On the 12th of June 2019, Nigeria’s secret police announced a nationwide crackdown on persons who allegedly post inciting comments on social media; a clear violation on citizens’ freedom of speech. This announcement followed their declaration that some social media users were arrested for posting “inciting comments” on social media. It will be interesting to note that these arrests happened on Nigeria’s Democracy Day.
Followers of Nigeria’s digital space, in recent years, will know that these developments do not come as a surprise to human rights advocates. The Nigerian Government has been investing in monitoring and policing social media expressions by citizens.
Nigeria has experienced a huge decline in human rights enforcement and protection. Several activists have been arrested for comments they posted on their social media handles and online blogs. Social commentators have been arrested by security operatives for offenses in violation of preposterous provisions of archaic laws and on trumped-up charges.
The question I ask is how does a country celebrate her transition from military dictatorship to democracy by arresting citizens for posting comments on social media? Social media is awash with commentary that Nigeria, in this present dispensation, is not a democracy, but a country under civilian rule.
Freedom of speech is the right to articulate one’s opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation or censorship. The term freedom of expression is sometimes used synonymously, but includes any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used.
Political office holders have leaned on laws formulated pre-independence to violate individual rights and abuse online bloggers and commentators. However, a recent law has joined the fold of vexatious laws that restrict freedoms of expression, and the section of this law relating to cyberstalking has been leaned upon to conduct random arrests. Section 24 of the Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention, Etc) Act, 2015, defines, describes and penalises a crime known as Cyberstalking.
We find ourselves sliding down the slippery slope of
- What can be said?
- What cannot be said?
- Should an evolving democracy adopt methods of taking laws out of context to crush dissenting voices?
- Should laws which muzzle freedom of expression be enacted in a democracy?
- Where does this leave our democracy?
- and Where does the right to free speech stop?
Freedom of expression is an essential ingredient for a thriving democracy, as it enables the free flow of information and ideas. The right to freedom of expression is one of the most fundamental of all freedoms, as it is one of the basic foundations of democracy. Without this freedom, we cease to have a democracy. Freedom of expression extends to the freedom of thought, conscience, cultural expression, and intellectual inquiry. The expression of offence or shock is also considered speech, which deserves protection. This freedom guarantees every citizen’s right to speak and write openly without State interference, including the right to criticise injustices, illegal activities, and the incompetence of the government without fear of reprisal.
In discussing this right, we must remember that this freedom supposes responsibility. This brings the debate down to whether social media comments and online blogs are done with irresponsibility, especially with their expression of shock at the government’s ineptitude in guaranteeing the security of lives and property. A violation of Section 24 of the Cyber Crimes Act 2015 would require a fundamental element, which is the deliberate spread of false information with an intent to cause harm. Before the conduct of an arrest, are law enforcement agents careful enough to identify whether there is a deliberate falsehood being spread online with the intention to cause harm, or are they arresting an active citizen calling the Government to action by demanding good governance?
As citizens, we cannot let our democracy get sucked into the black hole of arbitrary arrests for digital expressions, otherwise, Nigeria will be taken back to pre-independence times, where citizens were not allowed to express their discontent with colonial masters. Nigeria’s democracy is threatened if the federal and state governments and their agencies decide to tow this line of irresponsible governance.
The State’s primary obligation is the security and welfare of its citizens. Section 14 of the 1999 Constitution provides that the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be a State based on the principles of democracy and social justice. Fundamental rights are rights accorded to us because we are human. Once these rights are taken from us or threatened by any machinery, then our humanity is inadvertently taken away from us. In conclusion, we must remember that true freedom is not just the ability to say yes, but also the ability to say no.