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Mavi Mudiaga: Only Liars Shall Be Jailed for 7 Years

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As soon as I saw media reports to the tune of “Senate Proposes 7-Year Jail Term for Social Media Critics,” my first reaction was: “Are you kidding me?!” Several ideas ran through my head, first of which was my right to free speech, opinion, thoughts, etc. all guaranteed by our sacrosanct Nigerian Constitution and several international conventions, to which Nigeria is a signatory, blah blah blah. I put on my lawyer hat and activist armour immediately and was ready to write an article criticising the so-called Bill proposed at the Senate.

However, in about two minutes, I took off my armour and hat, sighed in relief and shook my head. Why? After reading the first report I stumbled on, I realised I was a victim of sensational journalism- typical of Nigerian media and surprisingly, BBC Africa. Such reports are misleading and misconceived and should be discouraged.

For the sake of clarity and precision, Section 13 (3) of the Bill apparently proposes that:

Anyone who intentionally propagates false information that could threaten the security of the country or that is capable of inciting the general public against the government through electronic message shall be guilty of an offense and upon conviction shall be sentenced to seven years imprisonment or N5 million (fine)” (underlining supplied).

First, there is no specific mention of “social media critics”- the provision says “anyone” who uses “electronic message”. Therefore, you do not have to be on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc., before you would qualify to be a potential criminal, if this Bill is passed into law. Sending a simple text message, BBM, Whatsapp message, Skype, etc. would fall under the category of “electronic message”. Further, the Nigerian National Assembly would be careful enough not to expressly mention a specific class of people (social media critics) so that the legislation would not be criticised as discriminatory and possibly unconstitutional.

Second, before a person would be found guilty of the proposed offence, s/he must have intentionally propagated false information. This simply means you are a criminal only if the information you have published/shared is FALSE. Technically, this could also cover bloggers and others who publish a “fact” and provide opportunity for people to comment, in circumstances where the comments published are false, and such false comments “could threaten the security of the country or [are] capable of inciting the general public against the government.”

The reason the original publishers of the “fact” could be jointly/severally criminally responsible for the false comments of their readers is the potential implication of the use of the word “propagate” as opposed to words like “publish” or “share”. “Propagation” has meanings such as “to multiply/breed”; “to cause to extend to a broader area or larger number”; “to make widely known”; “to spread and promote (an idea, theory, etc.) widely”, etc. Thus, whoever is in control of the approved threads of comments with false information, which have the effect stated in the legislation, could also be found criminally liable as a result of the propagation, or even under Section 7 of the Criminal Code, even if the initial “post” was true.

Third, it is important to exercise caution- there is a clear difference between critiquing and lying (disseminating false information). This is a clear case of black and white- there is no blur! A critique is a detailed evaluation/ analysis and assessment of something. A critique can be done without lying or providing false information. Therefore, if you are a critic (via social media or other electronic means), there is no crime; on the other hand, if you lie and your lie has the potential to threaten the security of the country or is capable of inciting the general public against the government, you SHALL go to jail or pay the fine.

In my opinion, this proposed provision should be welcomed with open arms. This would make everybody cautious of the messages and information they spread via electronic means. In Nigeria, almost every person is an activist, always eager to jump on a bandwagon, even without being adequately educated on the cause being fought. For example, #ChildNotBride campaign- though it was for a good cause, its foundation was grossly misconceived and some influential Nigerians (to my disappointment) openly attacked “the proposed law” to legalise child marriage. E.g. an n influential Nigerian “spat fire” in a widely-circulated video after apparently seeing the “videos” and “reports” of such law being proposed- that was false information (as no such law was proposed), capable of inciting the general public against the government. For a contrast and a real critique, see Maryam Uwais’ article. A critic’s opinion can be expressed with passion, drama and zeal absent false information.

Moreover, as a friend rightly pointed out, the crime being proposed is akin to the crime of sedition, which already exists in Nigeria and commands a lesser penalty (about 2/3 years imprisonment). But the law being proposed is specifically with regard to electronic messages, has wider reach and includes false information that could threaten national security.

In a nutshell, the reports being circulated about the proposed law are sensational at best, and have the capacity to mislead the public. The proposed provision applies to any and every person who communicates electronically, not just social media users/critics. Further, if the bill is passed into law, only those who propagate false information may be liable to criminal punishment. An honest critic/commentator/e-messenger has no cause to worry or complain about the proposed law.

Photo Credit: dreamstime.com

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Mavi Mudiaga is a Nigerian Legal practitioner, writer and recipient of several academic scholarships and awards. She holds a First Class LLB(Hons) from the University of Buckingham, and is presently an LLM student at the London School of Economics. She’s committed to the (re)education of people on trending legal issues. Her website is mavisblawg.com.

