India’s IT minister on Friday accused Twitter of briefly blocking his account because of criticisms he made of the US firm in a standoff over new social media rules.
Ravi Shankar Prasad said that in a “gross violation” of Indian regulations, he was without warning informed that his account was locked because of an infringement of US copyright law.
The account remained out of action for almost an hour, he said.
“It is apparent that my statements calling out the high handedness and arbitrary actions of Twitter, particularly sharing the clips of my interviews to TV channels and its powerful impact, have clearly ruffled its feathers,” Prasad tweeted after his account was restored.
“Twitter’s actions indicate that they are not the harbinger of free speech that they claim to be but are only interested in running their own agenda, with the threat that if you do not tow the line they draw, they will arbitrarily remove you from their platform,” he added.
Twitter was not immediately available for comment.
The US firm has been locked for several months in a row with New Delhi over new rules for social media companies operating in India.
The regulations require firms to remove and identify the “first originator” of posts deemed to undermine India’s sovereignty, state security or public order.
Social media companies and privacy activists fear the vagueness of the rules means they could be forced to identify the authors of posts critical of the government.
Prasad on Friday said Twitter had not been adhering to the new rules because “it would be unable to arbitrarily deny access to an individual’s account which does not suit their agenda”.
Twitter insisted last week that it was making every effort to comply with the guidelines.
WhatsApp is challenging the rules in court, fearing that it will have to break its system of encryption that prevents anyone other than the sender and receiver from reading messages.
Other members of the team include the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice; Minister of Communications and Digital Economy; Minister of Foreign Affairs; Minister of Works and Housing; Minister of State for Labour and Employment as well as other relevant government agencies.
The statement added that Twitter had earlier written to President Muhammadu Buhari seeking to engage with the Federal Government over the suspension of the microblogging site in Nigeria.
“This is with a view to charting a path forward,” the statement added.
The Federal Government earlier in June placed a ban on the usage of Twitter in Nigeria citing activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.
Five non-governmental organisations and four journalists have filed a suit against the Federal Government at the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in Abuja.
In the suit filed on Monday, they asked the court to declare the indefinite suspension of Twitter in Nigeria a violation of their human rights under international law.
They also want the court to order the government to immediately rescind the suspension order and compensate them for the violation of their rights.
The NGO applicants are Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Paradigm Initiative (PIN), Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), the International Press Centre (IPC), and Tap Initiative for Citizens Development (TICD), while the journalists are David Hundeyin, Samuel Ogundipe, Blessing Oladunjoye, and Nwakamri Apollo.
The suit, lodged with number ECW/CCJ/APP/29/21 ECW/CCJ/APP/29/21, in a 73-page documentation, was filed on their behalf by Abuja-based human rights and free expression lawyer, Mojirayo Nkanga, under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Revised ECOWAS Treaty, and the Nigerian Constitution, among others.
The applicants claimed that Nigeria’s ongoing suspension of Twitter, which came into effect on or around June 4, violated their right to freedom of expression and interfered with the ability of the journalists to do their work.
Similarly, they alleged that the general situation in Nigeria with respect to human rights has created an environment where freedom of expression was stifled, stressing that it has contributed to creating a chilling effect on press and media freedom.
According to them, Nigeria has consented to be bound by the obligation to respect and protect the right to freedom of expression under the ICCPR and the ACHPR and therefore, any limitation imposed by the government on the right to freedom of expression can only be justifiable where the restriction is provided by law, serves a legitimate aim, and is necessary and proportionate in a democratic society.
Contending that these three conditions must all be met before any restriction on the right to freedom of expression can be considered legitimate, the applicants noted that the suspension of Twitter was not provided by law, that there was no justification for it under Nigeria’s domestic laws, and that it was done by the government in an arbitrary manner in circumstances where there was no public or judicial oversight, transparency or accountability.
They, therefore, asked the court to declare the indefinite suspension of Twitter a continuous violation of their human rights under international law, particularly the right to seek and receive information, as well as the right to express and disseminate opinions under Article 9(1) and (2) of the African Charter; Article 19(2) of the ICCPR and the rights of journalists under Article 66(2)(c) of the Revised ECOWAS Treaty.
They also sought a declaration that the government’s directive, through the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), for the deactivation of Twitter accounts in Nigeria violated their human rights under international law and that the threat by the Attorney-General of the Federation to criminally prosecute anybody found to be using Twitter in Nigeria following the suspension of the platform also violated their human rights under international law.
