MFWA condemns Twitter ban in Nigeria, calls for immediate restoration

The Media Foundation for West Africa condemns the ban on Twitter in Nigeria and calls on the country’s authorities to take steps to reverse the order that is denying an estimated 40 million Twitter users access to the microblogging and social networking site.

We are also concerned that Nigeria’s National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the regulatory body of all broadcast stations, has asked all radio and TV stations to immediately deactivate their Twitter handles and desist from using the platform to gather or disseminate information.

On June 4, 2021, Nigeria’s information and culture minister, Mr Lai Mohammed, announced the Twitter ban in a statement, stating that the site’s activities are “capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” Ironically, the Minister published the statement on Twitter ban on Twitter – and other mediums.

Twitter’s indefinite suspension came two days after the social media platform deleted a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari for violating the company’s policies. Referring to current secessionist moves in the southeast region, Buhari, a Fulani man from the northeastern region, threatened to treat “those misbehaving today” in “the language they will understand.” The President’s tweet had referenced the 1967-70 Nigerian Civil War, during which more than 1 million people reportedly died when secessionists from the southeast region sought to create an independent Biafra nation for the Igbo ethnic people.

The tweet generated a huge backlash because of its genocidal tone, causing Twitter to delete it. The following day, information minister Mohammed described Twitter’s action as “insulting.”

On June 5, the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators confirmed that its members, mostly mobile internet service providers, had received directives from the Nigerian Communications Commission to restrict access to Twitter.

Netblocks, London-based internet monitor, reported on June 5 that network data showed that access to the Twitter platform and backend servers “is now restricted on leading networks MTN, Globacom, Airtel and 9mobile.”

Twitter has responded in a statement that it is “deeply concerned” by its blocking in Nigeria and stressed that “access to the free and #OpenInternet is an essential human right in modern society.”

“We will work to restore access for all those in Nigeria who rely on Twitter to communicate and connect with the world,” Twitter added, with the hashtag #KeepitOn”.

Despite the Twitter ban, Nigerian Twitter users have been undeterred, using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to bypass government censorship and access the site. However, in a statement obtained by MFWA, Nigeria’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, ordered the “immediate prosecution” of those breaching the ban. Malami directed government agencies to cooperate with prosecutors “to ensure the speedy prosecution of offenders without any further delay.”

The MFWA finds this order contrary to the provisions of Nigeria’s 1999 constitution and is deeply concerned about the hardline stand of the government. Section 39 of 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.”

Criticisms trail ban

The Twitter ban in Africa’s most populous democratic country has generated a wave of criticisms and anger by the citizens, foreign bodies, and human rights organisations.

Human rights lawyer, and Board member of the MFWA, Femi Falana called the ban on Twitter a “provocative infringement.”

A joint statement from the diplomatic missions of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, Ireland, and the European Union said they were “disappointed” over the Twitter ban.

“We strongly support the fundamental human right of free expression and access to information as a pillar of democracy in Nigeria as around the world and these rights apply online as well as offline.”

Other notable bodies that have condemned the Twitter ban are the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria, Nigerian Guild of Editors, and the Nigeria Union of Journalists.

The government has in the meantime ordered that all over-the-top streaming services and social media operations in the country be licensed. Analysts fear that this is an indication that the government might want to restrict the use of other media and communications services like WhatsApp and Facebook that use data provided by internet service providers.

Many fear that President Buhari – who in 2015 prior to his election claimed to be a converted democrat – is planning another aggressive attack on free speech as he did in 1984 when he was the military head of state.

During his rule, Buhari promulgated a military decree that gave him power to shut down media houses and jail journalists for stories his regime considered unfavourable.

‘Hostile environment for press freedom’

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 2019, 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 for breaching the order to stop using their Twitter accounts to disseminate information.

The Media Foundation for Africa is deeply worried by the Twitter ban in Nigeria, as this amounts to a clampdown on press freedom and freedom of speech, which are both guaranteed in sections 22 and 39 of the Nigerian constitution, respectively.

We also believe that the directive by the National Broadcasting Commission that all radio and TV stations desist from using Twitter is an infringement on their fundamental right.

We urge the government to reverse the Twitter ban for the citizens to continue to express their opinions which are guaranteed under the Nigerian constitution, as well as Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We welcome the announcement on June 7, 2021, by the Nigerian Foreign Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama that the country was in talks with Twitter on the ban, and urge both sides to negotiate in good faith and with the best interest of Nigerian Twitter users as their priority.

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