A BIG GAMBLE, that is how Nigerians see the ban on Twitter’s operations in the country, by Buhari’s led government. The government, through Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture; and the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, NBC, directed all television and radio stations in the country to delete their twitter account, and desist from using it in news gathering. Government’s Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, further directed that anyone violating the ban must be prosecuted.
Buhari’s government move ignited unprecedented public outrage and international community condemnation. It also prompted spontaneous backlash from social media users and human rights activists with #NigeriaTwitterBan and #KeepitOn, trending on the platform, and Nigerians took the option of Virtual Private Networks, VPN, to access the site.
Human right group, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, and 176 Nigerians, immediately, filed a lawsuit at the Economic Community of West African States Community Court of Justice, in Abuja, seeking interim injunction to restrain the government from implementing the ban.
SERAP stated in the suit that the suspension of Twitter is aimed at “intimidating and stopping Nigerians from using Twitter to assess government policies, expose corruption, and criticise acts of official impunity by the agents of the Federal Government.”
SERAP, also, sent “Urgent Appeal” to Patricia Scotland, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, urging her to “apply the Commonwealth Charter to hold the Nigerian government to account over the unlawful suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, and the resulting repression of human rights particularly the rights to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom, as well as flagrant disregard for the rule of law.”
SERAP requested Ms Scotland to “urgently consider recommending the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth to the Heads of Government, the Commonwealth Chair-in-office, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, as Head of the Commonwealth to push the government to take concrete measures to respect and promote the Commonwealth’s values of human rights, transparency, accountability and the rule of law.”
António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations; and Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, were sent copies of the “Urgent Appeal” by SARAP that: “The Nigerian government has also called for the prosecution of those who violate its order suspending Twitter operations in Nigeria. This order for prosecution of Twitter users violates the legal rule that there should be no punishment without law.”
FRIDAY, JUNE 18, SERAP, in lawsuit number FHC/ABJ/CS/496/2021, filed by its lawyers, Kolawole Oluwadare, Kehinde Oyewumi and Opeyemi Owolabi, in Abuja Federal High Court, is challenging Buhari’s government action, and stated that it is a pretext to “harass, intimidate, suspend or impose criminal punishment on journalists and broadcast station, simply, for using social media platforms”.
SERAP is seeking “an order of perpetual injunction” to prevent Buhari, his Minister for Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, and Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, NBC; and “any other persons” from censoring, regulating, licensing and controlling the social media operations and contents by broadcast stations, and activities of social media service providers in Nigeria.
SERAP is also asking for “an order setting aside” the directive by NBC and Lai Muhammed to broadcast stations to stop using Twitter. It stated that government action is unconstitutional, unlawful, inconsistent and incompatible with the [amended] 1999 Nigerian Constitution; and Nigeria’s obligations under African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Buhari’s government, Lai Mohammed and NBC, SERAP stated, have consistently initiated policies and given directives, aimed to crack down media freedom and the rights of Nigerian citizens to freedom of expression and access to information. That government has stipulated huge fines and sanctions on broadcast stations without legal basis.
SERAP further stated that the court has important role to play in protecting and preserving the rule of law, to ensure persons and institutions operate within defined ambit of constitutional and statutory provisions; and where agencies of government are allowed to operate “at large and at their whims and caprices, in the guise of performing their statutory duties”, the result will be “anarchy, licentiousness, authoritarianism and brigandage” leading to the loss of the much cherished and constitutionally guaranteed freedom and liberty.
“By using the National Broadcasting Act and the Nigeria Broadcasting Code to stop broadcast stations from using Twitter without recourse to the court, the NBC and Mr Lai Muhammed have contravened the right to access to justice and fair hearing guaranteed under sections 6 & [b] and 36 of the Nigerian Constitution 1999, and articles 1 and 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights,” SERAP also stated.
CONCERNED Nigerians and SERAP, the suit stated, are entitled to the rights of freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom, subject only to lawful restrictions. And that “SERAP and concerned Nigerians frequently rely on the Twitter handles of many broadcast stations as source of information for our activities in the promotion of transparency and accountability in the country”.
“The directive by the NBC and Mr Lai Muhammed to broadcasters to delete their Twitter accounts is unlawful, as it amounts to a fundamental breach of the principle of legality, the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom, and incompatible with the country’s international human rights obligations.
“Nigeria is a state party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which impose legal obligations on the government of President Buhari to ensure that the rights of Nigerians to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom are respected, promoted, protected, fulfilled, and not unlawfully restricted,” SARAP further stated.
BUHARI’S GOVERNMENT has been preoccupied with attempts to regulate the media since 2015, when the president came to power. The government has toyed with regulating the social media. Deleting Buhari’s tweet, appears to be the final straw. The government made reference to the role Twitter played during the #EndSARS protest, last year, which shock the country, as excuse to ban Twitter operation in the country.
Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, was alleged to have organised, on the platform, donations to one of the leading groups that organised the #EndSARS protest. Nigeria’s youths have consistently voiced their displeasure about miss-governance in the country under Buhari’s watch. And the government has been uncomfortable with constant criticism of the government via Twitter.