Bill to Regulate Social Media Passes First Reading in Senate

Ahmed Ibrahim Lawan, Nigeria Senator President
Ahmed Ibrahim Lawan, Nigeria Senator President

Nigeria’s upper legislative chambers, the Senate, on November 5, 2019 passed, for the First Reading, a bill titled, “‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019 (SB 132)” which, among other things, prescribes a three-year jail term for anyone involved in what it calls the abuse of social media.

The Bill, sponsored by Mohammed Sani Musa (APC, Niger East), also proposes a fine of N10 million (about US$ 27,558) for media houses prosecuted and found guilty of peddling falsehood or misleading the public.

Speaking to the media on the Bill, Senator Musa who proposed the bill, said: “If anyone is caught with this kind of situation, you cough out between N150,000 to a maximum imprisonment of three years or both. And if it is a corporate organisation that refused to block that false information despite the fact that they have been alerted by authorities not to disseminate that information for public interest and they still go ahead to do it, refusing to do that blockage will be penalised between N5 million to N10 million for those organisations.”

This Bill is coming on the heels of the disclosure by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, that the Federal Government  has put machinery in motion to sanitise social media to prevent it from setting the nation on fire.

Speaking to the media, the Minister said: “I can assure you that we are also working on how to inject sanity into the Social Media space which, today, is totally out of control,” adding, “No responsible government will sit by and allow fake news and hate speech to dominate its media space, because of the capacity of this menace to exploit our national fault lines to set us against each other and trigger a national conflagration.”

On December 2, 2015 the Senate passed, for a Second Reading, a similar bill which sought to penalize what it termed ‘frivolous petitions’ and peddling of falsehood on social media but eventually threw it out as a result of public outcry against the Bill.

Titled “The Frivolous Petition Prohibition and Other Matters Bill,” it made it mandatory for Nigerians writing petitions against public officers or institutions to accompany their petitions with an affidavit depose to a High Court of a state or the Federal High Court confirming the content to be true and correct.

It sought to impose harsh penalties for tweets, text messages, or WhatsApp chats that convey false statements about a wide range of actors – from “a group of persons” to an “institution of government.” Had it been passed into law, Nigerians who violate these provisions could be fined upon conviction, of up to N2,000,000 (about US$10,000 then) or spend up to two years in jail.

Following the Second Reading in the Senate up to the Public Hearing, there was a general outcry against the bill by a wide section of Nigerians. The widespread opposition led to its eventual withdrawal.