The Federal Government was defiant yesterday over its suspension of Twitter as the ECOWAS Court of Justice, Abuja, in a landmark ruling, stopped it from prosecuting Nigerians using Twitter.
The Court held that “Any interference with Twitter is viewed as interference with human rights, and that will violate human rights.”
The court “restrained the government of President Muhammadu Buhari and its agents from unlawfully imposing sanctions or doing anything whatsoever to harass, intimidate, arrest or prosecute Twitter and/or any other social media service provider(s), media houses, radio and television broadcast stations, the plaintiffs and other Nigerians who are Twitter users, pending the hearing and determination of this suit.”
The ruling followed the suit filed against the government by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP and 176 concerned Nigerians.
They argued that “the unlawful suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, criminalization of Nigerians and other people using Twitter have escalated repression of human rights and unlawfully restricted the rights of Nigerians and other people to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom in the country.”
The court gave the order after hearing arguments from solicitor to SERAP, Femi Falana(SAN), and lawyer to the government, Maimuna Shiru.
The order came as Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, yesterday, said that Nigeria as a sovereign country cannot be ruled by the policies or laws of a multinational corporation, no matter “how powerful” it may be.
Alhaji Mohammed said Nigeria also has the duty of protecting national security, and warned that Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms would be suspended if they go against Nigeria’s interest.
The minister spoke at an interactive session with members of the House of Representatives Joint Committees on Information, ICT and Justice, probing the circumstances around the suspension of Twitter operations in Nigeria over national security.
Twitter was suspended barely 48 hours after the micro-blogging platform deleted a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari threatening a civil war treatment on secessionists in the South-East and other parts of the country.
Following public outcry, the House mandated the joint committees, chaired by Odebunmi to investigate the matter.
The minister told the Joint Committees that the action of the government is within the extant laws of the land, adding that Twitter is not registered in Nigeria and does not pay taxes as well.
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The minister, however, denied that Twitter was suspended because it deleted Buhari’s tweet.
Twitter, national security risk — Lai Mohammed
He said: “Who is Twitter? We are talking about a sovereign country. Nigeria will not be ruled by the laws of a multinational no matter how powerful it is.
“So, for us, why did we act now? There is no time we took the decision that we will not have the kind of reaction we have now. But it has gone to a stage after persistent appeal to Twitter, and we saw how policemen and soldiers were being killed, and we said enough is enough.
“We owe no responsibility to Twitter. It’s not registered in Nigeria. It does not employ any Nigerian or pay taxes. There are other platforms available to Nigerians to make money.
“In the press release, we also said henceforth, all OTT must register first as Nigerian companies and be licensed by the Broadcasting Commission before they can carry out business as social media platforms.
“We realised that many of the OTT social media platforms operating in Nigeria today are not registered in Nigeria. They make billions of niara out of our country. They pay no taxes. They employed nobody.
“That’s why we said we are going to suspend Twitter and at the same time all other social media platforms that are not registered in Nigeria must register.
“I know it’s true that many Nigerians have accused the FG of an attempt to stifle media and free speech and we say no at all.
“There is absolutely no intention on the part of government to stifle free speech or the media because as you will see, while it is true that Sections 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 of the constitution actually provide for freedom of speech, it is actually qualified by Section 45 of the same constitution.
“The only reason we suspended the operation of Twitter is because it was promoting disunity in Nigeria and it became a national security risk.
“As you can see the provision of the constitution leaves no one in doubt that the provisions on freedom of expression is not absolute.
“If you look at the circumstances of Section 3 of the National Security Act which clothes the State Security Service with the powers to preserve the internal security of Nigeria is very instructive that any platforms that threatens the internal security of Nigeria will not be allowed to operate.
“This is a case where the Federal Government deemed it necessary that the activities of Twitter in Nigeria were inimical to the stability of the country.
“During the unfortunate #EndSARS# protest, the same played a very unsacred role by making available its platform to re-tweet, not just the re-tweeting the messages of EndSARS protesters, but raising funds for the EndSARS protesters before it was hijacked by hoodlums.
“And Nigerians have forgotten that this particular EndSARS protests led to the death of 57 civilians, 37 policemen, 6 soldiers, 243 properties destroyed, 200 brand new buses belonging to Lagos State government, 83 warehouses were vandalized and yet Jack Dorsey crowd-funded the activities. That’s why I said that Twitter’s mission in Nigeria is suspect.
“We all know that IPOB is proscribed by high court of law in Nigeria and yet it is a platform of choice through which IPOB directs its people to kill soldiers, policemen, to burn correctional centres. So both in practice and common law, we had to suspend their operations.
