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Is Freedom of Expression Threatened in Nigeria’s Democracy?

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Nigeria’s secret police announced a nationwide crackdown on persons who allegedly post inciting comments on social media. This announcement followed their declaration that some social media users were arrested for posting “inciting comments” on social media. 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. There has been a significant 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 offences in violation of preposterous provisions of archaic laws and on trumped-up charges.

Freedom of speech: the right to articulate one’s opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation or censorship, or societal sanction. 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.

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 because 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 Sec 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 to cause harm or are they arresting an active citizen, calling the Government to action by demanding for good governance in the protection of Nigeria’s democracy?

Recently the country’s National Assembly introduced two separate Bills, popularly referred to as; The Hate Speech Bill and the Social Media Bill. Both Bills are intended to regulate social media use and the words used on social media and general media outlets. The bills recommend punishment for statements made in criticism of political/government officials and their families. In recent times, Nigeria witnessed the arrest of Omoyele Sowore, the founder of Sahara Reporters and a former Presidential candidate. Sowore was arrested by the country’s Department of Security Services (DSS) for treason and threats to National Security. Sowore had used his social media handle to call for a revolution with the hashtag #RevolutionNow. Sowore was making a call for citizens’ action against the problems facing Nigeria’s governance problems. The Federal Government considered his actions as a threat to National Security and he was arrested without bail for a protracted period. Also, a journalist based in Cross River State, Nigeria Agba Jalingo was arrested for treason because he had reported on the massive corruption going on in the State when he questioned the whereabouts of 500 million naira, which was intended for the establishment of Cross River Microfinance Bank. Abubakar Idris aka Dadiyata, a strong government critic was taken away from his home in August 2019, by persons who were believed to be state operatives. However, the DSS has denied their involvement in Dadiyata’s arrest and his whereabouts remains unknown.

The arrest of journalists in Nigeria have been occurring arbitrarily across the country. Sadly, these arrests have continued with impunity, with government officials disregarding court orders in some instances. These arrests and censorship have led to increased conversations on the shrinking civic space in Nigeria and how important it is for citizens to recognise these threats before it becomes too late for any of us to do anything about them, especially when these draconian laws are passed.

Nigeria, a signatory to all international treaties on human rights seems to be turning a blind eye to the critical provisions of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which specifies that; “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) provides that everyone has the right to receive information and have the right to express and disseminate their opinions within the law and in any manner they choose.

Amnesty International, in a document titled: A Guide to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights went further to explain that the “African Commission has indicated that governments are not allowed to impose restrictions overriding international standards on the right to freedom of expression. These standards only allow restrictions that are necessary to protect the rights or reputations of others or are needed to safeguard national security, public order, public health or morals. The Commission has said that any restrictions to freedom of expression should be the exception and are only allowed if a clear causal link can be demonstrated between the expression and the risk of harm to a legitimate interest. This means governments are not allowed to punish people for criticizing official policies or for calling for a different form of government. It means too that the authorities should not use censorship to prevent people from expressing their views. The authorities should not use laws, such as those concerning sedition (inciting others to rebel), against journalists or others who simply criticize government policies or publish well-documented accounts of corruption in government circles. It may be legitimate for a parliament to pass a law permitting a person to sue someone else for libel or slander (writing or saying something false about someone else that injures that person’s reputation or livelihood). However, the Commission has made it clear that public figures must tolerate a greater degree of criticism”.

Furthermore, The Resolution on the Right to Freedom of Expression on the Internet in Africa — ACHPR/Res. 362(LIX) 2016 — adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in Banjul on 4 November 2016 reaffirms the fundamental right to freedom of information and expression enshrined under Article 9 of the ACHPR and in other international human rights instruments and recognises the role of the internet in advancing human and people’s rights in Africa.

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 government, 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. This, unfortunately, is not guaranteed when journalists and social commentators are picked up at will by state actors who are threatened by criticism or dissent. Section 14 of Nigeria’s1999 Constitution provides that the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be a State based on the principles of democracy and social justice. We must ask ourselves if Nigeria is currently being led per the principles of democracy and justice and if our country is not abiding by these principles, what can we as citizens do to ensure the respect for rule of law?

By our humanity, human rights are accorded to us, once these rights are removed or threatened by any machinery, we get on the verge of losing our collective humanity. I end this by asking us to reflect on what true freedom means to us. Does it lie in our ability to say yes or is it in our ability to say no without fear of punishment?

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