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Nigeria's Frivolous Petitions Bill "a threat to democracy"

Placards hang from a gate at the entrance of the Daily Independent newspaper, as journalists (not pictured) protest over poor working conditions in Ogba, district of Lagos, 28 October 2015
Placards hang from a gate at the entrance of the Daily Independent newspaper, as journalists (not pictured) protest over poor working conditions in Ogba, district of Lagos, 28 October 2015

REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

This statement was originally published on mediarightsagenda.net on 9 December 2015.

The Partnership for Media and Democracy in Nigeria (PAMED) has carefully studied the content of the Frivolous Petitions (Prohibition, etc.) Bill, 2015 sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na'Allah, representing Kebbi South Senatorial District.

Following the painstaking study, the PAMED comprising the Institute of Media and Society (IMESO), Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and the International Press Centre (IPC) has come to the conclusion the bill constitutes a threat to democracy because it seeks to repress social media, conventional media, civil society and the citizenry as a whole.

In the light of all the pressing development challenges confronting the country – which should be the priorities of the Senators and all other persons exercising any form of political power or authority – the PAMED is of the view that the bill itself is frivolous and unwarranted.

The bill, through its frivolous content and malicious intent, seeks to achieve nothing other than undermine freedom of expression, press freedom, and public participation in governance and democracy.

For example, section 3 of the bill states that “…..any person who makes any allegation and or publish[es] 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.”

Section 4 of the bill also states: “where any person through text messages, tweets, WhatsApp, or through any social media post[s] 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.”

PAMED therefore affirms that the bill violates all the norms of democratic practise, freedom of expression, press freedom, transparency and accountability as well as open governance.

PAMED further holds that the bill completely negates the letters and spirit of important international conventions to which Nigeria is a signatory – including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19) and the African Charter on Human Rights (Article 9) – all of which affirm the right of citizens to hold opinion, freely express themselves and freely disseminate information.

If the bill becomes law, it will have the effect of imposing an unwarranted pre-condition for the exercise of this right, which is now globally recognized as not just a fundamental right in itself but also as an enabler of all other rights, including other civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

PAMED wishes to inform the senators that by seeking to gag the press through the Frivolous Petitions Bill, they are actually subverting the constitution which they have sworn to uphold, particularly section 22 of chapter II which states unequivocally that: “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people.”

PAMED contends that it is an exercise in frivolity for a national legislature to suggest that any citizen wishing to write a petition or make an allegation or that any media outlet seeking to publish such a petition or allegation should first be subjected to the unnecessary hardship of going to a high court to depose to an affidavit before proceeding. It is clearly unheard of anywhere in the world.

PAMED deems it necessary to remind the senators that being elected representatives of the people does not transform them into untouchable gods who cannot be criticised by those that they ought to be serving.

Senators are indeed nothing but mere public servants who the citizens, the media and the civil society are free to make accountable through any legitimate means including petitions, criticisms, allegations of non-performance or misconduct and the publication of such in any media of their choice, a right guaranteed them by the Nigerian Constitution as well as regional and international human rights instruments.

In this circumstance, PAMED believes that the only path of honour left for the Nigerian Senate is to immediately and without any further ado drop the bill, otherwise it would continue to bring upon itself more pubic odium, derision and protests.

SIGNED:

Dr. Akin Akingbulu
Executive Director, Institute of Media and Society (IMESO)

Edetaen Ojo
Executive Director, Media Rights Agenda (MRA)

'Lanre Arogundade
Director, International Press Centre (IPC)

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