According to Daily Trust of Dec. 4, 2013, the Nigerian Senate has reached an advanced stage to pass a bill that seeks seven years jail term for social media critics found guilty of inciting the public against the government.
Third Reich refers to the state of Germany when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by Adolf Hitler. When Hitler became the German Chancellor, he initially headed a coalition government, but quickly eliminated his non-Nazi partners and ruled as the sole dictator. In the Third Reich, information that should be ordinarily public was censored and the voices of the citizens of Germany were muzzled. Peopled lived in total fear, even totally innocuous words were said in whispers for fear.
I read the vague and ambiguous provisions of the proposed Bill and shuddered at the grave threat it possess to protected speech. The chilling effect of this bill if passed into law will be unprecedented. Nobody will be spared, if one speaks out against a perceived government indiscretion, they may be deemed to have incited the Nigerian public. One man once threatened another in a chat group exchange, that his “handcuff is waiting for him anytime he shows up in Nigeria.” This time around, the handcuff is waiting for any keyboard happy Nigerian who gets frustrated by the massive corruption going on and utters a word in frustration.
Here is what the Nigerian Senate is proposing to pass into law:
Section 13 subsection 3 of the bill proposes that: “Anyone who intentionally propagates false information that could threaten the security of the country or that is capable of inciting the general public against the government through electronic message shall be guilty of an offense and upon conviction shall be sentenced to seven years imprisonment or N5 million (fine).”
The only redeeming provision of the above Bill is “intentionally” otherwise it is couched in a language calculated to threaten, intimidate, muzzle and horrify the average Nigerian who engaged in critical analysis of the shameful missteps of government functionaries.
There are numerous problems with the proposed bill which makes it a bitter poisonous-pill for commentators, and I will quickly highlight some of them.
The Bill is littered with vague languages that will result in a man of reasonable intelligence guessing at the meaning.
What is being regulated?
What is prohibited?
What is allowed?
What is not allowed?
What are the punishments?
For example, the Senators need to tell us who they consider “critics.” Does “social media” targeted by this provision include friend texting on Blackberry Board, just too many generalization.
2. Over breadth
The Bill as structured will definitely impact the ability of the citizen to critics the government for fear that, it “could threaten” the national security. The protected speech of Nigerians is in grave danger if this Bill becomes Law. Today, we have the activities of the Boko Haram as one of the biggest threat to Nigerian’s fragile unity. Will one run afoul of this proposed law if they publishes a paper reviewing the inability of government to checkmate the excess of the sect.
3. Singling Out Social Media a Form of Discrimination
Social Media is the sole target of this Bill, what about the print media, broadcast media and public speakers? Oh, those media outlet can be bought with dirty money; otherwise what is the rational for leaving them out. This Bill definitely discriminates against the social media.
There are simply too many reasons for the Senate to stop and reconsider their action, the Senate will entrench a dictatorship which will also affect them and the children on the long run. We all noticed what Obasanjo did to opponents of his Third Term Agenda (TTA), think of what could have happened if Obasanjo had the language of this Bill as a law. All his opponents will be in jail for making statements “that could threaten” or “incite the public.” During the Obasanjo era, journalists were forcefully seized and jailed for sedition an outdated law. If Obasanjo had anything distantly related to the Bill that the Senate is now proposing as Law, the two journalists and scores of other opponents of his TTA will still be in jail as we speak.
The justification for the regulation broadly outlined a need to protect national security and something rational to do. Yes, it rational to preserve national security, and not incite the public, but we must all know that rationality and infallibility or omniscience are totally different things. It will be totally irrational to completely muzzle voices of dissent, contrary opinion, fair and even unfair criticism. A former US President once said, “critics are really our best friends because they tell us the difference.” He proceeded to acknowledge that he learned a lot from critics.
One is doomed to fail if all he does, is look for praise-singers who will never tell him where he/she is wrong.
This bill, as crafted, is nothing but willful suppression of critical thinking, constructive criticism, participation of the citizens in the decisions that affect their lives and an attempt to create a Nigeria peopled by Mumus. It therefore, must be thrown to the dustbin as an anti-people bill.
Finally, the Bill if it becomes law risks driving Nigerian bloggers underground. It is better for us to discuss openly than have a system of bloggers attacking the government anonymously. It will then become impossible to track anonymous bloggers; after all, as the US Supreme Court said it, “anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.” The Court went further to say,. Indeed, “under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent.” McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm’n, 514 U.S. 334, 356 (1995). Sounds like they had the Nigerian Senators and this bill in mind when they spoke.
With this type of Bill, I predict a future, where Nigerians are littered all over the place, speaking anonymously, and that will pose a greater danger.
Obi Enweze was the Secretary General of NADECO-USA/Canada
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters