ANALYSIS OF SB 132
By Ugochukwu Munachi
SB 132: PROTECTION FROM INTERNET FALSEHOOD AND MANIPULATIONS BILL, 2019
Bill type: Senate Bill
Sponsored by: Sen. Mohammed Sani Musa
Explanatory memorandum: The Bill seeks to prevent falsehoods and manipulations in internet transmission and correspondences in Nigeria. To suppress falsehoods and manipulations and counter the effect of such communications and transmissions and to sanction offenders with a view to encouraging and enhancing transparency by social media platforms using the internet correspondences.
First Reading: 5/11/2019
Second Reading: 20/11/2019
Committee referred to: Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters
Bill Status: Awaiting Committee Report
The Social Media Bill, officially titled “Protection from Internet Falsehoods and Manipulations and Other Related Matters Bill 2019,″ sponsored by Muhammad Sani Musa of the Niger State East Senatorial District, is a five-part document that aims to curb the spread of falsehood and fake news in Nigeria as implied by the provisions of its 36 sections.
Summarily, the bill, which has been met with stiff opposition, primarily proposes that a person must not transmit a statement that is false or that might:
- Affect the security of any part of Nigeria;
- Affect public health, public safety, or public finance;
- Affect Nigeria’s relationship with other countries;
- Influence the outcome of an election to any office in a general election;
- Cause enmity or hatred towards a person or group of persons;
Anyone found guilty of any of the above is liable to a fine of ₦300,000 ($826), three (3) years’ imprisonment, or both (for an individual), and a fine not exceeding ₦10 million ($27, 550) (for corporate organizations). The same punishment applies to fake online accounts that transmits any of the statements listed above.
The Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill, 2019 (SB 132), has scaled second reading in the Senate. The Bill, which has generated strong reactions from the public, proposes a framework regulating the use of the internet and its intermediaries for the transmission of information in Nigeria.
Leading the debate on the Bill at the plenary session on Wednesday, 20 November 2019, Sen. Mohammad Sani Musa (APC: Niger) explained that the Bill seeks to address the threat and mitigate against the risk associated with information via internet networks by monitoring abuse and deliberate misconduct.
In his submissions, he mentioned the highlights of the Bill to include:
- Provisions for the issuance of regulations dealing with the transmission of false statements of facts;
- Issuance of guidelines for internet intermediaries and providers of mass media services;
- Introduction of measures to allow offenders plead their case with a law enforcement department and seek further redress in appropriate courts; and
- The provision of penalties for defaulters.
Sen. Musa stated that the Bill, if passed, would address the menace of fake news and falsehoods in media broadcast and transmissions. The Bill has been referred to the Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters for further legislative action.
Given that constructive criticisms are an essential ingredients of democracy, opposition to some government’s policies and programmes is an acceptable norm. However, outright falsehood, particularly those capable of setting the nation on the edge must be stopped from further amplifying the fault lines that have come to define the Nigerian people in the past few decades and this is the crux of the proposed law. The bill is predicated on this premise.
While it is touted that the legislation is an exact replica of the Singaporean law, it is noteworthy that legislation and principles alike are universal, while their application is domestic. This piece of legislation, like most others globally, is adapted and adopted after similar international legislation and is thus not unique to Nigeria.
The internet, like any great invention before it, has its attendant flaws to which Nigeria, like any other nation, is not immune. Riding the levers of constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, some individuals have fed the public with half-truths and outright falsehoods, with attendant repercussions.
In a chat with Saturday Vanguard on the Bill, Auwal Ibrahim Rafsanjani, Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), advanced reasons for his organization’s opposition to Senator Musa, thus: “It is worthy of note that while the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill, 2019, also known as the Social Media Bill plagiarizes a similar Bill by the Singaporean parliament, the latter explicitly defines some terms, while the Nigerian bill leaves a lot in the air with frightening ambiguity. While there is a need to control the spread of false information, the danger lies in being a victim of the relativity of the interpretation of the terms “Falsehood” and “Truth,” which not only gives the government a monopoly on the truth but violates the enshrined constitutional rights to freedom of expression.” This echoes wide concerns about the potential for the Bill to be instrumental as a tool for wielding political control as it seems to bequeath falsehood to the arbitrary interpretation of the government.
The Bill like its notional stable mate- the proposed National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill, represents an alarming escalation in the authorities’ attempts to censor and punish social media users for freely expressing their opinions. The harassment of journalists and bloggers and the introduction of the Cyber Crimes Act have significantly shrunk the civic space and created a climate of fear.
There are various legislation like the existing Cyber Crimes Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act, which already cover many of the offences the new bills seek to address, which have been used as tools to gag freedom of expression in Nigeria. Likewise, section 373 of the Nigerian Criminal Code makes adequate provisions for slander and libel as two aspects of the single tort of defamation. By Nigeria’s defamation law, the alleged statement must be untrue, must be published, must be communicated to at least one other person who can hear or read the statement and understand it and must hold the potential to damage a person’s reputation in the estimation of right-thinking members of society, for it to be affirmed as defamatory. This succinctly addresses concerns around falsehoods that can affect a person or persons.
With rising agitations by the public over bad governance as an extension of the recent #EndSARS protests, the timing for this decision could not be worse and efforts of the government are better served in responding to and addressing stipulated public concerns.
In a time when public trust is at an all-time low, restoration of public confidence should be paramount on the governments’ list of priorities.
International law and standards require States to prohibit in law, advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (commonly known as “hate speech”). Such prohibitions need to be set forth in law and formulated precisely. The law and its application must also comply with the required guarantees on the right to freedom of expression, and in particular must meet the requirements of necessity and proportionality, in compliance with Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Freedom of Speech and Expression is one of the distinguishing features of constitutional democracies. Unlike other variants of government, democracy avails humanity the right to make known to the public inner thoughts and opinions, regardless of the substances or absurdities thereof, and the government has a responsibility to its people to protect and preserve these rights as enshrined in the Constitution as well as various international legislative instruments that the government has pledged its commitment to.
Lastly, given that the Right to Freedom of Expression must take into consideration the right of other citizens to protect their reputation, there is a need to strike a delicate balance between the conflicting Right to Freedom of Expression and Laws of Defamation.