Nigerians protested Tuesday at the National Assemblyagainst a bill they say would punish those who criticizeofficials and politicians on social media.
Critics say the bill attacks free speech and violates theconstitution.
But Senate leaders say critics do not understand theproposed legislation.
Social media and text messaging services likeWhatsapp are popular in Nigeria both forcommunication and for spreading news.
Mausi Segun is an expert on Nigeria and works forHuman Rights Watch. She said the bill was written to “stifle, and to have a chilling effect on, freedom ofspeech.”
Segun said the bill would give officials the power to fineor jail people who publish an “abusive statement”against organizations or individuals. She said shedislikes another part of the bill that would let officials jailsomeone who spreads, in the bill’s words, “falseinformation.”
People could be sentenced to two to seven years inprison and fined between $10,000 and $25,000.
Segun said Nigeria has laws that punish people forpublishing information that is wrong. She says the newbill is not necessary.
She said lawmakers should be working to deal with the Boko Haram terroristgroup, violence and corruption rather than trying to limit free speech.
AlJazeera reported that Internet activists, technology experts and rightsgroups have joined “to call for the withdrawal of (the bill).” They are using thehashtag #NoToSocialMediaBill.
Senator Aliyu Sabi is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Media andPublic Affairs. He said many Nigerians misunderstand the intent of the bill.
InformationNigeria.com reported he said the bill was written “to protect allindividuals and institutions, including journalists and social media users.” Hesaid “the senate is committed to freedom of speech and a fully inclusive andparticipatory democracy.”
Sabi said the Senate “is conscious of its responsibility to the people and will not do anything that will stifle participation and inclusion.”
AlJazeera reported the senate president and minority leader support the bill.
Japheth Omojuwa writes often on social media and on blogs. He says hedoes not believe the bill will become law. But he said “if it gets passed, it putsyou in a situation where you’re mentally, subconsciously afraid to questionthose in authority and those in government.”
He says if the bill is approved he would leave Nigeria.
A senate committee will hold hearings on the bill. Critics and supporters mayspeak at the hearings. The committee will decide if the full senate should voteon the bill.
If the senate approves it, it must also be approved by the House ofRepresentatives and then signed by the president before it can become law.
But President Muhammadu Buhari does not appear to support the bill. He is aformer military leader who suppressed free speech in the 1980s. In astatement posted on Facebook, his spokesman said the president would not support “any legislation that may be inconsistent with the constitution ofNigeria.”