They urged the court to issue orders mandating the government to immediately take all necessary measures to rescind the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria and to take all necessary measures to guarantee non-recurrence in order to prevent the same violation from occurring in the future.
They also want the court to compel the government to issue adequate reparations, including restitution, compensation, and measures of satisfaction to them to be specified and submitted to the court, as well as to issue an order of injunction restraining the government, its servants, and agents from imposing criminal sanctions on individuals, including the applicants, who use Twitter or any other social media service provider.
No date has been fixed for the hearing of the suit.
Nigeria’s media and activists fear their country is slipping into repression after the government suspended Twitter in Africa’s most populous nation, where hyper-connected youth embraced the platform as a means of protest.
The decision on Friday, days after Twitter deleted a remark from President Muhammadu Buhari, has already provoked international outcry over freedom of expression and calls for protests online and on the street.
“It is very important we push back and fast, because they could go further,” said a social media executive at a major TV station who asked to remain anonymous.
More than 120 million Nigerians have access to the internet, and nearly 40 million of them have a Twitter account — 20 percent of the population, according to Lagos-based researcher NOI Polls.
France, by comparison, has only eight million Twitter users.
Nigeria’s numbers are explained in part by its large and youthful population, but also the influence of its diaspora and the online fame of its film and Afropop stars, said Manon Fouriscot, co-founder of the Afrique Connectees consultancy.
Studies also show that more than other social media platforms, Nigerians “use Twitter to give voice to the voiceless and engage government on issues that they feel are going wrong in the country in real time”, according to NOI Polls.
Last October, the #EndSARS protest movement against brutality by the country’s SARS — or Special Anti-Robbery Squad — police unit, which expanded into a call for broader reform, first exploded on Twitter before taking to the streets.
Backed by Afropop icons with millions of subscribers, and then relayed by major international influencers, #EndSARS was the most shared hashtag in the world for two days.
The protests that followed were the largest in modern Nigerian history, raising fears of wider instability before security forces cracked down on demonstrators.
Some Nigerian broadcasters are concerned the move against Twitter is part of a more general crackdown on the media.
The industry needs to work together to “adopt a strong and common answer,” said the social media TV executive, who has several thousand followers on Twitter.
Independent broadcaster DAAR Communications announced it had filed a complaint for damage to its economic interests. Others, such as Arise TV, were still using Twitter to share news from their offices in England or the United States.
“Twitter is, in Nigeria, and more and more on the continent, a means for civil societies to express themselves, to mobilise, to alert international public opinion,” said Fouriscot, an expert in the use of social networks in Africa.
Nigeria’s government said the Twitter suspension was needed because the platform had been used for activities that could destabilise the country.
With its suspension, Nigeria joins countries like China, Turkey and Myanmar that have all moved to restrict access at some time to Twitter and other Western social media.
Nigeria’s Information Minister Lai Mohammed on Wednesday defended the ban and said Twitter must register and licence locally for the suspension to end.
“Nobody in actual honesty can accuse Nigeria of stifling freedom of expression if anyone wants to be honest. But there’s one line you must not cross,” he told AFP.
Abuja’s decision got a nod of support on Tuesday from former US president Donald Trump, who himself is banned from Twitter and Facebook.
“More COUNTRIES should ban Twitter and Facebook for not allowing free and open speech,” his statement said.
The US-based social media giant last week said it was deeply concerned about Nigeria’s decision and is engaged with the government over the suspension.
Kian Vesteinsson, a research analyst on Technology and Democracy for the Freedom House think tank, said Nigeria had already been tightening online media controls in recent years.
On Monday, the national audiovisual regulatory body NBC asked all radio and television stations in the country to delete their Twitter accounts, and warned any use of the network would be considered “unpatriotic”.
The use of VPNs to sidestep government controls on Twitter will also be considered an offence, the ministry of information warned.
‘Return to dictatorship’?
But no such law has been passed by parliament and any such move would violate basic freedoms established in the 1999 constitution, the official date marking the end of Nigeria’s military dictatorships.
The UN and rights groups like Amnesty International have condemned the ban as a restriction on freedom of expression.
“Nigeria has slipped back to dictatorship,” Kola Tubosun, a Nigerian linguist and writer, said in Foreign Policy magazine.
