Social media regulation: Again, uproar greets NBC move

…Ploy to suppress dissent, critical voices – Activists

…Freedom of speech only power we have left – Nigerians

‘… If not regulated, it’ll misguide young people’

The move by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to regulate social media through a Bill before the National Nssembly has received wide condemnation from Nigerians. BENJAMIN SAMSON in this report examines the move vis-a-vis what is obtainable in other climes.

The Director-General of National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Balarabe Ilelah, last week said the commission has sent social media regulation bill is before the National Assembly.

Ilelah said the bill, seeking to repeal and reenact the NBC Act, CAP L11 laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, has been read for the first time before the federal lawmakers.

The NBC boss disclosed this when he hosted the Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mohammed Idris, at the commission’s headquarters.

While describing the ills of social media as a “monster”, Ilelah decried that the current law does not give NBC the right to regulate social media.

“We want to tell you that a bill for an act to repeal and amend the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) act, CAP L11 laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, to accommodate the transition from analogue to digital broadcasting service, also to promote quality audio and video, efficient management of the spectrum, Nigeria Broadcast Institute, social media regulation and related matters has been read for the first time on the floor of the National Assembly.

“All these that are mentioned are not captured in the present Act of the Commission. We have already submitted a Bill to amend the Act.

“One of our major problems now is social media. Unless there is a law that allows NBC to act on social media issues, the issue will continue to be a monster in our daily lives in this country,” Ilelah said.

Failed attempt

Blueprint weekend finding revealed that the federal has in the last few years made several attempts to regulate the social media.

The first attempt began in November 2015 when the then Deputy Senate Leader, Ibn Na’Allah, sponsored the Frivolous Petitions Bill, 2015 in the Senate. The Bill, otherwise known as Anti-Social Media Bill, was read for the first time on Thursday, November 24, 2015.

On Wednesday, December 2, 2015, the Senate debated on the general principles of the bill and after extensive deliberations, read it for the second time and referred it to the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, which was asked to report back with its recommendations.

On May 17, 2016, the committee recommended that the Bill be withdrawn, stressing that if passed into law, it would affect the anti-corruption war of the federal government and do more harm than good to President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration.

However, undeterred, in March 2018, the then Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, Abdullahi Aliu Sabi, introduced a Bill seeking prohibition of hate speech in the country, otherwise known as Hate Speech Bill.

The overwhelming public outrage against the Bill forced the lawmakers to withdraw it. Nevertheless, in a show of perseverance, the Senate reintroduced the Bill in November 2019.

According to the sponsor, the Bill was aimed at eliminating all forms of hate speech in the country. The Bill defined hate speech as a comment that insults people for their religion, ethnic and linguistic affiliation, among others, and prescribes death penalty for certain offenders.

 Also in November 2019, a Bill titled Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019 was introduced in the Senate.

The sponsor of the Bill, Mohammed Musa, had argued that it would help to curb fake news on the Internet.

“It is a legislation that will guide how we can tolerate our activities on the social media. False information has been disseminated so many times and they have caused so many chaos in different parts of the world,” he argued.

In March 2020, the Senate held its public hearing on both the Hate Speech Bill and Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, where many Nigerians kicked against them, insisting that one of the most important tenets of democracy is citizens’ right to freedom of expression.

Stakeholders kick

The NBC sponsored Bill to regulate social media has raised concerns among many, especially young Nigerians.

A Lawyer and Civil Rights Activist, Josephine Orhe, told our reporter that: “Social media has become an essential platform for the nation’s youth to express themselves, grow their businesses and craft, connect with others, and demand accountability from the government and law enforcement institutions.

“If passed, the Bill would grant the government sweeping powers to censor and control online speech.

“In recent years, social media has played a pivotal role in mobilizing young people for important causes. Notably, the #EndSARS movement against police brutality in 2020, which was largely organized and fueled by social media. Additionally, social media has been instrumental in exposing corruption and government misconduct.

“The proposed Bill would empower the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to regulate all social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The NBC would have the authority to impose fines, restrict access to platforms, and even prosecute users for violating its regulations.

“The Bill’s vagueness and open interpretation raise concerns, as the NBC could potentially use it to suppress dissent and stifle critical voices. For instance, the bill prohibits the spread of ‘false news’ and ‘hate speech,’ but these terms lack clear definitions, allowing the NBC to clamp down on legitimate government criticism.

“Furthermore, this Bill emerges at a time when the Nigerian government is increasingly cracking down on freedom of expression.

“In recent months, journalists and activists have been arrested and detained for criticizing the government. The Social Media Bill could provide the government with additional tools to silence its critics.

“Young Nigerians must be vigilant about the potential threats posed by this proposed Social Media Bill. It has the potential to impede young people’s ability to express themselves, connect with their peers, and hold the government accountable. It is crucial for young Nigerians to voice their concerns and demand that their voices be heard.

“The proposed Social Media Bill represents a grave threat to freedom of expression in Nigeria. It has the potential to obstruct young people’s ability to express themselves, connect with their peers, and demand government accountability.”

… Other Nigerians too

Similarly, some Nigerians who spoke with Blueprint Weekend condemned move by the federal government to regulate social media

Samuel Idoko a law student said, “It is a grievous infringement on the Constitutional right to free speech. We must be able to speak our minds, even when we are wrong or mistaken, without fear of intimidation, harassment or incarceration by the State.”

On his part, Bukola Adedeji said, “I hope all the Senators from South Western Nigeria will. You are in parliament to represent us. You are in parliament to legislate on progressive policies per health, education, infrastructural development and job creation. Not to stifle criticisms.”

Similarly, Agnes Maiyaki said, “This Social Media Bill is very worrisome. We’re used to taking everything so lightly. I doubt most of us understand the implications of this if it gets passed.

