This week the will of Nigerian citizens triumphed over a threat to the free and open Web. The recently proposed “Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected there-with”, popularly known as the “Social Media Bill”, sought to restrict free expression by making it illegal to start any type of petition without swearing an affidavit that the content is true in a court of law.
Nigerian Web users reacted immediately. Citizens mobilised on the hashtag #NotoSocialMediaBill to protest the bill’s potential to silence discussion on corruption and inequality, and went further to organise a protest march on the National Assembly. Appeals and requests were sent to the Senators, to thought leaders and even to the United Nations. David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression was summoned on the matter.
A number of prominent civil society activists, including our Africa Regional Coordinator, Nnenna Nwakanma, spoke out on the issue online as well as through the media, stressing that going to court and swearing an affidavit takes time, skills and money.
Nnenna added: “A cynical view is that this is a bill meant to protect persons in high positions and institutions. If a citizen cannot call out the negativities happening at high positions and public institutions, are we not going back to the stone ages?”
Reacting to these arguments and the strong public opinion against the move, President Buhari has declared he will not sign the bill. A statement from his office read: “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.”
Nnenna welcomed the development, saying: “President Buhari’s Senate was voted in as a platform for positive change, but this Bill would have been a step backwards. And, we need to move this continent forward. Nigeria is a key country in Africa and the whole of the continent, and the world, is looking up to Nigeria for positive leadership. We are relieved the President has chosen to take a strong stance against the bill and set a strong example in favour of free expression online.”
The Web belongs to everyone, and this movement proves that Nigeria’s young, forward-looking Web users will certainly not let their government forget this. The new government would be wise to embrace this as a force for economic and social good, a way to accelerate the country’s development and a platform for constructive public discussion on Nigeria’s future.