By Abubakar Jimoh
Recently, the decision of the Nigerian Senate to regulate the social media platfoms through a Bill smartly titled “Frivolous Petitions Bill” has received serious response, mostly condemnations both within and outside the country.
Many have wondered the significant of “Social Media Bill” to speedily command such legislative support of the Upper Chamber and scaled through the second reading within short time, unlike other important Bills that would have served the best interest of common Nigerians like National Health Bill (now Act) which laid dormant in the Assembly for more than a decade before it was successfully passed into law by the 7th Assembly; Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB); Protection of Persons with Disabilities Bill; Anti-torture Bill; 2010 Electoral Act Amendment Bill; Whistle-blower Protection Bill; Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill; among others.
With due consideration for human rights implications of the “Social Media Bill”, by legal provisions, there are relevant national, regional, continental and international laws protecting individual’s freedom of speech and expression. For instance, section 39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria states: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
The section continues: “(2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions.”
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) provides: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Similarly, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (also known as the Banjul Charter) is an international human rights instrument that is intended to promote and protect human rights and basic freedoms in the African continent. Article 9 of the Charter provides for every African citizen right to receive information, and the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.
In recent times, the advent of social media has exposed majority of Nigerians to different interactive platforms where difference kind of unfiltered information is exchanged, making significant impacts in individuals’ orientation, behavious as well as political policy and decision making.
In 2001, Cass Robert Sunstein, an American legal scholar and professor at Harvard Law School, observed the essentiality of social media when he wrote that the social media has become a powerful medium which may affect voting behavior of its potential to provide direct and cheap access to the production and consumption of current information at any part of the world without editorial filtering.
The practicality of Sunstein’s position was evident in Nigerian 2015 general elections where social media effectually became accountability platforms leveraged upon by both Nigerians and international community for education, sensitization and monitoring of electoral processes. Without doubt, social media has received both national and international commendations for its contributions to the successful conduct of the general elections.
At pre-, during and post-elections, social media platforms were largely deployed by individuals, civil society, professional groups and other independent bodies, for education and sensitization to promote well-informed citizens about political affiliation, candidates and their party manifestoes, thereby ensuring appreciable participation and interaction in the electoral processes. It also fostered constructive inter-personal relationship among voters despite their political disparity and socio-cultural diversity.
In this case, social media platforms like facebooks, Youtube, twitter, blogs, instagram and online newspapers provided enabling platforms for people to air their thoughts on various political candidates through diverse political discourses and debates.
It would not be a surprise when in 2014, the European Parliament could not conceal but to articulate the importance of social media when it noted that the platform has rapidly grown in importance as a forum for political activism in its different forms. “Social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube provide new ways to stimulate citizen engagement in political life, where elections and electoral campaigns have a central role. Personal communication via social media brings politicians and parties closer to their potential voters.
“It allows politicians to communicate faster and reach citizens in a more targeted manner and vice versa, without the intermediate role of mass media. Reactions, feedback, conversations and debates are generated online as well as support and participation for offline events. Messages posted to personal networks are multiplied when shared, which allow new audiences to be reached,” the Parliament noted.
The social media platforms were largely utilized for varied submissions and contributions to the Presidential and Gubernatorial candidates’ political debates, as individuals, civil society, among others were disallowed from direct questioning of the candidates. For instance, the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) under the aegis of Partnership for Advocacy in Child and Family Health (PACFaH) had leveraged on the social media platforms created by the Presidential Debate Committee to submit questions, contribute and monitor issues affecting child and family health in the country such as Routine Immunization, Nutrition, Family Planning and Management of Childhood Killer Diseases.
Following the successful conduct of the general elections, social media platforms provides enabling opportunity for individuals, civil society, media and professional groups to hold politicians accountable to their promises (as contained in campaign manifestoes), roles and responsibilities.
More importantly, despite the commendable contributions by women to the nation’s political development, since democratic rule in 1999, women are under-represented in all key political decision making bodies in Nigeria including National and State Houses of Assembly. There are several barriers to women’s involvement and advancement in formal ‘representative’ politics. These barriers are socio-cultural norms and values; women’s smaller share of economic and power resources; and women’s role in the family.
Meanwhile, the importance of social media in enhancing effective women’s involvement and participation in political process and decision making has been demonstrated in a study titled “Women in decision-making: The role of the new media for increased political participation”, conducted by the European Parliament in 2013 where different online practices were assessed for their ability to encourage women to be more involved in political decision making. The study reveals that social media tools are used by women to develop a ‘public self’ and build confidence in public debate. It also shows that social media platforms majorly provide women with the opportunity to: “Network with other women; Create on line selves which build confidence; Appeal to other women and peers through styles and issues that are directly relevant and attractive; and Provide alternative power bases which might be of interest to mainstream politicians”.
In advanced society, social media are deployed by the legislatures to maintain constructive interface with constituents, civil society, and the media primarily to: identify the political constraints, opportunities for the legislatures and develop strategy for engagement; inspire support for legislative issue or action; create new ways of framing an issue or policy narrative; share expertise and experience and recommend new legislative approaches; enhance the legislators’ capacity to improve in their activities; transfer capacity for more clearly designed better interventions; make tracking and monitoring more effective; fasten progress in enacting relevant legislation for sustainable development; and enhance space for constituents, civil society and the media interaction and participation in the legislative activities.
Social media platforms have been adopted by several legislative houses across the world as effective dissemination mechanisms for legislative information and activities to encourage public participation, promote transparency and well-informed citizens about emerging developments in the legislature. Instead of imposing needless restriction on the social media, the Nigerian legislatures should constantly utilize the platform to disseminate timely information about their actions and budget to the public, educate the citizens on legislative process, gather constituent feedback and act upon suggestions. This will enable the legislators to command public confidence and enhance effectiveness in the conduct of legislative works.