ABUJA – Several Christian leaders including the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Most Revd. Matthew Kukah, have opposed two proposed bills before the National Assembly which seek to regulate social media.
Kukah, who has been critical of several policies of the Federal Government, said that the proposed laws were a way of suppressing freedom of expression as contained in the 1999 constitution and other international conventions which guarantee freedom of expression.
Recall that last November 2019, Senators from the ruling party introduced the bills to not only regulate the use of social media in the country but fight fake news and hate speech on the internet.
Two weeks after it was introduced, the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, also known as the social media bill, passed second reading despite growing criticisms, protests and debates.
If passed into law, offenders would pay fines up to N300,000 or imprisonment for up to three years for individuals, and N10 million for corporate organizations.
Similarly, the National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill seeks the death penalty for offenders.
However, clerics who oppose the bills argue that the existing Cyber Crimes Act and Anti-Terrorism Act already cover many of the offenses the new bills seek to address.
Kukah said, “The ultimate goal of this bill is not to punish those who offend, but those who offend the government.
“If the government gets away with it, we have no idea what else will be on the table. Only a robust debate can cure the claims of cynicism.
“To be sure, there is no one, including myself who is not aware of the dangers posed by social media. We have all been victims. … It is desirable that we address social media by way of education, open debate and transfer of knowledge.”
In a similar vein, another cleric, Msgr. Obiora Ike, Executive Director of Globethics, said: “the Hate Speech Bill is already covered in the Nigerian law with libel and fundamental human rights clauses.
“We may allow each state reflect its situation and legislate laws that address its situation on this topic. But a federal hate bill law may heat up the polity.”
On the punishment of death penalty for offenders, he said, “Such a punishment is already forbidden by divine law and international covenants and laws to which Nigeria is signatory.
“Hate bills with death penalty imposition is barbaric, redundant and grossly unjust. It cheapens human life and does not apply justice, rather grounds laws on fears and hate.”
Evang. Kwamkur Vondip, CAN’s immediate past National Director of Legal and Public Affairs, told Vanguard: “I feel the government wants to use the proposed laws to clamp down on dissenting voices in the country.
“Hate speech is not a capital punishment, and proposing a capital punishment for an offense that is simple as this is simply unfair, especially when Boko Haram terrorists who are killing innocent people are granted amnesty and rehabilitated.
“We know it’s more about a political move than in the interest of the public because social media empower citizens and the party in opposition to criticise government policies.”
Apart from the Christian clerics, human rights groups like Amnesty International have also condemned the bills.
Meanwhile, Nigeria’s social media user base is estimated to be above 29.3 million, and projected to grow to 36.8 million in 2023.