It is no longer news that President Muhammadu Buhari has refused assent to one of the most progressive bills the national assembly has ever passed, that is the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill. The bill provides for the “protection of human rights online, protect internet users from infringement of their fundamental freedoms and guarantees the application of human rights for digital platform users.” The bill, which was duly passed by both chambers of the national assembly in 2018, after almost 3 years of thorough legislative work, was transmitted to the president on February 5, 2019, for the presidential assent as required by the Constitution.
After sitting on the bill for 44 days- fourteen more days than allowed by the constitution- the president declined his assent to the bill, arguing that the bill “seeks to cover too many technical subjects and in the process fails to address any of them exhaustively. These areas include surveillance and digital protection, lawful interception of communication, digital protection and retention etc. “which are currently the subject of various bills pending at national assembly. We, therefore, suggest that the scope of the bill should be limited to the protection of human right within the digital environment to reduce the challenge of duplication and legislative conflict in the future.”
To be clear, this same issue of the bill covering too many technical subjects was raised by a certain government agency during the Public Hearing at the House of Representative in 2016, and when asked to provide specifics, they could not. The bill’s focus remains the protection of human rights of the Nigerian people in the digital age. It touches several aspects of the internet and digital space with consequence for human rights. It, however, does not attempt to provide a regulatory framework for the technical subjects it touches beyond the scope of human rights protection. So, no, the bill does not fail to address its subjects exhaustively, it addresses them exhaustively as far as human rights protection are concerned.
The second part of the President’s objection was equally raised by the same government agency during the earlier referenced Public Hearing. The National Assembly apparently does not agree that a bill should be set aside because its content might conflict with other bills in the future, for the simple reason that these other bills might never be passed by the national assembly, and that if unforeseen circumstances do arise, our legislature has procedures for avoiding and resolving such conflict.
The National Assembly rightly decided that it was better to have the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill now and later follow it up with other laws that would complement it rather than conflict with it. If the President had signed the bill, there would still be no issue for the other “various pending bills” to become law. In fact, the National Assembly has continued to work on some of these bills despite already passing the Digital Rights Bill.
The civil society, media and active citizens have been vocal on the need to sign the Digital Rights Bill into law, as the rights of Nigerians remain unprotected online. Their disappointment at the president’s decision has been palpable. Freedom House called the decision disappointing, while Business Insider said, “the cost of rejecting the bill on the citizens mean a continued breach of data privacy, violation of human rights and a not too clearly defined legal framework for the judiciary to act on digital liberty cases in the country.” The Committee to Protect Journalists said, “Nigeria has missed a major leadership opportunity for digital rights in Africa and around the world. President Buhari’s decision not to sign the Digital Rights Bill is a disappointment and raises questions about his administration’s commitment to press freedom online.”
The good news in all this is that the president has indicated interest in signing a bill focused on “the protection of human rights within the digital environment,” and Paradigm Initiative, the group which has led the advocacy for the passage of the bill, has promised to continue its advocacy to make this a reality. “At stake is the state of human rights online in Nigeria, which is too important to abandon, and which we have dedicated ourselves to protect,” the group said. Whatever version of the Bill is eventually signed, Nigerians must ensure it is a version that does not only protect human rights online but also guarantees “human rights within the context of emerging innovative technologies, security concerns, increasing citizen participation in governance and democratic processes”
Sodiq Alabi tweets from @SodiqAlabi1.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Nigerian Diary