“The things I’ve been reading are crazy. Freedom of speech is almost all the power we have left.”

Also, Joe Osagie said,” It is a grievous infringement on the Constitutional right to free speech. We must be able to speak our minds, even when we are wrong or mistaken, without fear of intimidation, harassment or incarceration by the State.”

Need for balance

Conversely, a Cyber Security Expert and Lecturer with the Department of Computer Science, Salem University, Lokoja, Dr James Akoji, in a chat with our reporter expressed concern that social media platforms have been used negatively over the years, from cyber bullying to invasion of privacy, defamation of character, fake news dissemination, misinformation and propaganda.

“Individuals have lost self-esteem and have vowed to avoid social media platforms because of the negative experiences they encountered.

“Again, the abuse of government officials, traditional and religious leaders on X is on the high side. Abusive words are used on these platforms without checks, which is different from what we see on traditional media like newspapers, television and radio stations.

 “Given this situation, one may feel that the only way out is regulation of social media usage or making laws. However, we must not forget that when there is over regulation or outright ban like we saw with X. Most Nigerians never stopped using Twitter. Rather, they devised other means of using the platform, from change of location to the use of other supporting applications to enable them use it. This means that regardless of the ban or regulations, Nigerians will always find a way to use social media.

“Against this backdrop, I am recommending sensitisation, not regulation of social media usage in Nigeria. The government and major stakeholders should embark on massive sensitisation of the masses on the use of social media, making them understand that where their right stops, is where the other persons’ own starts, making the masses know the need to respect the privacy of others.

“Also, stakeholders should sensitise the masses on how to protect the interest of the government and Nigeria at large by seeing the Nigerian project as an individual project.

“Finally, if the government should play this role adequately and make the exercise periodic, I believe it will go a long way to manage the negative use of social media in Nigeria.”

Other climes

However, speaking to out reporter, an Associate Professor of Communication at Nile University, Abuja, supported the regulation of social media.

He said: “While Nigeria continues to grapple with the issue of social media regulation, other countries are moving swiftly with their regulation objective of transitioning from self-regulated social media platforms to government-regulated platforms.

“For example, the United Kingdom recently proposed a draft Online Safety Bill which aims to establish a new regulatory framework to tackle harmful content online. “As of December 2021, the bill was reviewed by a Joint Committee of Members of the House of Commons and Peers from the House of Lords, and a report detailing their recommendations has now been published.

 “In addition, the United States of America is also in the process of putting in place appropriate regulations, while Germany has already passed into law the Act to Improve Enforcement of the Law in Social Networks (Network Enforcement Act) in 2018 despite the various criticisms of the law.”

He advised that to actualise its regulation objective, the federal government must strike a fine balance between the need to protect Nigerian citizens from the harmful effects of social media usage and the preservation of the constitutionally guaranteed right of Nigerians to freedom of speech.

“In the United Kingdom, the proposed Online Safety Bill seeks to protect young people and clamp down on online racist abuse, while also safeguarding freedom of expression.

“This is a balance that must be evident in any law proposed for the regulation of social media.

“In addition, where the NBC will be utilized as the social media regulator, its establishment law must be amended to confer it with the requisite statutory power as the NBC Act as of today only provides for the regulation of traditional media,” he said.

It’s inevitable – NBC

Meanwhile, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has revealed that it is currently in discussions with tech companies Google and TikTok, concerning a proposed Social Media Regulation Bill.

Director of NBC, Francisca Aiyetan, said the commission’s planned to regulate social media, to prevent it from misguiding young Nigerians, amongst other issues.

She said, “Every country is making efforts to regulate social media, and Nigeria also is making efforts because we know that there are a lot of things to harness from it. But if not regulated, it can also be a platform that will misguide our young people.

“The level we are now is discussing with stakeholders so to agree that, yes, we need to regulate social media and at that level, there should be legislation; there should be strengthening of the law to factor in all the things that are new in the broadcasting and content-sharing space.

“And then, when you have the power and the enablement by law to do such things, then we can now look at, do we have the way to do it technology-wise? Nevertheless, presently what we do is that we engage the platform owners as a regulator, we engage Google YouTube, and TikTok, so we know the faces behind these platforms.”

Freedom comes with responsibility, FG insists

Likewise, the federal government has said it is not interested in stifling free flow of information freedom of expression.

Minister of Information and National Orientation, Alhaji Mohammed Idris Malagi, stated this when he received Director of Google in West Africa Olumide Balogun at the ministry’s headquarters in Abuja.

“We know that information dissemination is critical to the survival of any country and I as a minister, i am also from this industry and I believe that it is important for us to have a free press.

“I feel that once people communicate, once people are able to put information out there it reduces tension and the menace of fake news.

“Stifling or trying to gag that platform that people get information is not in anyone’s interest. I don’t think there is any responsible person that will be interested in saying look don’t give out information.”

He, however, warned that freedom must come with responsibility, noting that Nigeria was such a sensitive country and anything that would create tension would not be tolerated.

“Freedom as I would often say comes with responsibility. You have enormous responsibility to ensure that freedom does not translate to an avenue for the creation of anarchy for our people.

“We want to stay united and in peace and sometimes if you feel that the knife in the kitchen will be harmful, you remove it and make do with whatever is available.

“Thank God there is an international collaboration trying to find a common ground to regulate platforms such as yours so that it will not be used against the people that it is meant to serve.

 “While government is interested in freedom of information, allowing environment to be free for everybody to express themselves, and for everyone to have the right to know and right to access any kind of information, it is also critical for those who are responsible in bringing out the information, creating the platforms for these to happen are also very conscious of the fact that it can also be used against the very people that it is meant to serve,” he said.