Mavi Mudiaga is a Nigerian Legal practitioner, writer and recipient of several academic scholarships and awards. She holds a First Class LLB(Hons) from the University of Buckingham, and an LLM from the London School of Economics. She’s committed to the (re)education of people on trending legal issues

32 Comments

  1. me

    December 5, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Funny how you stay coming with these “reeducation” articles and end up being the one needing reeducating. Anyone familiar with Nigerian politics will easily spot the various loopholes here. First, what exactly is “false information”? In our country where everything is twisted to suit a certain propaganda, the truth hardly ever comes out. Lets think back to the Borno boarding school massacre. TILL DATE, the Government insists on downplaying the number of victims. Eyewitnesses estimate a far higher death toll figure. In such a case, the Government could easily label one of such eyewitnesses as “intentionally propagating false information that is capable of inciting the general public against the government.”
    People are upset because instead of focusing on things that REALLY matter like Nigerian students being out of school for HALF A YEAR now with no end in sight, our lawmakers keep tackling NON-ISSUES that any sane democratically elected government wouldn’t touch.
    We need to do better and we need to stop justifying crap when it’s doled out to us. Please, Mavi, stop with these regressive campaigns. #bye

    • Jimmy

      December 5, 2013 at 10:40 am

      I like…….my thoughts exactly

    • Idak

      December 5, 2013 at 11:22 am

      see vexing.
      Mavi, kindly address the cogent points made by ‘me’. If only for the sake of that fat resume summary of yours at the bottom of the article.

    • Mz Socially Awkward...

      December 5, 2013 at 1:29 pm

      You are blessed; you and Idak below are simply blessed. I was reading this whole article and shaking my head as I went along – how does the writer not see the gaping holes created by using broad terms to create a crime? Unless this bill contains another subsection either in Section 13 or somewhere else which gives us definitions, I’m really not comfortable leaving the interpretation of “intentionally [propagating] false information” open for the Nigerian Police Force or judiciary to decide. El-Rufai, watch your back because I can see witch-hunts in the making… Plus, why monetize such a serious offense with a fine as an alternative to going to jail? It should be a jail term AS WELL AS getting fined for the crime. I foresee many instances of N5 Mill disappearing into the pockets of law enforcement officials…

      Oh, and if the Senate has a pressing urge to add more laws to the other few hundred which they don’t obey themselves, I’ve got a real beauty for them – “Anyone who intentionally sabotages the development and security of the country by failing to observe their legally mandated responsibilities as government officers or carrying out acts contrary to those responsibilities, shall be guilty of treason and liable to imprisonment for life.” And then we have subsections which go on to clarify that anyone found intentionally entering into or carrying out acts in view of entering into business arrangements with a government officers who are guilty of the offense stated in Section “X” and liable to face similar punishment.

      Still in the early drafting stage but I’ll be more than happy to flesh it out some more. Why don’t we have a go at passing that one into law? Hmmmm??

    • Cee

      December 5, 2013 at 2:27 pm

      #GBAM!! Love you Mz Awkward.

    • Idak

      December 5, 2013 at 2:44 pm

      I just stopped reading after the 1st sentence.
      My belle dey sweet me die. Mz S.A.’s pronouncement of blessing is not to be joked with. My weekend is made. Nwanne nkem, you are doubly blessed. The rest of the topic no interest me again. 🙂

    • mzhadey

      December 5, 2013 at 3:22 pm

      MSA please be my God Mother or sister from another mother…..dayuuummmmm!!!!!ur wealth of wisdom is awesome….God bless you maam…

    • Ready

      December 5, 2013 at 2:39 pm

      Yup. +1.

    • Old Soldier

      December 5, 2013 at 4:29 pm

      Me, dont take this harshly as I’m coming from a good place when I say you and your “supporters” are legally challenged. In other words, you are disabled by your lack of understanding of legal terms. 1. “false info” is info that can be verified as incorrect and info would be so determined by a judge/jury and it’s not the writer’s fault if your judicial system is plagued with corruption and inefficiency, preventing the truth from ever coming to light. 2. If there are actually higher figures than acknowledged by your government, those with evidence should provide evidence au contraire. Evidence 101: he who asserts must prove.

      Most of the other issues others have mentioned are matters to be settled by the executive arm of government and not the legislature. The latter appears to be the writer’s focal point or area of interest. And it’s their work that people need to be (re)educated on since most Nigerians share your legal disability. No hard feelings.