“It appears we are back in 1984 under a military regime.”
That was a reference to the first time Buhari, a former general, ruled Nigeria after a coup before the return to democracy.
But Nigeria’s 2.0 generation has already begun reorganising itself on social networks under the hashtag #KeepItOn and trying to organise a popular protest on June 12.
On Monday evening, on ClubHouse, a social discussion platform that is becoming increasingly popular in Nigeria, all the topics up for debate were clear: “Resisting the Dictatorship?” or “23 years ago, Abacha Died Today,” referring to 1990s military ruler Sani Abacha, and “Has Nigeria learnt anything?”
The US has called on the Nigerian government to respect the rights of its citizens to freely express themselves by reversing its suspension of Twitter’s operations in the West African country.
In a statement issued on Thursday evening by the spokesperson of the Department of State Ned Price, the US explained that freedom of expression and access to information are both essential ingredients in any democratic setting.
“Unduly restricting the ability of Nigerians to report, gather, and disseminate opinions and information has no place in a democracy. Freedom of expression and access to information both online and offline are foundational to prosperous and secure democratic societies,” read the statement posted on the Department of State’s website.
“We support Nigeria as it works towards unity, peace, and prosperity. As its partner, we call on the government to respect its citizens’ right to freedom of expression by reversing this suspension.”
In a move that has caused ripples across the nation, many Nigerians in the wake of the ban devised several means to sidestep the blockade including using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).
Nigeria’s Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami had in a swift reaction ordered the prosecution of people using the social media platform in the country.
But the US government has faulted the move as well as the National Broadcasting Commission’s order to broadcast houses in Nigeria.
“The United States condemns the ongoing suspension of Twitter by the Nigerian government and subsequent threats to arrest and prosecute Nigerians who use Twitter,” the US noted.
“The United States is likewise concerned that the Nigerian National Broadcasting Commission ordered all television and radio broadcasters to cease using Twitter.”
Nigeria has one of the largest social media users in Africa. Over 120 million Nigerians can access the internet and about 40 million of them have a Twitter account — 20 percent of the population, according to Lagos-based researcher NOI Polls.
But on Friday, the government suspended Twitter days after the company deleted a tweet from President Muhammadu Buhari referencing the Nigerian Civil War and threatening to deal with those responsible for recurring attacks on public infrastructure.
The ban triggered a flurry of reactions from far and near. Top diplomatic missions and rights groups have condemned the move and critics believe it is an attempt to cage the opposition.
While the government has met with foreign envoys following the heavy outcry that greeted the suspension, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama says the tech giant is negotiating with the Nigerian government.
“There are discussions ongoing with Twitter, we will see how that progresses, so I cannot say for now the duration of the suspension,” Onyeama said after a meeting with diplomats over the issue.
Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed who is a leading figure in Nigeria’s battle with the US-based technology firm on Wednesday defended the government’s action, dismissing concerns about freedom of expression.
“What we are saying is that for all platforms, you must register in Nigeria. You must be a corporate entity before you can do business in Nigeria,” the minister said after the weekly cabinet meeting in Abuja.
“Whether it is Netflix, Iroko, or Facebook…they are all doing business in Nigeria, making money and they are not paying taxes. This is in addition to being able to regulate them. They are making billions of naira out of this country and they are not paying tax. That can’t be allowed to go on.”
A ‘Deeply Concerned’ Twitter
The minister has consistently questioned Twitter’s motive in the country, accusing it of double standards.
“We have a country to rule and we will do so to the best of our ability. Twitter’s mission in Nigeria is very suspect, they have an agenda,” he said while announcing the suspension of Twitter’s operations.
“The mission of Twitter in Nigeria is very suspicious. Has Twitter deleted the violent tweets that Nnamdi Kanu has been sending? Has it? The same Twitter during the #EndSARS protests that were funding #EndSARS protesters, it was the first to close the account of the former president of the US, Trump.
“And you see when people were burning police stations and killing policemen in Nigeria during #EndSARS, for Twitter, it was about the right to protest. But when a similar thing happened on the Capitol, it became insurrection.”
The social media platform in a statement, however, said it is “deeply concerned by the blocking of Twitter in Nigeria.”
“Access to the free and #OpenInternet is an essential human right in modern society. We will work to restore access for all those in Nigeria who rely on Twitter to communicate and connect with the world,” the microblogging site added.
