At a roundtable held on December 10, 2019 in commemoration of the 2019 International Human Rights Day, Nigerian media and civil society advocates under the auspices of the Action Group on Free Civic Space stood in solidarity with activists and human rights defenders in various detention facilities across the country. In one voice, they sent out a strong message urging the Nigerian government to uphold civil liberties, respect the rule of law and FREE-UP the civic space!
The Nigerian civic space is witnessing massive crackdowns, with civic freedoms and human rights defenders under serious attack and the environment for civic engagement rapidly contracting. The global press freedom index currently ranks Nigeria 120 out of 180 countries reviewed. Likewise, a digital database hosted by SPACES FOR CHANGE–www.closingspaces.org—records an alarming number of targeted attacks on dissenting voices. Human rights defenders, protesters, journalists, and activists like Dadiyata, Agba Jalingo, IG Wala, Omoyele Sowore, James Abiri and many others have been arrested, forcedly kidnapped, detained and slammed with phantom charges. All of these point to a shrinking state of civic space in Nigeria.
Speeches, discussions and the deliberations at the roundtable decried the escalating threats to civic freedoms. Further aggravating these threats is the recent introduction of restrictive legislative proposals such as the Hate Speech and Social Media Bills, currently under consideration at the federal parliament. The two proposed statutes—the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019 and National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches Bill 2019—have continued to generate heated discontent across the polity because they are not only inconsistent with local and international laws protecting freedom of speech and information, but also suggest a disturbing trend towards gagging and criminalising free speech. Perception is high that these two bills will shrink whatever is left of the civic space in Nigeria.
The roundtable afforded advocates an opportunity to co-examine and interrogate the proposed legislative prescriptions. Understanding the provisions of the proposed restrictive statutes is necessary to empower advocates to push back and confront the restrictions headlong. Presenting the organization’s analysis of the two bills to the participants, S4C reasoned that a plethora of extant laws extensively cover the field, and address the issues espoused in the two bills. For example, the Protection from Internet Falsehoods, Manipulations and other Related Matters Bill, 2019 (popularly known as the Social Media Bill) shares similar objectives with the Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention etc) Act 2015. Not only that, relevant sections of the Cybercrimes Act, specifically sections 22 and 24 of the were reproduced in the bill.
In the same vein, the provisions of the 1999 constitution and a host of other national legislations were duplicated in the proposed National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches (Est, Etc.) Bill, 2019 (also known as the Hate Speech Bill). For instance, Sections 42 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, section 24 of the Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention, ETC) Act, 2015, section 114 of the Penal Code Act and section 51 of the Criminal Code Act were duplicated in the Hate Speech bill. Churning out legislative proposals that recycle legal provisions already contained in subsisting statutes does so little to uphold the rule of law and democratic freedoms, S4C argued.
As opposed to rolling out new legislative measures to regulate the social media and curb hate speech, S4C’s presentations ended with a number of recommendations to the Nigeria government to consider the following:
- Accelerate the implementation of existing Cybercrime laws and policies, especially the Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention etc) Act 2015 and the National Cyber Security Policy and Strategy, adopted on the 5th of February, 2015, and take steps to ensure the conformity of Nigeria’s cybercrime and cyber security laws and policies with regional and international human rights standards.
- Strengthen the capacities of existing law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies statutorily mandated to tackle cybercrime, particularly the Cybercrime Advisory Council, the National Computer Forensic Laboratory, the National Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) Coordination Center and the National Human Rights’ Commission by providing them with the resources to acquire advanced technical and investigative skills, share knowledge, experience, intelligence and information on a regular basis.
- Build capacity for the effective discharge of the functions of all relevant security, intelligence, law enforcement agencies on cyber-crime in Nigeria.
- Efficiently utilise the National Orientation Agency and the Ministries of Information across the various levels of government to deliver mass advocacy campaigns and sensitization to counter fake news, hate speech and ethnicism.
- Innovating and strengthening community/grassroots based policing network across the federation.
The meeting ended with a call to expand the Action Group on Free Civic Space in order to accommodate new actors and voices, especially from the media and journalism fields to join network of advocates working together to resist the litany of restrictive governmental measures. Participants unanimously adopted this call. The Action Group is currently composed of civil society representatives working on diverse thematic issues, but committed to ensuring that government regulations (framed around national security) do not shrink civic space.