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Nigerian Senate must withdraw "Frivolous Petitions Bill"

Bukola Saraki (2nd L) takes the oath of office as the senate president of the 8th Nigeria Assembly in Abuja, Nigeria, 9 June 2015
Bukola Saraki (2nd L) takes the oath of office as the senate president of the 8th Nigeria Assembly in Abuja, Nigeria, 9 June 2015

REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

This statement was originally published on mfwa.org on 11 December 2015.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) is disturbed by the Nigerian Senate's moves to introduce a new repressive law.

Sponsored by the Senator for Kebbi South, Bala Ibn Na'Allah, the Frivolous Petitions Bill seeks to restrict freedom of expression and reverse all gains Nigeria has made in freedom of expression and human rights.

The bill has four sections which, among other things, demands that persons seeking to petition state authorities on the conduct of another person must swear an affidavit. Persons who publish petitions not supported by an affidavit “shall be deemed to have committed an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to imprisonment for six months without the option of a fine.”

Any person who uses or acts on such a petition will also be deemed to have committed an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to a fine of a two-year prison term or N2,000,000 (about US$10,000) or both.

Further, Section 3 of the Frivolous Petitions Bill states “any person in order to circumvent the law makes any allegation and or publish any statement, petition in any paper, radio, or any medium of whatever description, with malicious intent, to discredit or set the public against any person or group of persons, institutions of government, shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction shall be liable to an imprisonment term of two year or a fine of N4,000,000:00 (about US$20,000).”

The MFWA finds this bill to be an attempt to repress the Nigerian media and prevent civil society and citizens from holding public officials accountable.

Currently, Nigeria leads in press freedom violations in West Africa. Several journalists and media organisations in the country have been attacked this year and the perpetrators of these violations are yet to be punished. Impunity is thriving as both state and non-state actors violate the rights of journalists and the media. At a time where the safety of Nigerian journalists has become critical, the MFWA is disappointed that the Senate seeks to further worsen the situation.

We are deeply concerned that the bill also seeks to restrict the digital rights of Nigerians with the following provision: “Where any person through text messages, tweets, WhatsApp, or through any social media post any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and/ or group of persons, an institution of Government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2,000,000:00 or both such fine and imprisonment.”

At a time when youth are being encouraged to take advantage of the many opportunities the internet offers, Nigeria should be creating an enabling environment for social media rather than seeking to restrict it.

Nigeria already has a panoply of laws that are hostile to freedom of expression. Sections 373, 375 and 376 of Nigeria's Criminal Code Act – as well as the Defamatory and Offensive Publications Act – all criminalise defamation. Section 375 says: “Subject to the provisions of this Chapter, any person who publishes any defamatory matter is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for one year; and any person who publishes any defamatory matter knowing it to be false is liable to imprisonment for two years.”

Section 375 of the Criminal Code is reinforced by Section 418 of the Penal Code which states that: “Whoever circulates, publishes or reproduces any statement, rumour or report which he knows or has reason to believe to be false with intent to cause or which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the public peace, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years or with fine or with both.”

Both the Criminal Code Act in Sections 59(1) and (2) and Section 418 of the Penal Code are used to try false publication offences. Section 59 (1): “Any person who publishes or reproduces any statement, rumour or report which is likely to cause fear and alarm to the public or to disturb the public peace, knowing or having reason to believe that such statement, rumour or report is false shall be guilty of a misdemeanour and liable, on conviction, to imprisonment for three years.”

The MFWA therefore fails to understand what the Nigerian Senate seeks to achieve with one more repressive law. We wish to remind the Senate that per the African Court of Human and People's Rights judgment in December 2014, imprisonment for defamation violates freedom of expression. The Senate should therefore withdraw the Frivolous Petitions Bill and, as a matter of urgency, initiate processes to decriminalise speech offenses in Nigeria by repealing the many criminal defamation laws.

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