Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has urged President Muhammadu Buhari to use his good offices and leadership position to “direct the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed to provide our organization with a copy of the agreement recently signed with Twitter, Inc, and to widely publish the details of any such agreement.”
SERAP also urged him to “direct Alhaji Lai Mohammed to clarify the manner and scope in which the agreement with Twitter will be enforced, including whether the agreement incorporates respect for human rights, consistent with the Nigerian Constitution 1999 [as amended] and international obligations.”
In the letter dated 15 January 2022 and signed by SERAP deputy director Kolawole Oluwadare, the organization said: “Publishing the agreement would enable Nigerians to scrutinize it, seek legal remedies as appropriate, and ensure that the conditions for lifting the suspension of Twitter are not used as pretexts to suppress legitimate discourse.”
SERAP said: “Publishing the agreement with Twitter would also promote transparency, accountability, and help to mitigate threats to Nigerians’ rights online, as well as any interference with online privacy in ways that deter the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression.”
According to SERAP, “Nigerians are entitled to their constitutionally and internationally recognized human rights, such as the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, privacy, peaceful assembly, and association, as well as public participation both offline and online.”
The letter, read in part: “Any agreement with social media companies must meet constitutional and international requirements, including legality, necessity, proportionality, and legitimacy.
“This means that any conditions for lifting the suspension of Twitter must meet the requirements of regular legal processes and limit government discretion. Secretly agreed conditions will fail these fundamental requirements.
“The government has a duty to demonstrate that the conditions for lifting the suspension of Twitter would not threaten or violate the enjoyment of Nigerians’ human rights online and that the conditions are in pursuit of a legitimate goal in a democratic society.
“SERAP is concerned that the operation and enforcement of the agreement may be based on broadly worded restrictive laws, which may be used as pretexts to suppress legitimate discourse, interfere with online privacy, and deter the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression.”
It added: “For example, the statement by the government announcing the lifting of the suspension of Twitter used overly broad terms and phrases like ‘prohibited publication’, ‘Nigerian laws’, ‘national culture and history’. These open-ended terms and phrases may be used to suppress the legitimate exercise of human rights online.
“Any agreement with social media companies must not be used as a ploy to tighten governmental control over access to the internet, monitor internet activity, or to increase online censorship and the capacity of the government to restrict legitimate online content, contrary to standards on freedom of expression and privacy.
“SERAP notes the interdependence of human rights, such as the importance of privacy as a gateway to freedom of expression.
“Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution, article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantee the right to hold opinions without interference, and the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers and through any medium.
“The Nigerian Constitution and human rights treaties impose duties on your government to ensure enabling environments for freedom of expression, privacy rights, and other human rights, and to protect their exercise.”
SERAP noted that “While human rights law requires States to prohibit ‘advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’, States must still satisfy the cumulative conditions of legality, necessity, proportionality and legitimacy in any agreement with social media companies.
“Your government has a legal obligation to promote universal Internet access, media diversity, and independence, as well as ensure that any agreements with Twitter and other social media companies are not used to impermissibly restrict these fundamental human rights.
“By the combined reading of the provisions of the Constitution of Nigeria, the Freedom of Information Act 2011, and human rights treaties to which Nigeria is a state party, there are transparency obligations imposed on your government to widely publish the agreement and details of the conditions upon which the suspension of Twitter was lifted.
“It is stated in the statement by the Federal Government that Twitter has reached an agreement with the government ‘to manage prohibited publication in line with Nigerian laws.’ We would be grateful for clarifications on the definition of ‘prohibited information,’ and the specific applicable Nigerian laws in the context of the agreement.
“It is also stated in the statement by the Federal Government that Twitter has agreed to ‘act with a respectful acknowledgment of Nigerian laws and the national culture and history on which such legislation has been built.’ We would be grateful for clarifications on the specific and applicable Nigerian laws, national culture, and history upon which the operation and enforcement of the agreement will be based.
“We would be grateful if the requested information and details are provided to us within 7 days of the receipt and/or publication of this letter. If we have not heard from you by then, SERAP shall take all appropriate legal action in the public interest to compel your government to comply with our request.
“According to our information, the approval was given to lift the suspension of Twitter operation in Nigeria effective from 12am 13th January 2022 following the memo sent to you by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Prof Isa Ali Ibrahim. The decision to lift the suspension was reportedly based on the recommendations by the Technical Committee on Nigeria-Twitter Engagement.
“SERAP notes that Alhaji Lai Mohammed on 5th June 2021, announced the suspension of operation of Twitter by the Federal Government, following which a seven-man Presidential Committee was set up to engage Twitter Inc. The Presidential Committee, in turn, established a 20-member Technical Committee, which reportedly directly worked with the Twitter team.”
The letter was copied to Alhaji Lai Mohammed and Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN, Attorney General of the Federation, and Minister of Justice.