By Eniola Bello

Uproar! That best describes the responses of Nigerians since what has been summarized as the anti-social media bill passed the second reading in the Senate last week. The bill entitled, “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected therewith”, has three broad legs. The first leg of the bill proposes to criminalize any petition which contents are not strengthened by a sworn affidavit in accordance with the Oaths Act. The second leg proposes to also criminalize the publication of any malicious allegation or statement or the said petition in the first leg of the bill in a newspaper, radio or any other medium. The third leg proposes to equally criminalize any abusive statement published as text message, tweets, and on WhatsApp or any social media posts. The penalties for the offences range from six months to two years imprisonment or N2 million to N4 million fine or both fine and imprisonment. In five key areas, the bill is not only frivolous, the senators who sponsored and have so far supported its passage are doubly so.

1) Neither order nor good government:

In developed democracies, laws are enacted to help achieve, as quickly as possible, the greatest good for the greatest number of the people.  Towards the attainment of this, Section 4(2) of the 1999 Constitution states, “The National Assembly shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation or any part thereof…” Whether members of our National Assembly, since 1999, have really been particularly concerned about making laws for the good government of this country is debatable. At a time when the economic situation is so bad that most state governments are having problems paying workers salaries, one would have thought the National Assembly would be preoccupied with making laws critical to revamping the economy. At a time when there are disclosures that huge sums of money were taken from NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation) and CBN (Central Bank of Nigeria) to fund projects of questionable validity, one would have thought our lawmakers would come up with bills that would rejig the nation’s financial and regulatory processes that would make it impossible for anybody in government, however highly placed, to turn critical government agencies into some Cash Vomiting Machines (CVM). One would have thought that the Senate would be more concerned with dusting up the PIB (Petroleum Industry Bill) and begin the process of passing it into law to make the NNPC a profitable, self-accounting commercial entity.  With thousands of kilometres of decrepit and derelict roads across the country, one would have thought our National Assembly members would be thinking along the line of an appropriate National Highway Act that would encourage the private sector to invest in the construction or reconstruction of major roads.

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However, those we elected to think and work hard at making laws for the good government of this country are more concerned with making laws for their personal protection and comfort. I do not know how long Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah’s bill has been in the works, but the timing of the introduction of this bill is rather suspicious. There are media reports that the bill passed the second reading in two weeks. Within the same period, and some weeks earlier, there have been series of reports online about Senate President Bukola Saraki, which he understandably has found discomforting, if not unpleasant. Some have argued that the anti-social media bill is Saraki’s way of fighting back. When examined within the context of other developments within Saraki’s Senate, the argument is difficult to dismiss. Remember that the Senate had suspended plenary twice or thrice to allow some 80 senators accompany Saraki to the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) where their president was facing trial for false declaration of assets. Remember also that the CCT chair has been under probe by a Senate committee over bribery allegations, shortly after Sakari’s trial began. The timing of the two related incidents created the impression that an important institution of state is being used to fight personal battles. The anti-social media bill is therefore too much of a coincidence. Like British novelist Ian Fleming has pointed out in Goldfinger, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time is enemy action.” The state is endangered when it appears the parliament is being manipulated to fight personal battles.

2) All about an organization:

Some have argued that the bill is essentially targeted at Sahara Reporters. Senators in support of the bill gave credence to such speculation with the way they practically competed among themselves to narrate how Sahara Reporters had published stories they found damaging to their integrity, and to the reputation of the Senate, an institution my very own Senator Dino Melaye loves to call the “sacred hallowed chamber.” Indeed, on Thursday last week, Melaye attempted to move a motion that the Senate should call on the US government to ban Sahara Reporters. Saraki had to quickly save Melaye from himself by suggesting his motion should rather be that the matter be referred to the relevant committee. How will the US government, which does not have the power to ban a newspaper that publishes damaging stories against its president, be bothered about some publication writing about issues in Nigeria? The governments of North Korea, and perhaps Saudi Arabia, would have resonated much better, for whatever the motion would have been worth. The Senate would descend to a new low when they start conceiving bills and begin the process of enacting laws targeted at individuals or organizations. Not even under the Abacha administration, when Nigeria went through its darkest days, did we see such absurdity.

3) Some déjà vu:

One of the reasons the media were always in the forefront of the campaign against the presidential adventure of Muhammadu Buhari in his three previous attempts before the April 2015 elections, was the general’s hostility to the press, particularly his administration’s promulgation of Decree 4 in 1984. The decree gagged the press and criminalized the publication of any report, which the government may have found embarrassing, even if true. Two editors were jailed on the strength of that decree.  Buhari’s opponents in the media have always been apprehensive that his presidency would attempt to tamper with press freedom. Is the anti-social media bill part of the narrative? Does it have Buhari’s imprimatur? Or is it simply a case of fifth columnists at work?
4) An unwinnable war:

The bill is a declaration of war against the Nigerian media. No government has successfully engaged the media in battle and not end up being bruised, battered and scattered. And the reason is simple. The Nigerian press is a child of anti-colonial struggle. It was born in crisis and was a major weapon the early nationalists used in fighting the colonialists. The press is also a veteran of many bloody battles with past military administrations. The present freedom the press enjoys did not come on a platter; it was earned the hard way, through sorrow, tears and blood, as the late Afrobeat star Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would have put it. If military administrations could not cow the press despite the beatings and detentions and kidnappings and killings of journalists, or the sealing of media houses and proscription of publications, how could senators elected by the people, in a democracy, hope to achieve that? Why would senators start a war they should know they stand no chance of winning, particularly in a digital age where anybody could run a publication from a laptop or any electronic device from anywhere in the world?

5) Justice is key:

Many people have pointed out, and rightly so, that there are enough laws in our statute books to address the excesses of some publications in the social media. There are laws on defamation, on libel, and on cyber crime. But there is a structural deficiency in the nation’s judicature that has made it difficult, if not impossible, for those wronged to get justice. In other climes, libel is a big enough fear factor militating against the publication of falsehood or any report injurious to the reputation of an individual or group of individuals. It is not the case here because of the systemic decay in the administration of justice. As a result, all kinds of jobless people with little or no requisite training, have taken over the media space trading insults and abuses, impugning people’s reputation and integrity, and in many cases, resorting to blackmail. The Senate should better invest its energy in making the judicial process functional, efficient, people-friendly and justiciable. Attempting to criminalize publication of false stories in the social media can only lead down a blind alley.

The anti-social media bill, as it stands, is frivolous in intent, in content and in expected result. It is not enough for the Senate to dismiss the massive criticism against the bill, as it has made a habit of dismissing every criticism of its action, as blackmail. Senators should not forget they are elected representatives of the people. There is no reason why the same people should not cry out when they see they are being misrepresented. There is no reason why the Senate should shy away from intellectual engagement on any bill or motion. Except of course if the agenda is less than honest.

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