Red Tape

A Perceived Government Overreach Unsettles Social/Online Media In Nigeria

By  |  June 14, 2022

In a press release that became public around dusk on a public holiday marking Democracy Day in Nigeria, the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) announced a Code of Practice for social/online media that could ironically be perceived as fundamentally undemocratic.

The Agency announced it has collaborated with regulatory agencies and stakeholders to develop a Code of Practice for what it calls “Interactive Computer Service Platforms/Internet Intermediaries (Online Platforms),” as directed by Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari.

The goal, it says, is to “protect the fundamental human rights of Nigerians and non-Nigerians living in the country, as well as define guidelines for interacting in the digital ecosystem.” However, locals have turned their noses up at the proposal, concerned it has an eerie resemblance to a covert attempt to further suppress freedom of expression and information in Nigeria.

The details contained in NITDA’s new move have mostly stirred scepticism and dread, to some extent, in a local media space acutely aware of the record of muzzling and the anti-dissent designs of the present administration. Twitter was infamously blocked off in Nigeria for seven months by the government after the social media platform deleted tweets by President Buhari perceived as incendiary and in contravention of Twitter’s rules.

Government officials have also displayed a desire to censor social media on multiple occasions, and there have been incidents of harassment, abuse and intimidation targeted at perceived dissenting persons observed to be platformed by online/social media – most notably, in the aftermath of the momentous #EndSARS protests of 2020. Thus, the news from NITDA has not been received well.

NITDA’s Draft Code of Practice lists a raft of conditions for the operations of social/online media platforms such as Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Google, and TikTok, among others, in the country – with some conditions more questionable than others.

NITDA is requiring media sharing platforms to; establish a legal entity in Nigeria; appoint a designated country rep to interface with local authorities; and abide by all regulatory demands, including tax obligations. The more overbearing aspects are seen in the areas addressing what was stated as “managing prohibited publication in line with Nigerian laws.”

This mandates online platforms to not only provide a comprehensive compliance mechanism to stem “prohibited contents and unethical behaviour on their platforms” but also inform on their users in the country, effectively.

NITDA is the policy-developing and implementing arm of the Federal Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, with the sole responsibility of controlling ICT-related activities in the country. But the Agency appears to be dealing with a bit of a reputation problem at the moment, given the somewhat obnoxious authoritarian governance posture it seems to have adopted under its present and former leadership, as well as its observed commitment to being a partisan control tool for the ruling class.

NITDA, in its press release, made the sweeping stipulation that social/online media sharing platforms are to “provide information to authorities on harmful accounts, suspected botnets, troll groups, and other coordinated disinformation networks and deleting any information that violates Nigerian law within an agreed time.”

The non-specific, sweeping, overbearing nature of this ambiguous stipulation, and the lack of definition about what is to be considered “harmful accounts” or “disinformation,” as well as who gets to make that determination, has unsettled many Nigerians.

Some concerns express wariness of the intentions of an unpopular ruling class keen on clinging on to power as the country approaches a crucial stage in the run-up to next year’s general elections.

The concerns are not unfounded. Nigeria’s current administration has a disturbingly poor record when it comes to press freedom, and information distortion/blackout has marred the regime. The new Code of Practice is perceived to possess the power to deepen the suppression.

In lifting the infamous Twitter ban in January this year, the government said the company had agreed to its conditions on the management of unlawful content, to registering its operations in Nigeria and to a new tax arrangement.

“The FGN [federal government of Nigeria] lifts the suspension of the Twitter operations in Nigeria from midnight of 13 January 2022,” said a statement from Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi, the director-general of NITDA.

However, Twitter has curiously remained firm in not acknowledging the concessions stated by the government, leaving considerable room for doubt as it only confirmed establishing a legal entity in Nigeria, the status of which remains up in the air.

It appears the government has now extended those same demands initially placed on Twitter alone to other online media platforms, though it remains to be seen how this would play out. In any case, Twitter’s noncommittal posture does stand for itself.

However, the Nigerian government has shown it can get global tech companies to do its bidding to an extent, as seen in the implementation of digital taxes stipulated in The Finance Act 2021 which are now being collected and remitted by digital platforms, from Zoom to Google to Facebook. It is fair to assume Nigerian authorities would count on channelling similar capabilities to enforce NITDA’s new Code of Practice if it comes down to it.

In the last few years, local and global tech companies have been destablised by various policy somersaults enacted by the Nigerian government amid a dwindling economy. Bike-hailing startups, crypto companies, and new-age fintechs have dealt with their fair share of regulatory headwinds in that time.

The regulatory uncertainty is also believed to have influenced the decision made by Twitter to overlook Nigeria and site its African headquarters in Ghana. Other tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon have favoured Kenya and South Africa respectively.

But in spite of the turn-offs in Nigeria, global investors have plowed huge amounts of capital into Nigeria’s bubbly tech scene on the promise of unlocking the next frontier. However, their conviction continues to be chipped away at as the Nigerian government pursues new ways to make tech platforms uncomfortable with unsettling demands.

Feature Image Credits: Stockholm Centre for Freedom

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