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This week, Nigeria’s senators moved a bill designed to muzzle free speech on social media one step closer to becoming law. The proposed law could affect an estimated 15 million plus Nigerians who use social media, not to mention the doubtless high numbers of Nigerians who send text messages.

A man looks at smartphones on display at a shop at Wuse II business district in Abuja, Nigeria, December 9, 2014. © 2014 Reuters

The draft bill to “Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith” specifically targets users of social and electronic media. It passed its second reading in Nigeria’s Senate on Tuesday, and is now due to go to committee, where it will be further studied. If passed into law, it will restrict freedom of expression and a free press, which are protected by Section 39 of Nigeria’s constitution.

The draft bill, sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah, a member of President Muhammadu Buhari’s All People’s Congress party, seeks to criminalize two types of behavior.

First, it proposes a sentence of up to seven years in prison or a five million naira fine (US$25,000) for “anyone who intentionally propagates false information that could threaten the security of the country or that is capable of inciting the general public against the government through electronic message.”

Second, it seeks to criminalize anyone disseminating via text message, Twitter, WhatsApp, or any other form of social media an “abusive statement” intending to “set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law.” The penalty for this is up to two years in prison or a two million naira fine (about US$10,000), or both.

The bill is riddled with problems. The vague term “abusive statement” is not defined and leaves a lot of room for subjective interpretation. Also, the proposed sanctions are excessively heavy. But most troubling of all, the draft bill is simply unnecessary. The offenses it seeks to criminalize already exist under Nigerian laws including those on treason, defamation, and libel.

Nigeria’s lawmakers should focus on the critical issues facing the country, such as the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, communal violence, corruption, and impunity for crimes by Nigerian’s own security forces, rather than trying to muzzle non-violent expressions of genuine dissent and criticism. To stay in line with international and African human rights standards, Nigeria should be moving to decriminalize defamation, not creating new similar crimes.

Nigeria is known for its vibrant civil society and strong independent media. Ironically, it was free speech and a free press that helped bring President Buhari and his party to power in this year’s elections. The Senate should not succumb to a misguided attempt to reverse those hard-won freedoms.

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