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The Law and Nigerian Government Twitter Ban

What Does the Law Say About It?

Chris J. Davis from Unsplash

First, it was temporary and then now indefinite.

That’s the simple tale of the ban of the microblogging platform, Twitter in Africa’s most populated country. It is worthy to note that Twitter accounts for the 3rd leading social media platforms in Nigeria after Instagram and Facebook Messenger, notably over 40 million Nigerian users, which is more than the whole Ghana population where the continent’s first African headquarters was set up in April 2021.

The federal government led by President Muhammadu Buhari hinted Nigerian ‘tweeps’ on Friday, June 4th 2021 about the imminent ban, but majority trivialised the idea for its impracticality considering the Nigerian law that upholds freedom of expression and information.

Alas! The federal government meant their words. Nigerians woke up to the sad event of not being able to access their twitter account on Saturday, 5th June 2021. The government justified their actions by stating via the official twitter account of the Ministry of Information and Culture that there were alleged activities and contents within the twittersphere that are “capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.”

Despite the outrage and international condemnation that accompanied the indefinite moratorium- including Amnesty International, the Economic Community of West African State ECOWAS, European Union and the USA- the government seems unswerving. For instance, about four complaints were made to the Community Court of Justice ECOWAS from over 196 bodies including Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP.

‘Unconstitutional’, ‘shameful’, ‘disgrace’, ‘irrational’, ‘deeply concerning’ are some of the adjectives used by some Nigerian to qualify the government’s ‘verdict’. But what does the law say about situations like this interdict?

In a democratic state like Nigeria, every individual reserves the right to express themselves via their choice channel without any form of interference or fear of punishment from external forces. Factually, freedom of expression is protected by section 39 (1) of the Federal Republic of Nigeria constitution as well as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights which Nigeria is a member of.

Diverse authors have examined the benefit of freedom of speech and have concluded that it promotes ‘harmony and societal development’ while absence or suppression of it only leads to instability and conflict.

Eskay lim from Unsplash

However, freedom of expression is not an ‘absolute right’ in the sense that an individual’s speech that is labelled defamatory, harmful to minors or can subject a community or state’s security to jeopardy could be restricted. Gunatilleke (2021) noted that ‘the state may limit the freedom of expression on certain grounds, such as national security, public order, public health, and public morals.” In fact, international laws also uphold limitations of freedom of expression in respective nations.

Apart from authoritarian states like North Korea andChina, some democratic states have taken this drastic decision and an example is Sri Lanka after a bomb attack in 2019. Though many have disagreed on this action because social media is widely used as a source of information during critical times like elections

However, political unrest, incitement of violence, misinformation, hate speeches and other activities that undermine a state’s corporate existence are examples of circumstances that can warrant limitation of freedom of expression. Section 45(1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended makes provision for this restriction. Its specifically states that “this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society

(a) in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or

(b) for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom or other persons”

Therefore, if and only if indeed Nigerians have taken advantage of Twitter to incite violence, spread misinformation, trigger gender/ethnic war, then the Nigerian Government has the constitutional right to take the action they have taken.

But is that really the case with Nigeria’s twittersphere? Has Nigerians on twitter utilized the platform to unleash unrest on her “corporate existence”? Or is the #ENDSARS protest an example of “undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence”?

Although, without mincing words, social media has actually become “the siege of disinformation and fake news” and has proven to be a potent tool to dehumanize target populations, incite violence and any other horrendous behaviour with many users riding on social media anonymity. In fact, President Biden of the USA accused the social media of “killing people’’ while speaking about the soaring cases and misinformation associated with COVID-19.

While tech giants are still poring over effective ways to curb this challenge, the federal government is already making plans to regulate Nigeria’s social media space. But still, it is expedient that citizens in view of their rights must take responsibility for their actions. An unknown author noted that ‘responsibility is accepting that you are the cause and solution of the matter’.

While I conclude, I must say that Nigeria still has a long way to go in sustaining and upholding the freedom of expression law and banning a major social media space has only amplified our inadequacies. We rank 120 out of 180 countries according to the World Press Freedom Index.

There is a great task ahead of us, so instead of banning Twitter or any other communication platform, I recommend the following:

The government needs to thoroughly understand our dispensation. It’s the 21st century and it’s technological and information driven. The young people are the chief drivers of this type of economy. Shutting down an information generating platform is like closing up the Central Bank of Nigeria or oil wells! Focus should be on ‘uprooting the tree’ not felling a tree by first cutting the limp. Applicably, face the huddle of solving the issue of misinformation.

But to curb the menace, the federal government can work with technology giants within and outside the country to create algorithms to detect fake news or provocative speeches that can put the country at risk. Banning all of a sudden a source of livelihood or information of many innocent individuals in our fragile economic situation does not seem like a proactive step.

It is also important to state here that a government who indeed serves the interest of the people and there are results to show for it would not have to worry so much about what people would say. Though, it is a preposterous attempt to please everyone as it were, cases such as what we are experiencing will not be as compounded as they are now. In other words, the government should simply live up to expectations.

Finally, freedom of expression is a fundamental human right of a citizen in a democratic state and the government of such a society must do everything within its capacity to uphold it to the letter while the citizens do their part by taking responsibility for their communication and actions.

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Abigail Olajire

Abigail Olajire

A communication researcher with a keen interest in the media and developmental policies that has the propensity to spur growth

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