Following public outcry over the social media bill that recently passed second reading in the Senate, President Muhammadu Buhari on Monday vowed that his administration would remain committed to the protection of free speech in line with democratic tenets.
The draft proposal of the bill to “Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith”, was sponsored by All Progressives Congress senator and Deputy Senate Leader, Bala Ibn Na’allah, fueling speculations it was an APC agenda to gag the press and stifle freedom of expression.
But Buhari, who reacted to public hostility towards the social media bill in a statement by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity Mallam Garba Shehu, said he would not sign into law, any legislation that might be inconsistent with the constitution of the country.
The bill, if passed into law, seeks punishment of up to seven years in prison or N5 million fine for anyone who willfully publishes false information that could threaten the security of the country or that is capable of inciting the general public against the government through electronic message.
It also seeks to impose a fine of N2 million or two years in prison or both for anyone found guilty of disseminating via WhatsApp, or any other form of social media an “abusive statement” with intent to “set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law”.
President Buhari, in his first official reaction to the controversy generated by the proposed bill, said he had sworn to defend the constitution of Nigeria and would not lend his hand to anything that is inconsistent with the constitution.
The statement, however, stressed that Buhari “is not averse to lawful regulation, so long as that is done within the ambit of the constitution which he swore to uphold”.
It also quoted Buhari as saying that free speech is central to democratic societies anywhere in the world.
According to the presidential spokesman, President Buhari stressed that without free speech, elected representatives would not be able to gauge public feelings and moods about governance issues.
He said Buhari acknowledged that as a key component of democratic principles, people in democratic societies “are so emotionally attached to free speech that they would defend it with all their might”.
Shehu added that Buhari is fully aware of the public reservations about the proposed legislation and assured that “there is no cause for alarm because the Senate is a democratic Senate”.
“The president won’t assent to any legislation that may be inconsistent with the constitution of Nigeria”, Shehu maintained.
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