President Muhammadu Buhari has reaffirmed the commitment of his administration to the protection of free speech in keeping with democratic tradition.
He said this in a statement released in Abuja on Monday by Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant to the president on media and publicity.
The president was reacting to the widespread condemnation of a bill proposed by the Nigerian Senate that seeks to hand down heavy sanctions for comments made on the social media that are perceived to be false.
The controversial bill is sponsored by Bala Ibn Na’allah, a member of the governing All Progressives Congress, from Kebbi State. It is titled: “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith”
If the bill becomes law, people found guilty of making false remarks on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other similar media, will face a two-year jail term of N2 million fine.
On the social media, the bill read: “Where any person through text message, tweets, WhatsApp or through any social media post any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2,000,000.00 or both fine and imprisonment.”
Many Nigerians want the bill immediately scrapped, but the senate claims its contents have been misunderstood.
If the bill is eventually passed at the senate, it must receive an approval from the House of Representatives and President Buhari to become law.
Earlier in March this year, Then Presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, now President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari was speaking at an interactive session with members of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), in Abuja.
I have to assure you that the time for that is over. That was part of military administration and dictatorship, but I have also promised you that I am now a converted, and converted democrat. Therefore, I want to assure you that I am going to be a friend of the media and this time, I will work well with you as friends and partners in the development of the nation, and that is my promise to you.”
He also promised to ensure freedom of the Press and expression, saying: “I want to give you my full assurances that in this democratic dispensation, I will ensure that the Nigerian Constitution is upheld. This includes respect for the media, respect for the right to free expression and freedom of speech. I have said elsewhere that I cannot change the past. But I can change the present and the future. Dictatorship goes with military rule as do edicts such as Decree 4.”
Well, Mr. President has kept his promise.
Mr. Buhari’s spokesperson said the president had sworn to defend the constitution of Nigeria and will not lend his hand to anything that is inconsistent with the constitution.
“But he (Buhari) is not averse to lawful regulation, so long as that is done within the ambit of the constitution which he swore to uphold.
“The president said free speech is central to democratic societies anywhere in the world.
“The president explained that without free speech, elected representatives won’t be able to gauge public feelings and moods about governance issues.
“As a key component of democratic principles, the president acknowledged that people in democratic societies are so emotionally attached to free speech that they would defend it with all their might,’’ he said.
Mr. Shehu explained that President Buhari was fully aware of public reservations about the proposed legislation but assured that “there is no cause for alarm because the Senate is a democratic senate”.
He assured that the president would not assent to any legislation that might be inconsistent with the constitution of Nigeria.
The United Nations is considering the petition filed by rights group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), against the bill
the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. David Kaye is considering the urgent appeal against the bill
According to SERAP, “the only option for the Senate now is to withdraw this obnoxious bill without further delay and end this international embarrassment. SERAP will be prepared to withdraw the petition at the UN if the Senate can follow this honourable path.”