by Mark Amaza
Early this morning, news broke that a public hearing had been held by the Senate on a bill on electronic fraud. The bill, which has now made it to the second reading, prescribes punishments for those found guilty of using electronic means to commit financial fraud.
However, there was a clause within the bill that prescribed a seven-year jail sentence or a fine of N5million on those found guilty of “inciting the general public against the government by electronic means.” By electronic means, the bill refers to phone calls, text messages and the Internet, including social media sites.
Expectedly, hell broke loose on social networking sites, especially Twitter and Facebook, as Nigerian users on these platforms as an attempt by the government, especially the National Assembly to silence criticism using social media.
It is not too much of a leap to make this conclusion, as the memories of Occupy Nigeria protests which were organized almost entirely using social media remain fresh in the memories of politicians, especially the Federal Government which saw itself on the receiving end of the protests. The protests were so massive, against popular belief that Nigerians could turn out in such numbers, that it keeps bringing up the talk that Nigeria could have her own form of the Arab Spring.
Not only that, the Senate President David Mark and the Bureau for Public Enterprises have previously expressed his desire to see social media in Nigeria ‘regulated’, although he never went ahead to prescribe the specific form in which this regulation will be.
Without a doubt, politicians are worried about the power of social media, especially considering its viral effect and the fact that its lack of ownership structure compared to traditional media means that what is discussed there is not within the control of one person. Social media sites have allowed everyone have a voice, unlike traditional media where an editor/producer/publisher can act as a censor.
Social media has humbled many a politician, most recently, the Edo State governor, Adams Oshiomole when a two-week old video clip of him verbally abusing a woman spread, and the resulting backlash forced him to issue an apology on TV, and then in person to the widow.
Why this bill is worrisome is not just that what exactly constitutes public incitement is vague and can be broadened to mean every criticism against the government; it is also that the contentious clause has no business in a bill on electronic fraud. It seems to have been smuggled in to satisfy the desires of the lawmakers to muzzle the freedom of expression of Nigerians on social media.
If this bill ends up going through and is signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan, it will be a akin to the notorious Decree 4 of 1984 passed by the military government of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, which banned criticism of government officials by the media.
In the coming days and weeks, it remains to be awaited how this shapes up to be – whether the Senate will remove that clause or turn a deaf ear to the criticisms of the bill.
One thing is without doubt, though – Nigerians will not give up their beloved social media without a fight.