Members of the House Representatives have resolved to invite the Minister of Culture and Information, Lai Mohammed in a bid to investigate the legality of the Twitter ban by the Federal Government.
The decision was reached on Tuesday during plenary.
The Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, in his speech directed the House Committees on Justice, Commerce, and Information to investigate the process that led to the suspension of the microblogging site.
The Speaker said the House recognises that Twitter is a very important means of communication.
According to him, the social networking service has been used for both good and bad and the legislature must make sure that the policies of government are in accordance with the law and do not have adverse consequences on the people.
He directed relevant committees of the House to constitute a single committee and commence investigation into the circumstances surrounding the ban, and its legality.
The committee, however, agreed to invite the Minister of Information on the matter.
While the deliberation was ongoing, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) lawmakers walked out after its caucus leader, Kingsley Chinda was ruled out of order by the Speaker amid the rowdy session.
Mr. Chinda had prayed the House to urge the Federal Government to suspend the ban while the House investigation is ongoing as directed by the Speaker.
This comes after the Federal Government of Nigeria had last week announced the indefinite suspension of Twitter in the country.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed while announcing the suspension cited the persistent use of the platform for activities that are “capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.”
Following the announcement, telecom operators in Nigeria blocked the microblogging site Twitter, making users unable to have access to the website.
To this effect, some navigated the hurdle using Virtual Private Networks (VPN).
The decision of the Federal Government has led to various reactions from the envoys of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union in Nigeria among others insisting that the suspension of Twitter, is a violation of the fundamental human right of freedom of expression.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) caucus in the House of Representatives has threatened legal action against the Federal Government over its ban of Twitter operations in Nigeria.
A statement by the leader of the caucus Kingsley Chinda on Sunday noted that the Nigerian government does not have the power to ban the social media platform, arguing that the action lowers the country’s image in the eyes of other democratic nations.
“We also call on the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture to immediately rescind its directive to the NBC to begin the licensing of social media operators in the country, having regard to the absence of any enabling legislative framework for such directive,” the statement read in part.
“We hereby give you notice that in the event of the failure, refusal and or neglect of the Federal Government to withdraw, reverse and/or cease the implementation of these oppressive and unconstitutional actions, we shall be constrained to institute legal proceedings at the appropriate judicial venue within the shortest possible time”.
The caucus faulted the directive to the National Broadcasting Commission to license social media operators in the country, describing it as an attempt to introduce the ‘Social Media Bill’ by mere executive fiat.
According to them, the move is a violation of the doctrine of separation of powers and an erosion of the rule of law.
“Whilst, these manifestly undemocratic actions of government on its own is grave enough, we fear that it may be a precursor to more ominous actions of blotting out dissenting voices,” the lawmakers explained.
“It is a known fact that as nonperforming, fragile or failed governments face increasing criticism from its citizenry, out of desperation, they resort to more draconian and lawless actions to intimidate and cow the citizens to consolidate its hold on power by brute force.”
While calling on the Federal Government to address numerous challenges facing the country including kidnapping and banditry, the PDP caucus noted that social media is a means of escape from the daily happenings in Nigeria and a source of employment for many.
“It is worrisome that, at a time when the country faces a real existential crisis and totters on the brink of implosion from acute challenges such as widespread insecurity manifesting in banditry, kidnapping and the activities of armed non-state actors across the Federation, coupled with the parlous state of the economy resulting in ballooning inflation and massive youth unemployment, the Federal Government appears to be more preoccupied with stifling the right of Nigerian citizens to freely express themselves on social media and elsewhere,” they added.
Social media network Twitter on Saturday said it was working to restore access those affected by the Federal Government suspension of its services in Nigeria.
The Federal Government announced the suspension on Friday, after Twitter had deleted a tweet from President Muhammadu Buhari’s official account.
“We are deeply concerned by the blocking of Twitter in Nigeria,” Twitter’s public policy team tweeted on Saturday. “Access to the free and #OpenInternet is an essential human right in modern society.
“We will work to restore access for all those in Nigeria who rely on Twitter to communicate and connect with the world. #KeepitOn”
Meanwhile Twitter in Nigeria woke up on Saturday unable to access the microblogging websites while some navigated the hurdle using Virtual Private Networks (VPN).
The Association of Licensed Telecommunication Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), an industry group, confirmed it had received directives from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the industry regulator, to suspend access to Twitter.
