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Pressure Mounts On Senate To Drop Anti Social Media Bill?

Senate Chamber

Pressure continues to mount on the Senate to stop proceedings on the Frivolous Petitions Bill.

Yesterday, the Partnership for Media and Democracy in Nigeria (PAMED) joined the Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE, and other concerned Nigerians in condemning and calling on the Senate to drop the obnoxious Frivolous Petitions Bill currently generating controversy and heated debate in the country.

PAMED, which comprises the Institute of Media and Society (IMESO), Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and the International Press Centre (IPC), after a stakeholder deliberation came to the conclusion that the bill constitutes a threat to democracy because it seeks to repress the social media, the conventional media, the civil society and the citizenry as a whole.

“In the light of all the pressing development challenges confronting the country, which should be the priorities of the Senators and all other persons exercising any form of political power or authority, PAMED is of the view that the bill itself is frivolous and unwarranted.

“The bill, through its frivolous content and malicious intent, seeks to achieve nothing other than undermining freedom of expression, press freedom, public participation in governance and democracy,” the said in a statement.

It added: “For example, the bill in section 3 states that: ‘….any person who makes any allegation and or publish any statement, petition in any paper, radio, or any medium of whatever description, with malicious intent, to discredit or set the public against any person or group of persons, institutions of government, he shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction shall be liable to an imprisonment term of two years or a fine of N4,000,000’.

“The bill also states in section 4 that ‘Where any person through text messages, tweets, WhatsApp, or through any social media posts 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 two years or a fine of N2,000,000 or both such fine and imprisonment’.

“PAMED therefore affirms that the bill violates all the norms of democratic practise, freedom of expression, press freedom, transparency and accountability as well as open governance.

“PAMED further holds that the bill completely negates the letters and spirit of important international conventions to which Nigeria is a signatory including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19) and the African Charter on Human Rights (Article 9) all of which affirm the right of citizens to hold opinion, freely express themselves and freely disseminate information.”

The group further stated that, “If the bill becomes law, it will have the effect of imposing an unwarranted pre-condition for the exercise of this right, which is now globally recognized as not just a fundamental right in itself but also as an enabler of all other rights, including other civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

“PAMED also inform the Senators that by seeking to gag the press through the Frivolous Petitions Bill, they are actually subverting the constitution which they have sworn to uphold, particularly section 22 of chapter II which states unequivocally that: ‘The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people’.

“PAMED contends that it is an exercise in frivolity for a national legislature to suggest that any citizen wishing to write a petition or make an allegation or that any media outlet seeking to publish such a petition or allegation should first be subjected to the unnecessary hardship of going to a high court to depose to an affidavit before proceeding. It is clearly unheard of anywhere in the world.

“PAMED deems it necessary to remind the Senators that being elected representatives of the people does not transform them into untouchable gods who cannot be criticised by those that they ought to be serving.

“Senators are indeed nothing but mere public servants who the citizens, the media and the civil society are free to hold accountable through any legitimate means including petitions, criticisms, allegations of non-performance or misconduct and the publication of such in any media of their choice, a right guaranteed them by the Nigerian Constitution as well as regional and international human rights instruments.

“In the circumstance, PAMED believes that the only path of honour left for the Nigerian Senate is to immediately and without any further ado drop the bill, otherwise it would continue to bring upon itself more pubic odium, derision and protests.”

Recall that President Muhammadu Buhari had on Monday dissociated his administration from any law considered to be inconsistent to the provisions of the Freedom of Speech in the constitution.

The President, in reaction to the ongoing controversy surrounding the social media bill currently being debated on the floor of the Senate, through his Senior Special Assistant on media and publicity, Garba Shehu, has assured that he would protect the rights of Nigerians to freedom of speech in line with democratic tradition.

Although the President averred that he was not aversive to any piece of regulation for the media, he however cautioned that such must be done within the ambit of the law.

Peoples Daily reported that the President warned that should the Senate pass any law considered a breach to the freedom of speech as enshrined in the constitution, he would withhold assent to such bell and prevent same from becoming a law.

While cautioning the Senate against attempt to gag the people in any way, Shehu gave a caveat stating”But he (Buhari) is not averse to lawful regulation, so long as that is done within the ambit of the constitution which he swore to uphold.”

The President pointed out that free speech was central to democratic societies anywhere in the world even as he added that without free speech, elected representatives won’t be able to gauge public feelings and moods about governance issues.

“As a key component of democratic principles,” the President acknowledged that people in democratic societies “are so emotionally attached to free speech that they would defend it with all their might.”

The Presidential spokesperson assured that his principal President Buhari fully aware of the public reservations about the proposed legislation but assured that there was no cause for alarm “because the Senate is a democratic senate. The President won’t assent to any legislation that may be inconsistent with the constitution of Nigeria.”

The bill tagged “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected There With”, was sponsored by the Deputy Senate Leader, Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC Kebbi South).

It seeks to make it punishable with “an imprisonment for a term of two years or a fine of N200,000” on conviction for acting, using or caused to be used any petition or complaint not accompanied by a dully sworn affidavit.

It also provides for mandatory six months imprisonment without an option of fine for any person who unlawfully uses, publish or cause to be published any petition, complaint not supported by a dully sworn affidavit.

Based on the foregoing, analysts and observers are of the views that there is a growing public concern on the anti-social media bill and therefore it is logical that the senate halts further proceedings on the bill as advised by the NGE.

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