Twitter suspension: Free speech on trial

FELIX NWANERI reports on the recent suspension of Twitter in Nigeria which has raised concerns over free speech as guaranteed by the constitution as well as Internet freedom

Has Nigeria returned to the dark days, when freedom of speech was gagged? This is the question on the lips of most citizens, following Federal Government’s recent suspension of microblogging site, Twitter, and a subsequent directive that all social media platforms and online broadcasting service providers operating in Nigeria apply for broadcast licence from the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC). Government’s suspension of Twitter’s operation in Nigeria came two days after the social media giant removed a post from President Muhammadu Buhari’s account that threatened to punish regional secessionists for attacks on government buildings.

There has been a spate of arson attacks on police stations and facilities belonging to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in the South-East in which several lives have been lost. Government, on its part, has blamed the attacks on the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and its armed wing, the Eastern Security Network. But IPOB has repeatedly denied involvement in the attacks.

The President had in reaction to the attacks, suggested that he would punish secessionists. “Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Biafra war. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand,” he wrote on his Twitter handle.

The tweet was among others he posted a day after towns across the South-East were shut down, following a stay-at-home directive by the IPOB to remember millions of Igbos, who died in the 1967 and 1970 civil war between secessionist Biafra and the Nigerian government. As expected, the tweet attracted criticisms from some social media users, and Twitter in a response, said Buhari’s comment violated its “abusive behaviour” policy. It consequently announced a 12-hour suspension of the President’s account.

A spokesperson for the company said the post was in violation of the Twitter Rules and that the account owner would be required to delete the tweet and spend 12 hours with his account in read-only mode. Twitter’s position on Buhari’s tweet is not the first time the tech giant will take such stand against a sitting president. It had in January banned the account of then United States president, Donald Trump, after tweets allegedly inciting violence at the U.S. Capitol building.

But, the sanction on Buhari, the Federal Government, through the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, announced that it has indefinitely suspended Twitter in Nigeria “for the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” The minister further said that “Twitter may have its own rules but they are not the universal rule,” adding that if the President feels “concerned about a situation, he is free to express such views.”

The minister also noted that Twitter had not banned incitement tweets from other groups. Twitter, in its response to the suspension, said it was “deeply concerned by the blocking of Twitter in Nigeria.” It added that “access to the free and #OpenInternet is an essential human right in modern society.

We will work to restore access for all those in Nigeria who rely on Twitter to communicate and connect with the world #KeepitOn.” Besides suspension of Twitter, the Federal Government directed the National Broadcating Commission (NBC) to “immediately commence the process of licensing all OTT and social media operations in Nigeria.” The NBC, on its part, directed broadcast stations to stop using Twitter, saying it “will be unpatriotic for any broadcaster in Nigeria to continue to patronise” the microblogging site.

The Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, followed suit by saying that government will arrest and prosecute anyone who tried to get around the block and directed government agencies to cooperate with prosecutors “to ensure the speedy prosecution of offenders without any further delay.” The directive was a response to reports that some people were using VPNs to try to avoid the ban and continue using Twitter although this is not the first time the Federal Government will clash with Twitter that has about 40 million users in Nigeria. In April 2021, the Information minister (Lai Mohammed) reacted angrily, when the company chose Ghana for its first African office. He said the company had been influenced by media misrepresentations of Nigeria, including reports of crackdown on the #EndSARS protests against police brutality.

Demonstrators, who mobilised under the #EndSARS hashtag had used the social media to organise, raise money and share alleged proof of police harassment. Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, even tweeted at the time to encourage his followers to donate to the course. In protest, Mohammed called for “some form of regulation” on social media to combat “fake news.”

The impasse over Twitter’s suspension, however, witnessed a twist, when the presidency denied that it was a response to the removal of that post. “There has been a litany of problems with the social media platform in Nigeria, where misinformation and fake news spread through it have had real world violent consequences,” Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu said in a statement. While Shehu acknowledged that the removal of Buhari’s tweet was “disappointing” he said “major tech companies must be alive to their responsibilities.”