The President of ALTON, Gbenga Adebayo, made this known in a statement on Saturday.
Mr Adebayo noted that the association wished to confirm that its members had received formal instructions from NCC, the industry regulator, to suspend access to Twitter.
The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, has also directed the immediate prosecution of offenders of the Federal Government’s ban on Twitter operations in Nigeria.
Nigerians have a constitutional right to exercise their freedom of expression and a right to access of information. This must be respected. Safeguarding free, independent media and civic spaces for democratic voices is an important part of Sweden’s #DriveForDemocracy#TwitterBan
The Federal Government of Nigeria on Friday placed a ban on Twitter, following the deleting of a tweet put out by President Buhari.
Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed explained that Nigerians were using Twitter to perpetuate activities inimical to the corporate existence of Nigeria.
According to the statement, the Minister said the Federal Government has also directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately commence the process of licensing all OTT and social media operations in Nigeria.
It is not yet clear how the suspension will work but the Twitter ban stirred various reactions with many calling it unconstitutional and asking the government to rescind its decision.
Twitter’s decision to impose a permanent ban on US President Donald Trump’s account has sparked some consternation in Europe, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling it “problematic”.
The move, prompted by fears of “further incitement of violence” after last week’s attack on the US Capitol building that was partly blamed on the US president, reignited debate over regulation of social media.
Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat have all now issued their own bans, triggering a flood of reactions from around the world.
European commissioner Thierry Breton, who has introduced two EU proposals that would place more restraints on digital giants, saw Twitter’s decision as a total break from the past, calling it “the 9/11 moment of social media” in an op-ed published by Politico.
US internet giants have often been accused of holding too much power over social media, and many governments have called for them to face more regulation.
Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said she “considers it problematic that the accounts of the US president have been permanently blocked”.
He added: “It is possible to intervene in the freedom of expression, but in accordance with limits defined by the legislator, and not through a decision by company management.”
– ‘Digital oligarchy’ – French Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire agreed, telling state-run France Inter radio: “The regulation of digital giants cannot be done by the digital oligarchy itself.”
Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny also denounced — on Twitter — what he branded “an unacceptable act of censorship” based on “emotion and personal political preferences”.
Digital law specialist Florence G’sell, who called Twitter’s decision an “earthquake”, detailed a three-part plan on the part of the European Union that she said “could be of great interest to the Americans”.
The EU intends to set up a procedure for implementing moderation decisions, a way to contest these decisions and the possibility of resolving disputes through a third party, she told AFP, stressing that legislation is needed on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I think the platforms are ready to cooperate. But we mustn’t be naive: there are enormous financial stakes. They have greatly profited from the polarisation.”
US social media have regularly cited Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act when they claim to simply host accounts but not bear responsibility for the content.
Transnational problem – “The dogma anchored in section 230 — the U.S. legislation that provides social media companies with immunity from civil liability for content posted by their users — has collapsed,” Breton wrote.
“It is a monument that has collapsed in the information space,” he added in remarks to journalists Monday in French.
“For the first time in the history of social media, this act acknowledges by those who are the main actors, that they have an editorial responsibility,” he said.
Digital lawyer Christiane Feral-Schuh noted, for her part: “In the United States, the First Amendment protects American citizens against any infringement of their freedom of expression, but the Supreme Court also considered that private actors could moderate their discussion spaces as they wish.”
Nevertheless, what the platforms are doing is tantamount to “censorship couched in (their) general conditions”, she told AFP.
She warned that laws “will not be enough to resolve the problem,” which she called “transnational”, and stressed the need for due process when the platforms suspend accounts, remove posts and so on. That is, citizens should be able to challenge them in court.
It remains to be seen what the administration of US President-elect Joe Biden will do after a highly charged Senate hearing last November of the Facebook and Twitter founders over the now famous “Section 230”.
Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said “it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel believes that the decision by social media giants to permanently suspend Donald Trump’s accounts is problematic because freedom of opinion should not be determined by such online platform bosses, her spokesman said Monday.
“The fundamental right to freedom of opinion is a fundamental right of elementary importance, and this fundamental right can be interfered with, but through the law and within the framework defined by the legislature, not according to the decision of the management of social media platforms,” said Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert.
“From this point of view, the Chancellor considers it problematic that the accounts of the US president have been permanently blocked.”