September 27, 2021

Twitter ban, a threat to press freedom in Nigeria, experts warn

President Buhari travels to France for summit, May

Jos, June 10, 2021: Nigerian officials have ordered broadcast stations in the country to “immediately” suspend their patronage of twitter, the latest of such restrictions since President Muhammadu Buhari’s “civil war” tweet was deleted.

“Consequent on the suspension of twitter operations in Nigeria by the federal government over the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining the corporate existence of Nigeria, the National Broadcasting Commission directs all broadcast stations in Nigeria to suspend the patronage of twitter immediately,” a statement issued by the NBC executive, Prof. Armstrong Idachaba said, Sunday.

The statement asked broadcast stations to uninstall their twitter handles and “desist” from using the platform as a source of information for news and programmes.

Buhari’s tweet last week Tuesday, referred to the 1967-70 Nigerian Civil War, following recent violence in the country’s southeast, blamed on regional secessionist group, Independent People of Biafra (IPOB).

The post read: “Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”

The tweet “was in violation of the Twitter Rules,” an official statement said, Wednesday. But the Nigerian Information Minister, Mr. Lai Mohammed accused Twitter of “double standards”.

“The mission of Twitter in Nigeria is very suspicious. Has Twitter deleted the violent tweets that Nnamdi Kanu has been sending? Has it? The same Twitter during the ENDSARS protests that were funding ENDSARS protesters, it was the first to close the account of the former president of the US, Trump,” Mr. Mohammed said, Wednesday in a media address. “We have a country to rule and we will do so to the best of our ability,” the Minister added.

On Thursday, a threaded tweet on Mr. Mohammed’s twitter handle, announced the ‘indefinite’ suspension of the micro-blogging site “for the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence,” the statement said.

Many users on Friday struggled to access the site, with many resorting to virtual private network, a system that encrypts internet user traffic and identity, to bypass the ban.

Nigeria’s Attorney General Abubakar Malami on Saturday ordered the “immediate prosecution” of those breaching the ban. In a press statement, Malami directed government agencies to cooperate with prosecutors “to ensure the speedy prosecution of offenders without any further delay.”

“Provocative infringement”

Banning Twitter in the first place is a “provocative infringement” of Nigerians’ right to freedom of expression, and freedom to access information, human rights lawyer, Femi Falana told Premium Times.

Section 39 of the Nigeria’s current 1999 constitution says “(1) every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” Sub-section (2) of same Section 39 says “Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions.”

Sunday’s directive to broadcast stations to uninstall Twitter is “anti-press freedom”, said former BBC Correspondent and current President of the Nigerian League of Veteran Journalists, Mr. Gideon Barde. “The NBC went too far,” said Barde in a telephone interview.

‘Hostile environment for press’

Nigeria is ‘fast’ becoming a “hostile environment for press freedom,” Rights lawyer, Yakubu Bawa said. “It is as if we are in a police state; as if we are in a military regime. Even during military regimes, people challenged government through the mass media. This happening in a democratic dispensation is unacceptable,” Bawa, the Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association in Plateau State said in an interview.

The National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, Nigeria’s broadcast licensing agency said in February 2018, that it sanctioned 78 broadcast stations between October and December, 2017 for “breaching broadcasting codes”.

A local TV station, Channels Television last month received threats of sanctions for interviewing secessionist leaders. Many more stations could be sanctioned under the new directive, but Mr. Bawa says the government lacks legal powers.

“It is harsh, it is strict, it is draconian and illegal to order broadcast stations to uninstall their twitter handles when it is within their rights to install and operate it, especially when they have not been found to have used it for any unlawful act,” Bawa said.

The Nigerian Foreign Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama said on Monday after a meeting with diplomats that the country was in talks with Twitter on the ban. He however did not say when it will be lifted.

The EU, US, Canada and Ireland on Saturday issued a joint statement criticizing the ban. The global pandemic was a time when Nigeria needed to foster dialogue and promote information sharing, the statement said.