Between national interest and censoring of dissent

There is no doubt that Federal Government’s decision to suspend Twitter was swiftly denounced by rights groups and social media users, but many described it as repressive and an infringement on the right of Nigerians to free speech. The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), through its President, Olumide Akpata, described government’s action as a disguised attempt to regulate social media, restrict freedom of speech and shrink civic space.”

“Whether one likes it or not, we are operating a constitutional democracy, the primary consequence of which is that everything must be done according to law; and government must be conducted within the framework of recognised rules and principles which restrict discretion-ary power.

“The Nigerian Bar Association finds no constitutional or legal authority to support the peremptory action of the Federal Government to suspend the operations of Twitter in Nigeria and deprive Nigerians of their right to freely express their constitutionally guaranteed opinions. Beyond the dent on our constitutional democracy, at a time when the Nigerian economy is unarguably struggling, the impact of arbitrary decisions such as this on investor confidence is better imagined.

“Consequently, if this decision is not immediately reversed, the Nigerian Bar Association will have no choice but to challenge same in the interest of the public and our democracy,” Akpata said. The diplomatic missions of the European Union (EU), United States, Britain, Canada and Ireland, in a joint statement, also condemned the suspension.

“Banning systems of expression is not the answer. The path to a more secure Nigeria lies in more, not less, communication,” the statement read in part, adding that it was “precisely the moment when Nigeria needs to foster inclusive dialogue and expression of opinions, as well as share vital information in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Amnesty International, in a statement, urged the Federal Government to reverse the suspension and other plans to gag the media. “Amnesty International condemns the Nigerian government’s suspension of Twitter in Nigeria – a social media widely used by Nigerians to exercise their human rights, including their rights to freedom of expression and access to information. “We call on the Nigerian authorities to immediately reverse the unlawful suspension and other plans to gag the media, repress the civic space, and undermine Nigerians’ human rights.

“This action is clearly inconsistent and incompatible with Nigeria’s international obligations including under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the statement read.

The media as sacrificial lamb

While the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led Federal Government seems to have hinged its action on national interest, many say it is not surprise given previous attempts by the administration to suppress on free speech. It would be recalled that concerns about press freedom were raised sometime last year, when the NBC reviewed its code to, among other things, increase the fine for “hate speech” from N500,000 to N5 million. Government had explained at the time that the measure was part of efforts to stem the growing tide of hateful vituperations and violenceinducing remarks in the country.

Since then, a number of media houses have been sanctioned in line with the code, which many Nigerians and groups said targets press freedom and critics of the Buhari administration. It is against the backdrop of arguments for and against the suspension slammed on Twitter that government’s action is being viewed with suspicion. Some of the questions that have cropped up are: If the media is acclaimed to be voice of the voiceless, why is it being seen in Nigeria as the voice of the powerful and most importantly, what could be responsible for the sudden twist in the relationship between ruling APC and its once social media friends? Some stakeholders, who raised these puzzles, also asked if the Nigerian media, which has revolved over the years in line with section 39(1) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution, which provides for the right to freedom of expression and the press, would not be doing a great disservice to the people if it shuts its door on dissenting voices.

The section states: “The press, radio and television and other agencies of mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objective and directive principles of state policy and uphold the responsibility and accountability of government to the people.”

Besides this constitutional provision, the Freedom of Information (FoI) Law and International Press Institute, of which Nigeria is a member, encapsulates the role of the media in nation-building to include that “the press does all it can do to ensure that it writes only the truth, without distortion or without suppression and defend the freedom to collect and publish the truth and right to fair comment.”

Govt not blinking

Despite the outburst over suspension of Twitter and concerns being raised, the Federal Government seems not deterred. In a directive published as newspaper advertorial last Thursday, The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) asked all social media platforms and online broadcasting service providers operating in Nigeria to apply for broadcast licence. The advertorial was signed by Prof. Armstrong Idachaba, who was until then NBC’s acting Director- General.