    • whocares

      December 5, 2013 at 5:25 pm

      You sir don’t seem to understand what is going on
      let me help you. The problem with the issue is this; not giving a statutory definition makes this law wide enough to become a tool of oppression. I will give an example by pointing you to uk statues that have a limiting effect, there is usually a definition or examples given for things banned and it is this statutory definition and guide the court uses to draw a margin of how wide or limited the given rule should be. There is none in this instance. Where is the court supposed to start from? Secondly, what purpose do you think this law serves? Lets not let our llbs and llms cloud our commonsense. Is it necessary? What harm in the huge scheme of things does disseminating information cause? Whether false or otherwise that such drastic solutions are being proposed? 7yrd in jail, and that exorbitant amount of money? You said it yourself our offices are full of corrupt people, so use that intelligent brain that you possess(?) and try to envision how this bill will truly pan out.

    • Old Soldier

      December 6, 2013 at 6:27 pm

      @ Whocares…. There is no statute that would not have an interpretation/definition section. The only portion of the statute that has been released is this S.13.3. For all you know, there might be a S.13.4 defining the terms that need definition.

      the statute is not only on s.13; it is only 1 section in a bill for an Act “to provide for the prohibition and punishment for electronic fraud and crime in all electronic transactions in Nigeria”.

    • slice

      January 8, 2014 at 11:27 pm

      Thank you. there is hope for Nigeria with correct thinking people like you, Idak and MzSA. we just have to look at china to know this type of law is not a good thing. they arrest bloggers left and right and before long those one are supposedly repenting and confessing that they wrote a particular article just to make money and of course, it’s always an article against the government.
      plus there’s already a civil action in law to obtain redress when someone writes falsehood about you. it’s called a defamation suit. you can also seek an injunction, etc. the gov’t should do that and stop trying to scare sahara reporters away from telling us Stella has no MBA (ok i just had to say that)

  2. Idak

    December 5, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Mavi, the crux of the matter is this – who determines falsehood?
    You know these barbarians have their own definition? They live and operate in a parallel universe.

  3. Hurperyeahmie

    December 5, 2013 at 10:25 am

    they are bunch of foolssssssssss

  4. Yaw

    December 5, 2013 at 10:32 am

    This piece doesn’t make sense to me. I know you peeps think we are gullible but am sorry we all re not! GEJ doesn’t want our voice to be heard and that is the reason why he wants this bill to be passed into law.

  5. Blk

    December 5, 2013 at 10:37 am

    The writer of this piece is not an intelligent person. Infact i believe this piece is sponsored by the federal government.

    The law may just be the last straw on the back of the Nigerian people. We have 100 million people living below a dollar and 25 cents and the ruthlessly corrupt politicians are worried that someone may blow the horn on them as it is obvious that social media is making them accountable or disgraced.

    The writer is a BIG FOOL and a BIGGER DISGRACE to the legal profession. I am sure the cheque was worth your soul.

    The people have seized to be foolish.

    • Jo!

      December 5, 2013 at 2:54 pm

      kilode? WHo stole your man?

    • intheoverseas

      December 5, 2013 at 9:36 pm

      No @Jo! honestly, I don’t support insultive critisms but THIS above was exactly what was going through my mind when I was reading the article. I’ve had just a stint in the legal profession and even I can see the gaping holes in this pronouncement which Mz Socially Awkward and me have effortlessly outlined. My conclusion is that regardless of the number of awards/ scholarships the author has bagged, she is clearly unaware of the reality in Nigeria.

    • justsaying

      December 6, 2013 at 4:46 pm

      **ceased**

      Least if you’re going to criticise a person’s intelligence, you should be able to do so flawlessly. You’re obviously not any smarter.

  6. solar

    December 5, 2013 at 10:50 am

    The thing is its the average citizen that will be on the receiving end. This is a country where information is not in the public domain, who determines falsehood? You obviously don’t understand the peculiarity of the Nigerian system

  7. smugdisguise

    December 5, 2013 at 11:01 am

    The Bill also cover electronic fraud, but the twitter ‘overloads’ and there followers were so quick to interpret it in a way that will suit their rights to ‘rant’. Agreed, there are more pressing issues to be addressed by the house, but really, people should understand a cause before ‘ranting’. I am not opposed to people rising up against a government that isn’t doing well, but understand what you are fighting for before fighting.

  8. SOOZIE

    December 5, 2013 at 11:09 am

    2015 is near and these people are scared of possible upheaval if they try anything funny. this bill should not see the light of day ‘cos i can already envision it being misused.

  9. Deee

    December 5, 2013 at 11:42 am

    Hiss, who determines if it’s a lie or not? Is it not our politicians that are used to denying everything even when it is glaring! Have you forgotten how the Presidency denied that Patience was ill in Germany and they kept on accusing the media of lying only for the same 1st lady to come out later and do a thanksgiving for the same thing! This law will simply be used to witch hunt and blackmail people who speak out about the government.

