The Nigeria Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki has debunked claims that the decision of the Nigerian Senate to discuss the proposed Bill For An Act To Prohibit Frivolous Petitions And Other Matters, popularly referred to in the public space as the ‘Social Media Bill’, is not intended to gag press freedom or clamp down on the press, as being widely speculated both in Nigeria and globally.
Senator Saraki made this disclosure in a snap interview with newsmen, during the thanksgiving service reception for the Senator representing Delta North Senatorial zone, Senator Peter Nwaoboshi, in Ibusa, Delta state.
The Senate President, while noting that the bill has attracted undue attention as a result of the misrepresentation which has been given to the particular section dealing with the social media, was quick to assure that the intention of the bill was to address the publication of obnoxious materials in the public space and does not in any way intend to gag the press, especially the social media, from performing the dedicated function of disseminating information to the people.
Saraki said: “First, let me say here that there is nothing like a social media bill, as been carried in the press. What is before the Senate is a Bill For An Act To Prohibit Frivolous Petitions And Other Matters, and the social media is one of the proposed sections which the Bill seeks to address. It is a comprehensive bill and so it will be wrong for anyone to say that it only deals with the social media”.
Senator Saraki, who further explained that the social media was an integral part of the media machinery and has been quite influential in the determination of the political direction of the country, stated emphatically that the intention of the bill was not to gag the press or clamp down on press freedom in the country, adding that Nigerians would be happy when the final draft bill has been fully discussed and appropriate action taken on it by the Nigerian Senate.
“How can we ban social media in the country, when the social media even helped some of us to win our elections? We know the importance the social media played in the last elections we cannot even be thinking of banning or clamping down on it. I want to assure Nigerians that we do not intend to censor the press or reduce press freedom in any way, with this bill”, the Nigerian Senate President assured.
Senator Bukola Saraki was accompanied to the thanksgiving event by other members of the Senate, including Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu and Senators Dino Melaye and Ighoya ta Amori, amongst others.
The draft bill to “Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith,” proposed by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah from the ruling All People’s Congress party (APC), begins by making it illegal to start any type of petition without swearing an affidavit that the content is true in a court of law.
“A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected therewith” seeks to compel critics to accompany their petitions with sworn court affidavit, or face six months imprisonment upon conviction.
An extract of the “Bill For An Act To Prohibit Frivolous Petitions And Other Matters,” reads thus:
“Where any person in order to circumvent this law makes any allegation and or publish any statement, petition in any paper, radio, or any medium of whatever description, with malicious intent to discredit or set the public against any person or group of persons, institutions of government, he shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment term of two years or a fine of N4,000,000.00”.
For the social media, the bill says, “Where any person through text message, tweets, WhatsApp or through any social media posts any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2,000,000.00 or both fine and imprisonment.
“Not withstanding anything contained in any law, it shall be an unlawful to submit any petition, statement intended to report the conduct of any person for the purpose of an investigation, inquiry and or inquest without a duly sworn affidavit in the High Court of a state or the Federal High Court confirming the content to be true and correct and in accordance with the Oaths Act.”
“Any petition and or complains not accompanied by a sworn affidavit shall be incompetent and shall not be used by any government institution, agency or bodies established by any law for the time being enforced in Nigeria.”
“Any person who unlawfully uses, publish or cause to be published any petition, complaint not supported by a dully sworn affidavit shall be deemed to have committed an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for six months without an option of fine.”
“Any person who acts, uses, or cause to be used any petition or complaints not accompanied by dully sworn affidavit shall be deemed to have committed an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for a term of two years or a fine of N200,000.00 or both.”
Polity watchers believe that if the bill for an act to prohibit frivolous petitions and other matters connected scales through in the Senate, it might not be business as usual for those who often make abusive statements on social media.
In defending the bill, Senator Na’Allah, who sought accelerated consideration of the bill, said: “Our past has portrayed us as a society where by mere expedience of writing a frivolous petition against public officials, you can have their right abused by taking certain measures that practically took away their right of presumptions of innocence only to be found later that the petition, as strong as it appears, on the paper actually lacks merit.”
“The bill seeks to provide punishment for frivolous petitions by making sure that only credible and. Verifiable petitions are presented for public use. The utility of the bill is to equally save the time for good governance and resources that go into investigating frivolous petitions. The bill would equally assist in shaping our negative thinking by elevating hard work over and above sychophancy and indolence,” he further explained.