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Media Rights Agenda, 8 Others File Suit over Nigeria’s Twitter Ban

Nine Non-governmental Organisations (NGO’s) and journalists have brought the Federal Republic of Nigeria before the ECOWAS Court over the decision of the Nigerian government to suspend access to ‘Twitter’ a social media platform on the internet.

In an application with suit number ECW/CCJ/APP/29/21 filed on 16th June 2021, the Applicants which included the Media Rights Agenda, an NGO active in the promotion and protection of the press freedom and Freedom of Expression, alleged that the indefinite suspension of Twitter violates their right to freedom of expression and interferes with the professional duties of the sixth to ninth Applicants who are journalists.

The Applicants equally filed an application for interim measures seeking orders of the Court to restrain the Nigerian government and its agents from imposing unlawful sanctions on Twitter and other social media platforms; from intimidation, arrest or detention or prosecution of the Applicants and other users of Twitter and other social media platforms; from imposing unlawful restriction on the Applicants’ and other social media users’ access to Twitter and other social media platforms; and from shutting down or restricting access to internet, pending the determination of the suit before the Court.

In the initiating application, they claimed that Twitter was blocked from social media platforms in Nigeria following a statement issued on 4th of June 2021 by Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed citing the “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence”.

The Minister also directed online broadcast service providers operating in Nigeria to apply for broadcast licence.

They added that the government through a statement issued on 5th June 2021, described the removal of the president’s tweet on Twitter as disappointing and an indication of misunderstanding of the present challenges bedevilling the country describing the tweet as a “statement of fact” rather than a threat.

According to the application, the statement inferred that the spread of misinformation and fake news, and the disruptive and divisive influence of Twitter contributed to the temporary suspension of Twitter from Nigeria’s internet space.

However, the Applicants averred the action of the Nigerian government was provoked by Twitter’s decision to delete the Nigerian president’s tweet in which it compared attacks on government facilities in the country’s South-East to the violent incidents during Nigerian civil war of 1967 and government’s readiness to quash such tendencies.

The Applicants affirmed that Twitter’s management pulled down the president’s tweet on the grounds that it violated its “abusive behaviour rules,” and in a 5th June 2021 tweet, expressed concern over the blocking of its operation in Nigeria thereby infringing on the fundamental right to access free and open internet.

Media Rights Agenda and the eight others also affirmed that the suspension of Twitter has affected the performance of their professional duties and general access to vital news/information by obstructing communication between businesses and clients, networking with partners and its adverse implication on businesses, lives and rights of numerous Nigerian Twitter users.

They averred that the suspension was an arbitrary act without justification under law as it interfered with their right to seek, receive and impart information.

Relying on Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Section 39 of the Constitution of Nigeria, and Article 66(2) of the ECOWAS Revised Treaty guaranteeing the respect of the rights of journalists, the Applicants urged the Court to hold Nigerian government liable for the continuous violation of their fundamental human right and for breaching its international obligations by banning Twitter and threatening to prosecute violators of the ban.

They are seeking reliefs of the Court among others, declarations that the indefinite suspension of Twitter in Nigeria is a continuous violation of the Applicants’ right to seek and receive information and to express and disseminate opinions, a violation of the sixth to ninth Applicants’ right as journalists, and the Attorney General’s threat to criminally prosecute violators of the ban violates their rights under international human rights laws.

They equally sought interim orders of the Court mandating the Nigerian government to lift the suspension, restrain from future re-occurrence, and award reparation against the Nigerian government for violating their right to freedom of expression including press freedom.

Among the Applicants Media Rights Agenda, Paradigm Initiative for Information Technology Development, Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism, International Press Centre, TAP Initiative for Citizens Development and four journalists- David Hundeyin, Samuel Ogundipe, Blessing Oladunjoye and Emmanuel Nwakamri Zakari Apollo.

The four journalists particularly submitted that the ban on Twitter, a social media platform used in Nigeria for the real time sharing of information and ideas has obstructed the performance of their professional role as “watchdogs,” and generally affected the documentation of human right abuses and facilitation of active citizen participation in the affairs of the country and the promotion of accountability and respect for human rights.

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