Social media offers a platform for individual self-expression and the sharing of information. And the issues pertaining to this are boundless, permeating numerous  legal and social disciplines.

The law has struggled to adapt and for good reason: how does the law regulate this medium over the public/private law divide? Where do we draw the line between Freedom of speech, and hate speech? Should the federal government reserve the right to regulate the use of social media? And how would doing so not be in violation of every Nigerian citizen’s right to free expression?

Freedom of speech.

Three words that get thrown around and written about so often that what the expression means is more about misinformation than truth.

And misinformation can be detrimental to a democracy as young and as volatile as ours. Often citizens are left bereft, as they try to separate the wheat from the chaff in what is an unwieldy and yet liberating online social space. Online opinions in the Nigerian space range from the mundane to the succinct. Equal parts informative and collaborative, and yes indeed, dangerous and regressive.

Yet so inimical to the functioning of not just our democracy, but every democracy, is this right, that the framers of our Constitution considered it necessary to state plainly and assertively :

“Every person shall be entitled to the freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions, and to receive and impart ideas and information without prejudice.”

All of us live in an increasingly online environment, and we now constantly see behavior that would never be considered acceptable  in the “real world.” Social psychologists are having a field day picking apart tweets, status updates, and social network posts.

As we’ve often seen, people will say, write, tweet, share and post, just about anything. Safe in their cocoon of online anonymity, the average Nigerian is content to share his/her views on any matter, largely without fear of reprisal.

Yet, it must be said, for it often escapes us all: There are responsibilities that accompany all freedoms.

Social media, and the internet in general, makes it much easier to publish our opinions in a public forum – helping us to exercise our right to freedom of speech. Because of this incredibly accessible technology we are able to communicate like never before in human history, and it is forcing us to examine what our freedom of speech really means.

Our constitution gives us the right to express our opinions without consequences imposed by our government. It does not, however, give us the right to consistently and unabashedly share information that is libelous, dangerous or invasive in nature.

Recently we have seen how social media was used to usurp the right to privacy of a student at Babcock University, leading to her expulsion from the institution and public shaming that was at once, humbling and terrifying to behold.

Terror was what befell a  father of 15 in Jos city, Alhaji Ali Muhammad, when he was confronted by a mob of irate youth, incensed at a Facebook post they had seen earlier that day, claiming that over 200 of their fellow tribesmen had been killed eariler that morning, by Fulani herdsmen. Alhaji Muhammad never made it home. His charred and mutilated body was found 3 days later near the edge of the Jos-Abuja highway.

The Post, of course, was fake news.

These dangers, of unrestrained, callous disregard for facts, exist and any right-thinking government would be well within its right and elected duty to protect the citizenry from minacious malcontents, online or off. The Hate Speech Bill is a legislation long overdue

And yet, when freedom of information and the ability of an active citizenry to voice their views is willfully stifled, when questionable decisions are made and heart-rending setbacks occur; too often on such a scale as to leave our society staggered by the occurrence, social media has often been the most wide-reaching avenue, wherein we as citizens voice our concerns to a government oft perceived as untrustworthy and overreaching.

And that is the genesis of the problem of free speech, and social media, in the Nigerian context. In a nation wherein those officials entrusted by the people to uphold and defend the law, are so often seen to ignore or outright invalidate it, can we trust that these same people, would not use this bill to quell, silence, punish or make illegal, dissent and opposition?

This is the nation where a sitting governor, filmed on video pocketing tens of thousands of dollars in unaccounted funds, still serves as the chief executive of the nation’s second most populous state. Where a then senator-elect, having been filmed assaulting a nursing mother in full view of onlookers, still walks the halls of the national assembly. Yet still these officials have the temerity to openly mock not just the law, but the very people who put them in power.

Without the free nature of social media, these stories might have never reached us. Our discontent would have gone, as so often it is, unnoticed. The Nigerian media, and institution well over a century old, as prolific and vociferous as it is, is often hamstrung by what passes for government oversight, and mired, unfortunately, in its own tale of corruption.

Think about the recent debates on SARS, kidnappings, detentions, episodes of malfeasance by civil servants, the sex-for-grades scandal, all the unjust, ill-thought out actions of the administration and the conduct of modern warfare. These policies affect millions of people across the nation every day and can affect anyone – wives, children, fathers, aunts, friends , cousins, friends, employees, bosses, clergy and even, as we have seen of recent, career politicians – at any time. None of these stories, would have been possible, and some of them would have never even gained the attention of those with the power to effect change, without the cadence of our voices. Without social media.

There is a clear and unmistakable distinction between citizens, who have rights and privileges protected by the state, and subjects, who are under the complete control and authority of the state.

We are Citizens. Nigerian citizens. The legacy we inherited is one of toil and suppression. Of men and women who did not cower to a state, bent on maintaining control over a citizenry it refused to be accountable to. Neither this government, nor any before it, has ever proven itself worthy, of a trust, so encompassing that we would readily hand to them, our right to speak, to be heard, to be critical, to be listened to. Whether they want to hear us or not

We must Say No to the Social Media bill. Not only because our freedom of speech is sacrosanct, but because we do not wish to allow such legal or political precedent to take hold, that one day, for the “crime” of simply speaking our minds, we will all be Dadiyata.

Faiz Aliyu is a Development Specialist and Head of Communications at the Network of Incubators and Innovators in Nigeria (NINE). His is currently pursuing a postgraduate degree at the University of Lincoln.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Nigerian Diary.