Why Nigeria needs to sign Digital Right and Freedom Bill into law as the world goes digital

When the first news of novel coronavirus COVID-19 broke in Wuhan China, it was not expected to spread across borders and lead to weeks of lockdown in over 180 countries across the globe.

As of June 29, the virus has infected more than 10 million and killed at least 502,000 across the globe.

Nigeria’s President Muhamadu Buhari also took this precaution and imposed a lockdown initially on the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Lagos and Ogun States which was effective from the 30th of March for an initial period of time.

Other state’s governments followed suit and all major events and activities were put on hold. Following this lockdown, activities need to continue, hence, the high rate of people turning to social media to have virtual gatherings and businesses.

Virtual meetings, training, and conferences are held and internet penetration in the country also moved up the ladder. Nigeria’s internet users as of Q1 2020 stands at 126,078,999, with the country moving to the top 6 users in the world.

The share of the Nigerian population with access to internet hovers around 46.1 percent, while the country’s share of world Internet users stood at 2.5 percent as total users of internet in the world hit 3.425 billion. But there is a need for a law that protects, administers, and upholds the digital human rights of internet users as the daily activities of people changed and grew on social media, ranging from education to health care, business to national security, touching nearly every sector.

Hence, the need to revisit the Digital Right and Freedom bill which had been in the National Assembly since 2016. The bill was first approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2018. The Bill aims at protecting internet users from infringement of their fundamental rights.

In March 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari refused to sign the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill into law, saying that the Bill ‘covers too many technical subjects and fails to address any of them extensively’, a decision widely criticised by media rights organisations.

“The Digital Rights and Freedom Bill has repeatedly been through an arduous legislative process and it was a shame that it didn’t get signed the last time,” Paradigm Initiative legal officer Adeboro Odunlami said.

“However, the president’s recommendations have been taken into consideration for this new Bill and we believe the Bill will and should be signed now.”

Although, the revised Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, passed first reading on July 16, 2019.

The bill intends to promote freedom of expression, assembly, and association online; data privacy rights of citizens and define the legal framework regarding surveillance; digital liberty of Nigerians, now and in the future, and equip the judiciary with the necessary legal framework to protect human rights online.

Odunlami also stated that the greater the adoption of technology, the more the government should act on protecting the rights of users.

She said if the president refused to sign the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, it would not only be a missed opportunity to protect Nigerians but it would also speak volumes about the government’s concern for the protection of her citizens.

But while the country awaits the president’s assent to the digital right bills, social media users, media officials, activists have been arrested for speaking their opinions on government matters and persecuted under the 2015 cybercrime act.

Since Nigeria’s cybercrime act was signed into law in May 2015 political office holders and authorities have prosecuted activists, journalists, and bloggers who criticised them on social media with cyberstalking a section of the cybercrime law.

Cyberstalking, under Section 24 of the act, carries a fine of up to 7 million naira and a maximum three-year jail term for anyone convicted of knowingly sending an online message that “he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another.”

“ Increasingly, more journalists and citizens are being arrested and detained on the strength of section 24 of the Act; a section that is undemocratic and unconstitutional both in existence and interpretation, “ Odunlami said.

“There should be no law to prosecute criticism online or even offline especially in a democracy,” she added.

Odunlami also noted that the nature of democracy demands that elected officials anticipate and welcome criticism.

In other words, a democratic government shouldn’t be prosecuting citizens for criticising its administration or leadership, because that is part of their fundamental rights. Accountability is a necessary feature of democracy which promotes the concept of checks and balance and the public control over the use of public resources.

The Nigerian government also needs to understand that the Digital Rights and Freedom bill will not only protect the right of citizens on the internet but also let the judiciary enact the law to prosecute offenders or an accused person for social media violation, not criticism.

This will give room for the government to also regulate social media without tampering with the rights of citizens.

“If public officials feel slighted by speech online, they may resort to the civil courts to determine whether the offensive speech is defamatory, “ Odunlami said.

“ But the nation must not surrender its collective resources to a powerful few for the harassment of the masses because of something as civil as the freedom to criticize.”

But if the president eventually assents to the Digital Right and Freedom Bill and signs it into law, it would also portray Nigeria to the world as a country leading the charge for the protection of digital rights and online freedom.

And maybe other African countries can take a cue from that and further strengthen the protection of digital rights on the continent.

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