Ironically, President Buhari declined to appoint Idachaba as the substantive Director-General of the commission. Idachaba was appointed acting Director-General of the commission, replacing Modibbo Kawu. But on Friday, the Ministry of Information and Culture announced the appointment of Balarabe Ilelah as the substantive Director-General. NBC had stated in the advertorial that its establishment code empowers it to ask the companies to be licensed.

Section two (b) of the NBC act of 2004 states: “(1) The Commission shall have [the] responsibility of: Receiving, processing and considering applications for the establishment, ownership or operation of radio and television stations including (i) cable television services, direct satellite broadcast and any other medium of broadcasting.”

The advertorial read in part: “The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) hereby directs every Online Broadcast Service provider and Social Media Platforms operating within the Nigerian State to apply and obtain broadcast licence for their service(s). “Note that any Online Broadcast Service Provider that fails to obtain a licence will be considered an illegal entity.”

Twitter and signs of what to come

While the suspension of Twitter continues to take its toll on Nigeria’s struggling economy, leading to loss of billions naira, there is the belief that what is playing out is a sign of what to come. Human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), who holds this view, said Federal Government’s decision to clampdown Twitter shows that President Buhari has suspended Chapter IV of the 1999 Constitution. He added that the suspension is also at variance with the Freedom of Information Act, which seeks to expand information and access to it.

His words: “This act has confirmed the suspension of Chapter IV of the constitution. Very soon, Nigerians will be restricted to the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) as the only source of information. Media like Channels TV and others have been fined for embarrassing the government and they may be proscribed soon.

“The decision of the NBC to impose fines on media houses based on an illegally amended code of the Broadcasting Code is a rehearsal of the imminent proscription of local media organisations that publish anything considered defamatory or seditious by the government. With what has happened to Twitter, other media houses like CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera will also be suspended.”

The main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which also viewed Twitter’s suspension as part of the plot to gag not only the media but Nigerians in general, described Federal Government’s action as “a vexatious, condemnable and barbaric move to muzzle Nigerians, particularly the youths, ostensibly to prevent them from holding the overtly corrupt, vindictive and divisive Buhari administration accountable for its atrocities, including human right violations, patronizing of terrorists and outright suppressive acts against innocent Nigerians.” The party further said through its National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbodiyan that “it is also on record that President Buhari would not be the first President in the world whose tweet would be deleted. When it happened to former US President Donald Trump, he was not known to have deployed any act of coercion against Twitter.”

Another opposition party, African Action Congress (AAC), which described government’s action as an attack on press freedom, said: “What is more embarrassing in the events that have played out in recent times is that while governments of other countries are working to position better on the global ranking of press freedom, the Buhari regime is seeking to break its own poor record of press and media rights violations.” Online Publishers of Nigeria (OPAN), Nigeria’s premier association of new media and online new publishers, which added its voice on the issue, urged the Federal Government to immediately reverse the ban on Twitter operations in the country and stop infringing on the rights of citizens to freely express themselves.

OPAN, in a statement by Austyn Ogannah and Daniel Elombah, its President General and Secretary, respectively, said “the reasons adduced for the suspension or ban of Twitter have remained unconvincing because the Federal Government failed to exhaust other channels of communication with the social media giant.

“The action of the Federal Government amounts to killing an ant with a sledge hammer, and has given Nigeria a very bad image in the eyes of the international community,” the group said. OPAN further decried the clandestine effort to gag social media voices in Nigeria and called on the Federal Government to “exercise restraints in dealing with issues that affect the youths, freedom of expression, media freedom, and those actions that could directly or indirectly widen the unemployment gap in the country.” No doubt, the capability of the Federal Government to ensure law and order as well as the constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech and free press cannot be questioned, but the trending hateful vituperations and violence-inducing remarks if not curbed, could snowball into large scale crisis that will do no one any good.




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