Nigerian activists sue Buhari government over ‘repressive directive’ to broadcasters to stop using ‘unpatriotic’ Twitter

Nigerian activists announced on Sunday that they had sued the government of President Muhammadu Buhari over its ‘repressive directive’ to broadcasters to stop using what the government described as ‘unpatriotic Twitter’.

Twitter is an American microblogging and social networking service which allows users to post and interact with messages known as tweets. Registered users can post, like and retweet tweets, but unregistered users can only read them. Twitter was founded in San Francisco, California, where it is also headquartered.

On June 4, the Buhari government announced on Twitter that it was suspending Twitter in Nigeria over what it described as the “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” The ban came a few days after Twitter deleted tweets by President Muhammadu Buhari for violating the platform’s policies. The deleted tweets referenced the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War and discussed treating “those misbehaving today in the language they will understand.

Facebook removed the same posts from its platform, also citing policy violations.

On June 5, the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria announced that its members had received and complied with instructions from the authorities to block access to Twitter. The state also directed all television and radio stations to stop using Twitter which they described as unpatriotic.

On Sunday, Nigeria’s Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) said it has filed a lawsuit asking the Federal High Court in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, “to stop the Federal Government and the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Muhammed from using their patently unlawful directive to all TV and radio stations not to use Twitter, and to delete their accounts as a pretext to harass, intimidate, suspend or impose criminal punishment on journalists and broadcast stations simply for using social media platforms.”

It said the suit followed the order by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to TV and radio stations to ‘suspend the patronage of Twitter immediately’ and urging them to delete ‘unpatriotic Twitter’.

SERAP said it is seeking “an order of perpetual injunction restraining the government of President Buhari, the NBC, and Mr Lai Muhammed and any other persons from censoring, regulating, licensing and controlling the social media operations and contents by broadcast stations, and activities of social media service providers in Nigeria.”

In the suit, SERAP is also seeking “an order setting aside the directive by NBC and Mr Lai Muhammed asking broadcast stations to stop using Twitter, as it is unconstitutional, unlawful, inconsistent and incompatible with the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 [as amended], and the country’s obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

SERAP is arguing that “The government of President Buhari, the NBC and Mr Lai Muhammed have consistently made policies and given directives to crackdown on media freedom, and the rights of Nigerians to freedom of expression and access to information, and to impose crippling fines and other sanctions on broadcast stations without any legal basis whatsoever.”

According to SERAP, “The court has an important role to play in the protection and preservation of the rule of law to ensure that persons and institutions operate within the defined ambit of constitutional and statutory limitations.”

SERAP is also arguing that “where agencies of government are allowed to operate at large and at their whims and caprices in the guise of performing their statutory duties, the end result will be anarchy, licentiousness, authoritarianism and brigandage leading to the loss of the much cherished and constitutionally guaranteed freedom and liberty.”

The decision by the government of Buhari to ban Twitter has been criticized at home and abroad.

“The Nigerian government’s decision to ban Twitter and prosecute those who continue using the platform is a blatant and unjustified restriction on civic space and people’s right to information through social media,” Anietie Ewang, a researcher at the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, wrote last week.

Ewang noted that “millions of people across Nigeria, especially youth, rely on social media to engage in discourse and to share and access information.”

“Twitter was especially crucial for organizing during the October 2020 EndSARS protests against police brutality and other campaigns calling for government accountability. The authorities have proposed legislation criminalizing criticism of the government on social media, but citizens pushed back,” added Ewang.

On June 5, the diplomatic missions of the United States of America, Canada, the European Union (Delegation to Nigeria), the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom released a joint statement conveying their “disappointment over the Government of Nigeria’s announcement suspending #Twitter and proposing registration requirements for other social media.”

“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. Banning systems of expression is not the answer,” they wrote. “These measures inhibit access to information and commerce at precisely the moment when Nigeria needs to foster inclusive dialogue and expression of opinions, as well as share vital information in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

They said the path to a more secure Nigeria “lies in more, not less, communication to accompany the concerted efforts of Nigeria’s citizens in fulsome dialogue toward unity, peace and prosperity.”

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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