The Ban on Twitter in Nigeria and its Implications

 



The ban on Twitter in Nigeria and its implications


The Nigerian government banned Twitter after the tech giant deleted a post by President Muhammadu Buhari for violating its rules on abusive language.

Despite the global outrage that followed, including strong words of condemnation from top foreign diplomats in the country, the government remained adamant. However, it announced on Wednesday that it was finalizing an agreement with Twitter and the ban would be lifted in a few days or weeks.

Much of the comment that followed at the time focused on the ban's negative impact on freedom of speech and the economy.

Many Nigerians use the platform to amplify their grievances against the government and to reach more customers for their businesses. But Twitter's decision to delete President Buhari's post - in which he threatened violence against a separatist movement - was ill-advised. This has also become a point of debate in other parts of the world, including India.

The US-owned, private firm appeared to be interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign African state without enough background knowledge to understand the consequences of its actions.

At the time, Twitter said the post was in violation of its rules. The company has the right to enforce its regulations, but Mr Buhari's post was an official communication from the Nigerian president to his people, tweeted from a government account.

The same message was also broadcast on other media platforms across the country.

Is it right that a private American firm has the power to edit, without permission, the official communication of a democratically elected president of an African country? It doesn't get any more neo-colonial than that.

Nigerians have the right to be aware of their leader's plans and strategies, irrespective of how reckless his choice of words might be. They have a right to know even if he is planning something as heartless as unleashing violence on them.

Similarly, Nigerians have the right to respond to him as part of the interaction between the government and its citizens.

Mr. Buhari's tweet threatened violence against the Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob) movement, which is seeking a breakaway state in south-eastern Nigeria, home to the Igbo people.

Ipob was outlawed in 2017 - the group fought the ban in court and lost. While many Igbos believe they have been marginalized in many ways, such as being left out of key national leadership positions, the majority do not support Ipob's desire for secession.

Neither do they like its violent rhetoric against other ethnic groups - often referred to as wild animals by Ipob leader Nnamdi Kanu, who is facing treason charges.

In February, Facebook deactivated Mr Kanu's account for its hate speech, but he remained active on Twitter.

By deleting Mr Buhari's threats, Twitter was inadvertently taking sides with Ipob, and the group's supporters wasted no time in celebrating this assumed show of solidarity.

Following the backlash from the government in June, a few of the Ipob leader's tweets were removed by Twitter.

Similarly thoughtless involvement by Twitter amplified the divisions that derailed Nigeria's EndSars movement that oversaw protests against police brutality in October 2020.

Different groups were involved in planning and fundraising for the protests that began online and poured into the streets of cities across Nigeria for about two weeks.

But when Twitter verified the account of one group and not of others, it led to bitter mudslinging and the withdrawal of some groups from the movement.

"Twitter had inadvertently selected the leaders of Nigeria's social movement against police brutality and effectively escalated the rivalry that had already fractured the movement," wrote Nigerian journalist Ohimai Amaize.

 

Criticism

The tech giant trod where even seasoned foreign diplomats and global bodies fear to go. Many well-meaning outsiders have learned never to be too quick to meddle in the affairs of African countries, like Nigeria, where issues are often more complicated than meets the eye. They are increasingly embracing the trend of deferring responsibility to local organizations that better understand local dynamics.

Twitter's decision to set up a West Africa headquarters in Ghana is a good step in developing cultural competence.

The Nigerian government's conditions for lifting the ban include that Twitter must register its business in Nigeria and have a staff presence in the country.

Mr. Buhari's administration has shown little respect for the rule of law and freedom of speech, with a number of journalists and activists locked up simply for criticizing the government.

Banning Twitter completely is a barely concealed attempt by the government to stifle voices of criticism, and Nigerians have good reason to be worried.

But the power of Big Tech to make arbitrary decisions about who gets to say what, when and how, is equally troubling.

It raises questions about policing speech and censoring unpopular voices, amid the need for open public debate in a free democratic society.

If it was authoritarian for the Nigerian government to ban the use of Twitter, it was even more problematic for an American swiveling in a chair in Silicon Valley to poke their finger into the internal affairs of a sovereign African state.

  

Implications of Nigeria’s Twitter Ban

On June 4, 2021, the federal government issued a press release suspending Twitter operations in Nigeria. This happened after Twitter had removed the President’s tweet threatening violence against separatist militia groups in Southern Nigeria. The Press Statement cited “the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence,” as the basis for the suspension.

The announcement is unclear under which law the suspension was ordered; nonetheless, the Attorney General/ Minister of Justice have threatened to prosecute offenders who contravene the directive. In the statement, the Nigerian government also ordered the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately start the process of licensing all Over-The-Top (OTT) and social media operations in Nigeria. The NBC on June 6 directed all broadcasting stations to suspend the use of their twitter handles in compliance with the executive Ban.

Similar instructions were issued by the National Communications Commission on June 5 to all licensed telecommunications operators in Nigeria. The Press statement raises a number of concerns from a human rights standpoint.

In particular, there are significant implications for the rights to freedom of expression and access to information, as well as the rights to association and assembly online.

 

Nigeria’s Duty to Protect Human Rights

Nigeria is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which in Article 19 obligates States to guarantee the right to freedom of expression, encompassing the right to hold opinions without interference, and the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds through any medium regardless of frontiers. Restrictions on speech and expression guaranteed in Article 19 of the ICCPR are lawful only when they pass a three-part cumulative test:

1. It must be provided by law, which is clear and accessible to everyone (principles of predictability and transparency).

2. It must pursue one of the purposes set out in article 19(3) of the Covenant:

(i) To protect the rights or reputations of others.

(ii)To protect national security or of public order, or of public health or morals (principle of legitimacy).

3. It must be proven as necessary, and the least restrictive means required achieving the purported aim (principles of necessity and proportionality).

The UN Human Rights Committee has stated that “any restrictions on the operation of websites, blogs, or any other internet-based electronic or other such information dissemination systems” must comply with Article 19.1

The burden lies on the State to show that a restriction on the freedom of expression passes the aforementioned threepart test. At the regional level, Article 9 (2) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) also guarantees every person’s right to express and disseminate opinions within the law.

The African Commission Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa prohibits States from interfering with the right of individuals to seek, receive and impart information through any means of communication and digital technologies, through measures such as the removal, blocking or filtering of content, unless such interference is justifiable and compatible with international human rights law and standards.

The Ban unduly restricts the freedom of expression in contravention of international law for several reasons:

(i) There is no legal basis stated for the suspension of twitter. It appears that the suspension was ordered via executive fiat, which does not satisfy the legality principle of Article 19’s three-part test. The Nigerian Government should therefore publicly state the legal basis for the recent Press statement to allow individuals appreciate the scope of authority and their options for redress.

(ii) Secondly, the rationale for the Ban fails to meet a legitimate aim under Article 19(3) of the ICCPR. The bald assertion that Twitter is being used to undermine state corporate interests is not one of the enumerated aims for permissible restrictions.

(iii) Thirdly, a blanket ban on twitter constitutes a disproportionate response because it does not sufficiently target the illegitimate speech sought to be proscribed, but instead blocks access to an entire online platform. This contravenes Nigeria’s obligations under the ICCPR and ACHPR. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression has noted, state actions that restrict or censor content disseminated via internet in a manner that is clearly unnecessary or disproportionate are clearly incompatible with States’ obligations under international human rights law.

The blanket ban is an unlawful restriction on freedom of expression and other freedoms exercised online. The government should immediately revoke the directive in line with its international obligations and adopt measures to foster digital freedoms in consultation with all stakeholders.

 

 

 

 

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