“I will round up by even the position of Companies Allied Act also supports the suspension of Twitters operations in Nigeria because the primary laws governing businesses in Nigeria is the Companies and Allied Matters Act 2020. Twitter is not licensed in Nigeria.
‘We’re within the law to suspend Twitter’
“We are within the law to suspend Twitter. Our position is also supported by cyber space security act.
“Article 19(2&3) of the international convention on civil and political rights of the Cyber crimes prohibitions act empowers the Federal Government of Nigeria to regulate and promote the security of the Nigerian cyberspace.
“I want to make two clarifications. The first is that we did not ban Twitter. We simply suspended indefinitely the activities of Twitter.
“The second, we did not suspend the activities of Twitter because they deleted Mr. President’s tweet. No at all. We were very unambiguous on why we suspended Twitter.
“Yes, we have taken into consideration Nigerians doing business on Twitter. It is because there is a country called Nigeria that people can do business on any platform. And this is very fundamental.
“There are other platforms. Facebook, Google, WhatsApp for people to use. But in a matter of national security, individual interest will lag behind.
“We said the doors are not banned. We are ready to speak with Twitter. Twitter has written a letter seeking for government dialogue and just today(yesterday), I issued a statement in which I announced the government team that is ready to meet Twitter;
“Chaired by my humble self, with the Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami; Communication, Isa Pantami; Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola(SAN); Labour, Festus Keyamo(SAN), and some agencies of government. We hope that the committee will move fast and have dialogue and understanding with Twitter.
“The OTT must be registered as Nigerian companies after which they will be licensed.”
‘It’ll be resolved soon’
The minister however hoped that the face-off will be resolved soon: “Hopefully, if we were able to resolve this matter quickly, they will resume the use of Twitter,” he said.
Lai Mohammed also advised Nigerians using VPN to stop for their own personal security.
According to him, VPN would expose even their bank account and make it vulnerable. The minister added that the government will also suspend any other social media platforms that may misbehave
“If any platform does it, we will suspend their operations too because there is a country called Nigeria that they can do business,” he said.
In his remarks earlier, a member of the Committee, Fatihu Mohammed ,who represents Daura Sandamu Baure federal constituency of Katsina State, while supporting the Twitter ban asked Nigerians to jettison social media.
He said: “My colleagues have spoken the minds of their constituencies. If I will speak the mind of my constituency, I will include the President himself inside because out of 360 of us, I am the only one voted by the president.
“Let’s put Nigeria first and let’s call a spade a spade. The media is at war. We can see what is happening in social media. I worked in NCC for 10 years. We should please, regulate the media.
“If that tweet was not brought down, if the minister did not ban Twitter by the instruction of Mr. President, the kind of insults the sovereignty of Nigeria will have by the users of Twitter will be more dangerous than what we are facing now.”
In his speech, the Chairman of the Committee said the investigation was necessary to know the circumstances of the suspension hence the interface with the Minister. He promised further legislative action on the matter.
ECOWAS Court stops Nigeria from prosecuting Twitter users
Giving the order, the ECOWAS court said it “has listened very well to the objection by Nigeria. The court has this to say: any interference with Twitter is viewed as inference with human rights, and that will violate human rights.
“Therefore, this court has jurisdiction to hear the case. The court also hereby orders that the application be heard expeditiously. The Nigerian government must take immediate steps to implement the order.”
SERAP and the concerned Nigerians in the suit are praying the court for an order of interim injunction, restraining the Federal Government from implementing its suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, and subjecting anyone including media houses, broadcast stations using Twitter in Nigeria, to harassment, intimidation, arrest and criminal prosecution, pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit.
They are further contending that “If this application is not urgently granted, the Federal Government will continue to arbitrarily suspend Twitter and threaten to impose criminal and other sanctions on Nigerians, telecommunication companies, media houses, broadcast stations and other people using Twitter in Nigeria, the perpetual order sought in this suit might be rendered nugatory.
“The suspension of Twitter is aimed at intimidating and stopping Nigerians from using Twitter and other social media platforms to assess government policies, expose corruption, and criticize acts of official impunity by the agents of the Federal Government.
“The free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens and elected representatives is essential.
“This implies a free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censor or restraints, and to inform public opinion. The public also has a corresponding right to receive media output.
“Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and the full enjoyment of this right is central to achieving individual freedom and to developing democracy. It is not only the cornerstone of democracy, but indispensable to a thriving civil society.”
FG challenges suit
The Nigerian government, had in a preliminary objection prayed the court to dismiss the suit, arguing that “The subject matter of this suit is not for the enforcement of any human right recognised by this court.”
The Federal Government’s objection, read “The subject matter of the SERAP suit relates to the indefinite suspension of Twitter in Nigeria. This is not in any way connected to any Nigerian or SERAP. Individual user’s Twitter accounts are not suspended.
