Twitter banned, proposed Press Council Act amendments further restrict freedom of expression

A Lagos based entreprenuer opens the Twitter app on a smart phone at her office in Lagos, Nigeria June 10, 2021. REUTERS/Seun Sanni via Gallo Images

Expression

Twitter banned in Nigeria

On 4th June 2021, Minister of Information and Culture in Nigeria, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, announced an indefinite suspension of all operations of social media platform Twitter in the country on grounds of the “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence”. The suspension followed the platform’s deletion of a tweet by - and a 12-hour suspension of the Twitter account of - Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari days earlier, stating that the tweet violated Twitter’s “hateful conduct policy”. In his tweet, president Buhari responded to recent attacks on government and security installations suspected to have been perpetrated by pro-Biafra militants by threatening to “treat them in the language they understand”, referring to the 1967-1970 Biafra war, in which over a million people were killed.

Minister Lai Mohammed also announced that social media companies will now be required to register as a local entity and acquire a licence from Nigeria’s media regulator, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC). The latter ordered radio and TV stations to delete their Twitter accounts and “desist from using Twitter as a source ... of information gathering for news”. Not doing so, the NBC said, would be “unpatriotic”.

As a result, many turned to VPN networks to bypass the ban. In response, Abubakar Malami, the Attorney General, ordered the prosecution of anyone who circumvents the ban.

On 8th June 2021, local human rights group, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and 176 Nigerians, filed a lawsuit against the Nigerian government at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice to ask for an interim injunction restraining the Nigerian government from “implementing its suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, and subjecting anyone, including media houses and broadcast stations using Twitter in Nigeria, to harassment, intimidation, arrest and criminal prosecution, pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit”. On 22nd June 2021, the ECOWAS Court granted these temporary measures, pending the outcome of the substantive suit filed by SERAP, and another one on 16th June 2021 by five CSOs, including Media Rights Agenda, and four journalists challenging the Twitter ban. The Court will hear the consolidated suits on 9th July 2021.

The ban was heavily criticised inside and outside Nigeria by human rights and media freedom organisations. Kolawole Oluwadare of SERAP said to Reuters that the ban was “final proof of shrinking civil space in Nigeria and the intention of government to stifle any dissenting voice”. The CSO YIAGA Africa commented:

“The suspension of Twitter is antithetical to democratic principles and it portends a great threat to the freedom of speech and expression.”

The Twitter ban is yet another step by the Buhari administration to attempt to regulate social media in Nigeria: as reported previously on the CIVICUS Monitor, civil society has been campaigning and mobilising against the adoption of the 2019 Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation and other Related Offences Bill and the Hate Speech Bill. The first bill would make statements on social media which may “diminish public confidence” in the government or compromise national security punishable by a fine and/or three-year prison sentence. If passed, it would allow the authorities to order a shutdown of internet access and social media. On 12th November 2019, the hate speech bill, with restrictive provisions such as a prohibition on “abusive, threatening and insulting behaviour”, was reintroduced in the Senate.

Twitter was used at the end of last year to mobilise for the #EndSARS protests, initially to demand an end to police brutality, but came to encompass much broader grievances, such as bad governance. These protests were brutally repressed, killing dozens of people.

Proposed amendments to the Nigerian Press Council Act described as “an attack on free speech”

Lawmakers have proposed amendments to the Press Council Act, which was heavily criticised by media organisations and CSOs, who called it “an attack on free speech”. The Proposed Bill for An Act to Amend the Nigerian Press Council Act allows for the government to appoint the majority of Board members of the Nigerian Press Council, which is tasked with overseeing the media and establishing a National Press and Ethical Code of Conduct. Additionally, the Amendment Bill proposes fines and other punitive measures for media houses and journalists, such as suspension of journalists.

On 17th June 2021, a consortium of four media freedom organisations – the International Press Centre, Media Rights Agenda, Centre for Media Law and Advocacy and the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism - presented a joint memorandum during a public hearing of Nigeria’s National Assembly Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values, strongly opposing the Amendment Bill, stating that the Bill

“seeks to make the Government the arbiter of truth while subjecting the entire media sector in Nigeria to the control of the Minister of Information and Culture in violation of internationally accepted norms and standards.”

Likewise, the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), which houses the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) strongly opposed the Amendment Bill saying that 17 of the 39 clauses in the Bill have been subject to litigation since 1999.

Journalist killed

Unidentified gunmen shot and killed Naija FM radio presenter Titus Badejo in Ibadan, Oyo State, on 19th June 2021. Badejo, also known as Eja Nla, was driving home with friends after visiting a club in Ibadan when two gunmen stopped and shot him. Witnesses said that only Badejo was targeted by the perpetrators and nothing from the car was taken.

Journalist arrested in Democracy Day protests

Adeola Oladipupo, a journalist for the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ), was detained while covering the 12th June protests (see under Peaceful Assembly) in Lagos. The journalist was released the same day. Another journalist for FIJ, Gabriel Ogunjobi, reportedly avoided arrest by fleeing and hiding in a toilet.

Journalist receives death threats after airing of documentary

BBC journalist Peter Nkanga, who is based in Abuja, went into hiding after having received dozens of threatening anonymous calls and messages, including death threats, since 20th May 2021. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), who spoke with the journalist, the threats followed the airing of a documentary which featured the host of popular radio programme Brekete Family Program Ahmed Isah. In the documentary, Isah is seen slapping a woman who is accused of setting his niece’s hair on fire, to which Nkanga responded as “crossing a line”. Isah apologised on air on 19th May but accused the journalist and the BBC of “plotting to kill him”. The following day, during a call-in segment of the radio show, a person under the name ‘Barrister Tinubu’ revealed Nkanga’s telephone numbers and asked Isah’s supporters to contact the journalist to express their displeasure, after which the anonymous calls and messages followed. One message threatened that the journalist would be “stoned to death” if he continued to cover Isah.

Peaceful Assembly

Democracy Day protests repressed by security forces

On 12th June 2021, annual Democracy Day in Nigeria anti-government protests against increasing insecurity, bad governance and corruption, were held simultaneously in several cities across Nigeria, in Lagos, Osun, Oyo and Ogun states. The protests, called for by civil society organisations and activists in some cities, notably Lagos and Abuja, were met with violence and tear gas fired by security forces to disperse the protesters. According to Reuters, whose journalists witnessed the Lagos and Abuja protests, police were firing tear gas into the air and the crowd, and some police officers were seen smashing phones confiscated from protesters. Some protesters and a journalist were briefly detained. Planned protests in Ekiti State did not take place, according to Premium Times, due to fears of attacks by security forces. An #IStandWithBuhari counterprotest took place on the same day in Abuja.