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ThursdayRapAround: Reincarnation Of Social Media Bill Through ‘Code Of Practice’

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By Michael Ayotunde

This is clearly not the best time for the proponent of ‘Code of practice’ for the regulation of social media.

Ostensibly in a deft move, the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) had in a press release made available through the agency’s Head of Corporate Affairs and External Relations, Hadiza Umar (Mrs), said the new rules became necessary in a bid to recalibrate the relationship between the people and the service providers.

She said, “the new global reality is that the activities conducted on these online platforms wield enormous influence over our society, social interaction, and economic choices, hence, the Code of Practice is an intervention to recalibrate the relationship of online platforms with Nigerians in order to maximise mutual benefits for our nation, while promoting a sustainable digital economy.”

The rules were clearly spelt out and from the submissions, they were products of immense collaboration among major parastatals of government – the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the Ministry of Digital Economy and the Ministry of Information and Culture.

From the foregoing, it is clear that any form of contravention will be met with stiff penalty. And such offender is to be punished in accordance with the dictates of the proposed Code.

This means offenders would have to be judged by the contents and dictates of several Acts which include: The Communications Act; National Broadcasting Commission Act; Nigeria Broadcasting Code; Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention, etc.) 2015; Advance Fee Fraud and other Fraud Related Offences Act 2006; Nigeria Data Protection Regulation 2019; Advertising Practitioners Act 2004; Sales Promotions of Nigerian Code of Advertising Practice Sales Promotion and other Right/Restrictions on practice Act 2004; Terrorism Prevention Amendment Act 2022; NCC Consumer Code of Practice Regulations 2017; Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Act (FCCPA) 2018; among others.

Suffix to add here that there was an outrage when the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed hid under a new Broadcast Code to tamper with the freedom of the broadcast industry and the operators of social media. Then, it was titled Nigeria Broadcasting Code 6th Edition; the Code was thrashed by a High Court towards the end of May. The judgment by Justice Ambrose Lewis-Allagoa thrashed the Code for its incompetence.

There is also the need for members of the public to be aware of similar attempts through the National Assembly to foist an unpopular media gag bill on Nigerians.

Both chambers of the National Assembly, in July 2021, buckled and suspended further action due to strong opposition from public spirited members of the society and key stakeholders to the Nigeria Press Council (NPC) and National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) Amendment Bill.

This happened a day after national dailies boldly printed ‘Information Blackout’ on their front pages to raise support against the proposed NPC/NBC amendment bill that would allow authorities to control the press and shrink civic and social media space. Sponsor of the bill who is also the Chairman House of Representatives Committee on Information National Orientation Ethics and Values, Hon. Segun Odebunmi, came out to say the House of Representatives has agreed to stay action on it.

Media sanctions have become more prominent and frequently discussed since President Muhammadu Buhari was first elected in 2015. Between 2017 and 2019, lawmakers considered a bill to regulate social media, and another bill proposing death penalty for anyone promoting hate speech. Both bills were suspended after public outcries.

This clandestine re-introduction of the so-called ‘rejected bill’ by the promoters, is however, one too many. It is one of the several attempts by those who feel threatened by the 21st Century challenge of information overload.

The course of online abuse cannot be justified in anyway. In fact, it should be condemned by all right thinking individuals. But to hide under this lacuna, to now feel it’s sane to gag operators is nothing short of autocratic tendency. The provision of the constitution is very clear and explicit.

Under Section 37 of the Constitution, people’s right to telephone and correspondence are protected. No ambiguity whatsoever. It is very clear that only a repressive government; a government that is averse to criticism and opposition, particularly due to glaring abysmal performance will stop at nothing to muzzle up the information space.

As a matter of fact, what stops the promoters of this unpopular code from using the same energy they are using to gag the press to address debilitating security situations in the country?

Why can’t NCC and the likes come up with high-tech innovations to track and stop marauding killers, kidnappers, bandits, terrorists – the monster that’s currently shaking Nigeria’s entity to its very foundation? Those are bigger threat to our nationhood; not the people that are busy expressing their frustration on online platforms.

Recalled that in December 2020, NCC took the gauntlet to subject Nigerians to an unwarranted assault, abuse and undue pressure when it announced compulsory linkage of NIN-SIM, failure to which defaulters risk losing their ability to make calls. The insensitivity was so tensed and glaring that the agency failed to consider the fact that the nation was just recuperating from about 6 months COVID-19 lockdown, and with economic realities still at their lowest ebb.

Fast-forward to 2022, what impact has the NCC’s NIN-SIM linkage make in the polity? Has it reduced or in any way helped to halt the volatile security situation in the country? Have they been able to stop the kidnap-for-ransom problem and other associated social vices? If responses to these questions are not in the affirmative – which ideally is the state of things – then whatever effort being taken to muzzle the social media space is tantamount to running after ringworm, and leaving leprosy behind.

The Code of Practice, as made available by NITDA, is nothing but a forum shopping by the same elements who are bent on stifling the media space – all for reasons best known to themselves. It is clear they are only trying to reincarnate, though the back door, a document that has already been dealt a death blow by the court.

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