Amnesty International has condemned two bills before Nigerian Senate relating to freedom of expression online, including one which proposes the death penalty for ‘hate speech.’
Amnesty International say those bills, supported by the Nigerian government, represent an alarming escalation in the authorities’ attempts to censor and punish social media users for freely expressing their opinions.
The proposed National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech bill, and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation and other Related Offences bill, give authorities arbitrary powers to shut down the internet and limit access to social media, and make criticizing the government punishable with penalties of up to three years in prison.
“Social media is one of the last remaining places where Nigerians can express their opinions freely. The harassment of journalists and bloggers and the introduction of the Cyber Crimes Act have already shrunk the civic space and created a climate of fear,” said Seun Bakare, Programmes Manager Amnesty International Nigeria.
“We are urging the Nigerian authorities to drop these bills, which are open to vague and broad interpretations and impose incredibly harsh punishments simply for criticizing the authorities.”
There are many provisions in the bills that do not meet international human rights standards. For example, section 4 of the “hate speech” bill prohibits abusive, threatening and insulting behavior, which is open to very wide interpretation. This section would pose a threat to critical opinion, satire, public dialogue and political commentary.
The social media bill contains overbroad provisions that unduly restrict access to and use of social media and seems designed to gag freedom of expression. For example, section 3, which relates to the transmission of false statements of facts, contains provisions against sharing statements “likely to be prejudicial to the security of Nigeria, public safety, tranquility, public finances and friendly relations of Nigeria with other countries”.
This could be easily abused to punish critics of government policies and actions, and anyone who asks difficult questions could find themselves liable for ‘diminishing public confidence in the government.’
The two bills are set to criminalize those who breach the law with punitive measures like fines and imprisonment of up to three years solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. In the case of the “hate speech” bill, people could face life imprisonment and the death penalty.
Two Nigerian senators are sponsoring the National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech bill and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation and other Related Offences bill.
The Nigerian government has recently stated its resolve to regulate the operation of social media and the information shared on them.
The existing Cyber Crimes Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act, which already cover many of the offences the new bills seek to address, have been used as tools to gag freedom of expression in Nigeria.
International law and standards require States to prohibit in law advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (commonly known as “hate speech”).
Such prohibitions need to be set forth in law and formulated precisely. The law and its application must also comply with the required guarantees on the right to freedom of expression, and in particular must meet the requirements of necessity and proportionality, in compliance with Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).