“The right to freedom of expression is completely different from freedom of reach. The suspension of Twitter does not fall under the provisions of arts 8 and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
“Twitter as an entity is not an organisation of any member state as it is an American microblogging networking service. The suspension of Twitter in Nigeria is not a right recognized under any treaty enforceable by this Court.
“In the unlikely event that this court agrees with SERAP that the suspension of Twitter is a fundamental right, the dissolution or liquidation of twitter as a profit-making entity may as well open a floodgate and vest the users the rights of a non-existent right.
“Twitter is a profit-making entity which can be proscribed/dissolved in compliance with any national laws. The compulsory shut down of an entity cannot be termed the breach of any fundamental rights by this court.
“The suspension of Twitter in Nigeria is in compliance with the provisions of sections 420, 419 of the Penal Code [Northern Nigeria]; Federal Provisions Act, and section 58 of the Criminal Code Act. The operation of Twitter is in violation of Nigerian domestic legislation.
“This court lacks the jurisdiction to determine the criminalization of an act under Nigerian laws. The subject matter of the SERAP suit borders on the criminalization of Twitter operation in Nigeria pursuant to the Penal Code and the Criminal Code.
“The use and operation of Twitter in Nigeria constitutes the offences of Importation of Prohibited publication under sections 420 and 421 or the offence of possession of seditious articles under section 419 of the Penal Code Federal Provisions Act.
“In any event there is a right of action vested in the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, the said right vests directly on Twitter and not individual users of Twitter. This is more so that individual user’s Twitter accounts were not tempered but only the operation of Twitter.
“Nigerians and SERAP have no cause of action. The suspension of Twitter in Nigeria is in compliance with the provisions of sections 420, 419 of the Penal Code and section 58 of the Criminal Code, and sections 78 and 79 of CAMA 2020.”
The substantive suit has been adjourned to July 6, for hearing.
Reacting to the ruling, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN said: “The intervention of the ECOWAS court is a timely relief for millions of Nigerians using Twitter who have been threatened with prosecution under the provision of the Penal Code relating to sedition.
“Contrary to the assurance credited to the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN, that violators of the Twitter ban would not be prosecuted, the Federal Government filed processes in the ECOWAS court threatening to prosecute Nigerians using Twitter for violating the suspension under the provisions of the Penal Code relating to sedition.
“It is extremely embarrassing that the Federal Government could threaten to jail Nigerians for sedition, which was annulled by the Court of Appeal in 1983, in the case of Arthur Nwankwo vs The State.”
It will be recalled that SERAP and the concerned Nigerians had in the suit No ECW/CCJ/APP/23/21 sought “An order of interim injunction restraining the Federal Government from implementing its suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, and subjecting anyone including media houses, broadcast stations using Twitter in Nigeria, to harassment, intimidation, arrest and criminal prosecution, pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit.
Ban will birth harvest of misinformation– ABUAD don
Meanwhile, the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academic, Research, Innovation and Strategic Partnerships, ARISP, of Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti, ABUAD, Professor Damilola Olawuyi(SAN), has emphasized the importance of keeping all channels of engagement and information with the citizenry open in order for the government to effectively tackle competitive misinformation and the spread of fake news.
The senior lawyer, who is also co-chairman of the Legal Education Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, stated this while delivering the opening remarks at the Green Institute’s World Environment Day conference.
Olawuyi noted: “One of the most potent threats to peace and sustainable development in a country is the lack of easily accessible information on government’s activities and programmes.
“In a quest to actively engage with citizens, government leaders across the world, including Nigeria, have successfully deployed the use of online social networks (OSNs) such as Twitter to provide authentic and readily available information that counter fake news.
“Countries like Canada and the United States even have social media ‘war rooms’ backed with significant budgets, where social media experts actively counter the diffusion of competitive misinformation and fake news about government programmes.
“So, banning Twitter is like inflicting self-harm at a time of great global uncertainty.”
While discussing the economic and national security implications of the Twitter ban, Olawuyi noted that “when government agencies with first-hand information are no longer available on social media, expect a bumper harvest and spread of spurious and unverified information by unscrupulous elements at home and abroad.
“Such nefarious information can spread very quickly in seconds resulting in cascading national security and economic impacts before you can respond offline.”
While discussing the need for a more strategic response to the legitimate concerns raised by the Federal Government, Olawuyi called for the development of a national policy on social media and new technologies, built on transparency, accountability, participatory development, and other human rights safeguards, in order to achieve win-win outcomes in the use of social media in Nigeria.
He concluded that the government should work with reputable research agencies and institutes in Nigeria to spearhead the development of clear, coherent, and sustainable national policies on new technologies and social media in Nigeria.