Media Rights Agenda, Others Win Suit over Twitter Ban as ECOWAS Court Rules Nigerian Government’s Action Unlawful

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President Muhammadu Buhari

The ECOWAS Community Court of Justice has ruled that the indefinite suspension of access to Twitter in Nigeria by Federal Government in June 2021 was unlawful and violated the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Court ordered the Government to guarantee that it would not repeat the unlawful ban on Twitter.

In its judgment delivered on July 14, 2022 in four consolidated suits filed by Media Rights Agenda (MRA), other non-governmental organisations, journalists and some Nigerian citizens challenging the Government’s June 4, 2021 decision to suspend access to Twitter in Nigeria, the Court ordered the Government of Nigeria to take necessary steps to align its policies and other measures to give effect to the rights and freedoms enshrined in the ACHPR and the ICCPR.

The four suits that were consolidated are:

  • Suit No. ECW/CCJ/APP/29/21 filed by Mrs. Mojirayo Ogunlana-Nkanga on behalf of Media Rights Agenda and four other non-governmental organizations, namely: Paradigm Initiative (PIN), Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), the International Press Centre (IPC), and Tap Initiative for Citizens Development (TICD) as well as four journalists, Mr. David Hundeyin, Mr. Samuel Ogundipe, Ms Blessing Oladunjoye, and Mr. Nwakamri Zakari Apollo;
  • Suit No. ECW/CCJ/APP/23/21, filed by Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), on behalf of Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), a Lagos-based NGO, and 176 Nigerians;
  • Suit No. ECW/CCJ/APP/26/21. Filed by Mr. Patrick Elohor, President of the NGO, One Love Foundation; and
  • Suit No. ECW/CCJ/APP/24/21, filed by Chief Malcolm Omirhobo, a Lagos-based human rights lawyer.

The applicants contended in the suits that the suspension of the social media platform, Twitter, in Nigeria amounted to a violation of their fundamental rights, including their rights to freedom of expression and access to information.

The consolidated suits were heard by a panel of three judges consisting of Justice Gberi-Be- Ouattara, presiding; Justice Keikura Bangura, who is the judge rapporteur; and Justice Januaria Costa.  The Court ordered the consolidation of the four separate suits at its hearing on July 9, 2021 following a motion by the lawyer representing the Nigerian Government, Mr. Abdullahi Abubakar, who applied for the suits to be heard together since they were all dealing with the same subject matter. 

Delivering judgment on July 14, the Court declared that contrary to the claim of the Federal Government, it had jurisdiction to hear and determine the suits.

It also dismissed the Government’s challenge to the admissibility of the suits, declaring that the applications were admissible.

Ruling on the merit of the cases, the Court declared that the act of suspending the operation of Twitter in Nigeria was unlawful and inconsistent with the provisions of Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Court also declared that the act of the Government in suspending the operation of Twitter violated the applicants’ rights to the enjoyment of freedom of expression and access to information as it is contrary to the provision of Article 9 of the ACHPR and Article 19 of the ICCPR.

But it held that the applicants’ rights to fair hearing under Article 7 of the Africa Charter was not violated.

The Court consequentially ordered the Government to lift the suspension of Twitter since the suspension was in contravention of Article 9 of the African Charter and Article 19 of the ICCPR.

It also ordered the Government to take necessary steps to align its policies and other measures to give effect to the rights and freedoms enshrined in the African Charter and the ICCPR as well as undertake an act of legislative or other measures on the rules of Twitter to enable the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression guaranteed under the African Charter.

The Court directed the Government to guarantee a non-repetition of the unlawful ban of Twitter but dismissed all other claims by the applicants.

On the issue of costs, the Court ordered the Government to bear the cost of the proceedings and directed the Deputy Chief Registrar of the Court to assess the cost accordingly.