking of regulating the social media which has provided a platform for the exchange of ideas and giving voices to voiceless communities.
“EndSARS is a revolution and it is a phenomenon. It is a revolution that is bigger than any government and it is a phenomenon that will outlive any government,” Umoh said, making reference to the recent protests against police brutality across the country.
Calls for the regulation of social media became intense among government circles during the protest. Government officials say social media helped in mobilizing the protesters and inciting negative tensions in the country.
Nigeria’s Minister for Information Lai Mohammed said the government is not trying to regulate social media but to “dominate” control of what Nigerians post on social media. Additionally, he justified the move by saying “if you go to China, you cannot get Google, Facebook or Instagram but you can only use your email because they have made sure that it is regulated.”
Nigeria has a strong social media presence. In 2018 alone, Nigeria’s social media user base grew to 29.3 million and is projected to grow to 36.8 million in 2023.
The Catholic Church in Nigeria has always condemned moves by the federal government to ban social media or stifle freedom of expression.
The bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Matthew Hassan Kukah, who has been critical of government’s anti-people policies has urged Nigerians to resist the anti-social media bill, saying,“Nigeria is still very far away from the goalposts of what could be called a democratic society. In my view, the environment does not as yet look anything democratic because the actors are largely strangers to the ethos of (democracy), and what is more, too many of them are tied to the old order, not to talk of the fact that the presence of General-presidents suggest that we are still in the thrall of militarism.”
Bishop Kukah agreed that social media poses some dangers but called on the government for an open debate to address the issue instead of a law prohibiting free speech.
“To be sure, there is no one, including myself, who is not aware of the dangers posed by social media,” he said. “We have all been victims. However, should the government wish to address this matter legally and openly, why should they be afraid of public debate? It is desirable that we address social media by way of education, open debate and transfer of knowledge. When did social media become sinister in the eyes of the government? Is it after the same government used it that they now realize it was good for them then, but bad for the rest of us now?”
The move to regulate social media has similarly also garnered reaction from international human rights groups such as Amnesty International who said the action is one of the ways the government wants to stifle the voices of critics.
“Social media regulation could easily empower those in power to punish critics of government policies and actions, and anyone who asks difficult questions could find themselves liable to incredibly harsh punishment,” the group tweeted on November 8.
Some young Catholics in Nigeria have also expressed concerns over the plan to regulate social media. They say their voices won’t be heard again.
“This is a means of holding us bondage,” Paul Anene, a parishioner at a diocese in Southwest Nigeria said. “If they succeed, then whenever you say anything they don’t like, they would come for you with the use of security forces. This should not be allowed to happen.”
Anene is not alone. Catherine Obi said her friend was briefly detained over a post he made on Facebook regarding a local politician in his community.
“They got him arrested because they said the post was insulting to the personality of the man,” she said. “He was released the next day but it was a traumatic experience for him that he often talks about how scared he is of posting anything on social media.”
A number of Nigerians have been either arrested and threatened over posts made on social media especially when it has political undertones. This has created an atmosphere of fear among social media users.
Fr. Martin Anusi, the director of communications at a local diocese in Southeast Nigeria said amid growing unemployment, insecurity, and impact of Covid-19 and the battle for a cure, regulating social media should be the least of the government’s concerns.
“We are just as surprised as any other Nigerian,” Anusi said. “There is something more to what they are saying about the bill. If you look at the situation of Nigeria today, you will see that among the myriad of problems facing Nigerians, the one that is so uppermost in the mind of the government is just to pass an anti-social media bill. We have so many problems that the government should give priority to, but they are not doing any of this. There are so many things they could have passed to help Nigerians but they are not doing any of this. What they think is more important is to protect themselves,” he said.
This is a blow to the entire structure of freedom of speech, he adds. “It’s a disappointment and I think the government went so low. This is being insensitive and a disgrace to the dignity of the country.”
According to Anusi, social media has its own disadvantages and is subject to abuse such as fake news and cybersecurity issues.
“Social media is not just a property of Nigeria but all over the world. There are negative perspectives to everything. Even the media sometimes can put out information that is not correct but that doesn’t mean you close the whole media outlets,” he says. “Fake news is not just a problem of Nigeria, so why is our response different from the way the rest of the world is handling it?” he queries.
Anusi believes laws on libel and defamation which are active in Nigeria can be used to punish offenders of fake news instead of a social media bill.
“Let them [government] develop their information infrastructure so that if somebody puts out fake information, he can be prosecuted with evidence. You don’t begin to clampdown on social media because you don’t feel comfortable with what they say. In a country with growing insecurity, the government doesn’t care about this. What is so important is to deploy all their energy on fighting social media users,” he said.
As the tension and debates about regulating social media continues, Nigerians are hopeful that an environment that allows them to express themselves will continue to exist.
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