A Federal High Court in Abuja has fixed hearing for February 21, 2022 in a lawsuit instituted by Media Rights Agenda (MRA) against the Governor of Zamfara State, Dr. Bello Muhammad Matawalle, and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) challenging the shutdown of mobile telecommunication services in Zamfara State.
The suit, which comes up before Justice Obiora Atuegwu Egwuatu, followed the shutting down of all telecommunication services in Zamfara State from September 3, 2021, on the instructions of the NCC which issued a directive through a letter dated that same day to all telecommunication service providers asking them to shut down their telecommunication sites in the State and in any neighboring state that their telecommunication server is supplying Zamfara State. The directive was reportedly at the behest of the Governor, who by a letter dated August 3, 2021, requested the NCC to shut down telecommunication service in the State.
Abuja-based lawyer and member of MRA’s network of lawyers, Mrs. Rosemary Onu, leading two freedom of expression lawyers, Ms Chioma Nwaodike and Ms. Obioma Okonkwo, filed the suit on behalf of MRA which is seeking, among other things, a declaration that the shutting down, blocking and/or disruption of mobile telecommunications services in Zamfara State by the NCC at the request of the Governor constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of expression of persons within and outside the State as guaranteed by section 39 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended; Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR); and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
In addition, MRA is seeking the following reliefs:
- A declarationthat the shutting down, blocking and/or disruption of telecommunications services in Zamfara State on the directive of the NCC and at the request of the Governor constitutes an interference with the right to freedom of expression of MRA, its members and/or associates resident within and outside Zamfara State as it violates their rights to receive and impart information and ideas through any medium of their choice as guaranteed and protected by section 39 of the Constitution; Article 9 of the African Charter; and Article 19 of the ICCPR;
- A declarationthat the shutting down, blocking and/or disruption of telecommunications services in Zamfara State, including access to the Internet, on the directive of the NCC and at the request of the Governor constitutes an interference with the right to freedom of expression of MRA, its members and/or associates resident within and outside Zamfara State, as provided by Principle 37(1) and (2), as well as Principle 38(1) and (2) of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa; and a breach of the statutory duty imposed on the Federal Government of Nigeria by the African Charter; and Nigeria’s treaty obligation under the Charter;
- A declarationthat the directive issued by the NCC to telecommunications service providers to shut down, block and/or disrupt telecommunications services in Zamfara State, including access to the Internet, at the request of the Governor is not within the permissible restrictions stipulated in Section 45 of the Constitution and, accordingly, does not satisfy the requirements of the said Section 45 of the Constitution; and
- An orderdirecting the NCC and the Governor to forthwith restore telecommunications services, including access to the Internet, in Zamfara State and an order of injunction restraining theM, their servants, agents or privies from further shutting down, blocking and/or disrupting telecommunication services, including access to the Internet, in the State.
MRA noted in the documents filed in court that the NCC had said in its letters to the telecommunication service providers that the shutdown of telecommunications services in the would be for two weeks, starting from September 3, 2021 and ending on September 17, 2021 but that it lasted for more than two weeks.
The organization said it tried reaching out to its members, associates, and journalists who resides in the through their mobile phones and other means using telecommunication services from September 4, 2021 but could not reach them because telecommunications services were shut down in the State.
It contended that the shutdown of telecommunication services in the amounts to a breach of the rights to freedom of expression and access to the internet under Section 39 of the Constitution, Principles 37 and 38 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, 2019; and the African Charter.
In an affidavit deposed to on its behalf in support of the suit, MRA referred to a statement issued by Zailani Bappa, the Special Adviser to the Governor on Public Enlightenment, Media and Communication on October 1, 2021, where he said the restoration of telecommunication services in Gusau, the state capital, was aimed at easing the hardship faced by both the private and public sectors in the state.
MRA stressed that since the advent of internet and digital technologies, members of the public, organisations and government all around the globe rely on these technologies on a daily basis to express themselves, communicate with relatives, receive and impart information, and carry out their businesses.
It argued that that shutting down telecommunication services in some part of Zamfara State amounted to a violation of the rights of the residents, its members and its right to receive and impart information, and access to internet as guaranteed by the Constitution and a number of international instruments.