  10. Iris

    December 5, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Idak and “me” GOD BLESS YOU! Exactly what I said. Mavi, not all Nigerians are a bunch of idiots who get worked up over every single headline. In a country as corrupt as Nigeria who gets to say what is true and what is not? Abi, have you just landed in Nigeria? If we’re going based on your rather naive assumption that the same government serving as prosecutor, jury and executioner of the people will be the ones that will honestly speak the truth when they have committed an offence against Nigeria…(I can’t even finish that thought without laughing). I started off thinking this article was going to be tongue-in-cheek but it’s actually serious. Anyhoo the bottom line is that this is violation of freedom of speech. I have complained that this administration has been a mess but one thing I credited GEJ for was allowing people to exercise their rights to speak, so I hope this doesn’t get passed. If they have a problem with what someone says, provide proof, get a lawyer, and take them to court. Shikena.

  11. whocares

    December 5, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    Why you think this law should be welcomed with open arms i
    will never know. Lets go back to your definitions, and i will show
    you how draconian this bill will be should it be passed into
    law.firstly intentional propagation if false information. Everyone
    had explained the problem with the use of the word false
    information; without a definition, what counts as false. Is it when
    it hles against what is written by national news even though the
    information has been researched and a different truth has come to
    light? To propagate is to disseminate widely you say. The victims
    of this law therefore are not only the initial parties that spread
    the news, but every subsequent participators. Which fair law have
    you ever come across that has such a wide range of people in its
    ambits? Moving on. Information that threatens national security.
    Once more we have been left with no guide on how this could come
    about. Are we threatening national security when we research into a
    contentious issue, arrive at a different conclusion from the
    government (hence its technically false) disseminate that
    information to the wider populace and eventually international
    community, leading to international criticism of the Nigerian
    government. Technically, this can be said to affect security of the
    government can it nit? Do you see how the law you ate advocating
    aims to control freedom of information and criticisms? You are a
    lawyer, you should know better, you should know all laws can be
    exploited and seeing as the Nigerian government is not the poster
    child for truth and justice, what do you think the true effect of
    this law is?

    • whocares

      December 5, 2013 at 1:14 pm

      Sorry for the typos here and there. Typing from my phone is
      a bitch

  12. Uncle Joe

    December 5, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    This is quite a shame and the fact that it is published is more of a shame….Who decides what is misleading? If we have learnt anything from the Government is it not that everything is done in selfish interest and rather reckless to what citizens are affected….So if there is indeed ever to be a revolution in Nigeria to make things right, those involved in that can legally be thrown behind bars..

  13. Fashionista

    December 5, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    One word to describe the writer of this article – NAIVE!

  14. Theresa

    December 5, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    I appreciate where mavi is coming from, its good to have a balanced perspective of things before we go into activism mode. However dear Mavi, as many commenters have stated, there are more pressing issues that the Senate should tackle. For starters, Boko Haram, ASUU strike, unemployment, Health, security & safety, etc.
    I hope you are not too discouraged by the harsh criticism of some commenters though 🙂

  15. PoshB

    December 5, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    OMG, I am very worried about this potential law. Senate is heading towards human rights abuses… they will simply target anyone who is saying stuff about them that they do not like and imprison them for it. National security indeed, as if they give a sh%£t about protecting the country.

  16. Tom and Jerry

    December 6, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    Mavi, dont answer any stupid questions. If you intend to respond, respond to only questions that dont stink of stupidity and ignorance.aqth That there are other issues going on in Nigeria has no business whatsoever with this article. If you are commenting, comment on the subject. This article is an attempt to (re)educate- in the writer’s words- us on d fact that we are being misled by the media on what senate is working on. If you want a legal exposition (if you have patience to read), go to the writer’s site mavisblawg.com/2013/12/05/on-jail-term-for-critics/

  17. A-z

    December 7, 2013 at 7:19 am

    My own contribution. I’d like to bring everyone’s attention to a different issue on the proposed law, I have only a little legal knowledge (from self education) but somewhat significant IT expertise, so let me drop this bombshell and ask how they possibly intend to prove someone is actually guilty? With electronic message there is no way to prove beyond reasonable doubt that any information was sent by a person, let me give examples
    1) text message- someone else could have used my phone
    2) social media and email- someone hacked my account even if they trace the IP address and mac identifier/address to your device, short of having video confirmation depicting the exact time it’s almost impossible because even with that someone else could be remotely accessing your device

    The point I’m trying to make is that plausible deniability will be the order of the day as you won’t be able to prove beyond all reasonable doubt. Unless there is a provision for vicarious liability and even then the law has to upload its duty of fairness and explain why I should serve 7yrs for someone else’s action

    So I say let them pass their bill it’s an absolute waste of time. Good luck proving I’m guilty.

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