A 47-member coalition of civil society organisations has expressed concerns over the growing trend of enactment of laws on hate speech and fake news without regards to obligations to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to protect the right of everyone to freedom of opinion and expression.

A press release issued by Paradigm Initiative on Tuesday also stressed that attempts to regulate the use of social media through would limit the openness of the internet, mask human rights violations and create barriers to long-term stability and peaceful dialogue.

The press statement jointly signed by organisations in African countries including Nigeria, Togo, Cameroun, Liberia and those in other continents like Pakistan and Nepal, cited examples from proposed legislations in Nigeria, The Gambia, Cameroun and Ethiopia.

It stated, “We, the undersigned organisations, write to express our concern over the increasing trend of draft legislation on hate speech and “fake news” in the region. Many African governments have begun to draft legislation on these issues without regard to their obligations to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to protect the right of everyone to freedom of opinion and expression.

“Article 19 includes the right to receive and impart, regardless of frontiers, information, and ideas through any media whatsoever. It is our position that the ongoing attempts to regulate the use of social media through overarching draft legislation with broad terms serve to decrease the openness of the internet and these draft legislations mask human rights violations and create barriers to long-term stability and peaceful dialogue.”

The coalition noted that in Nigeria,  there has been an onslaught of anti-democratic draft bills within the past few months, saying in October, the Nigerian Senate introduced the Communication Service Tax Bill sponsored by the chairman of the Senate Committee which proposes a monthly tax burden on users of electronic communications services including services such as voice calls, SMS, MMS, pay-per-view services, and internet communication services.

It also noted that the Senate introduced the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019 sponsored by Mohammed Sani Musa seeking to regulate communications in cyberspace and punishment for transmission of false facts online, the provision of services to transmit falsehood, and the failure of firms and telcos to check abuses via their platforms.

“Another Bill that has raised concerns of pro-democratic organisations and citizens alike is The National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches Bill 2019 also introduced in November. The Bill seeks to establish an Independent National Commission for Hate Speech, which would be empowered to enforce the laws and advise the federal government. The Bill prescribes a range of punishments including death by hanging for perpetrators of hate speech. The danger of the passage of this bill and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill is even more amplified by the flagrant treatment of critical or dissident speech as hate speech by government officials in Nigeria.

“Despite strong criticism, Nigeria’s Information minister insists the country will go ahead with proposed social media regulation through amendments to the country’s Broadcasting Code to regulate online mediums. Civil society organisations working in Nigeria have expressed concerns that the ministry is using the broadcasting code, which is secondary legislation as a decoy to avoid public scrutiny on the proposed amendments,” the statement added.

On the case of Ethiopia, the coalition reported that on the weekend of November 9, 2019, the cabinet of Ethiopia approved a new bill called the Computer Crime Proclamation Bill that aims to prevent hate speech and dissemination of fake news, and referred the same to the House of Peoples Representatives for approval.

“The bill has not yet been made public, however, judging from the trend of internet controls in Ethiopia including the history of internet shutdowns, it can be deduced that one of the components that the law will touch on will be speech online including platforms such as Facebook and blogs, among others. Ethiopia is set for elections next year in May, hence the bill may become a weapon to silence dissent,” the CSOs stated.

In Cameroun, the coalition noted, the Cameroonian government in November presented a bill in parliament that seeks to criminalise hate speech and tribalism.

“The bill, which criminalises and punishes the act through the amendment of section 241 of the penal code, was tabled Wednesday, November 13, 2019, at the National Assembly for prior consideration. The first paragraph of the Explanatory Memorandum states that “the amendment of this provision is now necessary in order to discourage the rise of hate speech of a tribalist and communitarian nature in the public space, particularly on social media, which endanger peace, security and national cohesion,” it said.

The final country assessed by the coalition is The Gambia, where it noted that the cabinet responded to criticism and announced the removal of provisions that sought to criminalise insults in its revised criminal offenses bill,  it must also take similar steps to revise the Gambia Media Services Bill, which has been criticised as targeting journalists and their ability to do their work.

“This must also include every other legislation which emboldened dictatorships in its recent past. The Gambia must not reverse on the gains of its last election and should work with all stakeholders to review its laws in such a way as to emphasise its commitment to strong democratic principles,” they said.

They, therefore, called on the respective policy-making institutions and agencies in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gambia, Nigeria, and other African countries that are considering similar rights-hurting bills, to take steps to discontinue and drop all draft legislations with provisions that would negatively impact how people participate online and use digital platforms and adopt an open process that accommodates the views of everyone, especially civil society, towards the enactment of new laws or revision of existing ones, and ensure draft legislation does not have the potential to infringe on the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens.

“Also, we call on the United Nations and African regional organisations such as the African Union, African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and others, to prevail on States to stay true to their commitments to international obligations to protect the rights of their citizens at all times,” they declared.

Signatories to the statement are:

  1. African Academic Network on Internet Policy
  2. African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms (AfDec)
  3. African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX)
  4. AfroLeadership, Cameroon
  5. Ayin Network – Sudan
  6. Afrotribune, Togo
  7. Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE)
  8. BudgIT Foundation
  9. Center for Media Research – Nepal (CMR-Nepal)
  10. Civil Society Advocacy Network on Climate Change and the Environment – Sierra Leone (CAN-SL)
  11. Co-Creation Hub
  12. Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)
  13. Enough is Enough (EiE) Nigeria
  14. Gambia Cyber Security Alliance
  15. Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD)
  16. Global Rights
  17. HipCity Innovation Center
  18. Index on Censorship
  19. Information Security for Africa (ISfA)
  20. Institut Panos Grands Lacs
  21. Internet Freedom Foundation
  22. Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan
  23. Internet Sans Frontiers
  24. ISOC Nigeria Chapter
  25. KICTANet
  26. Ladies Empowerment Goals and Support Initiative (LEGASI)
  27. Liberia Information Technology student Union
  28. Media Matters for Democracy, Pakistan
  29. Media Monitoring Africa
  30. Media Rights Agenda
  31. Merit Legal Advocacy & Human Rights Initiative (MELAHRI)
  32. Molly Land, Professor of International law and human rights
  33. NetBlocks
  34. Nigeria Youth IGF
  35. Open Net Korea
  36. Paradigm Initiative
  37. PEN America
  38. Praxis Center
  39. Public and Private Development Centre
  40. Take Back Nigeria Movement [TBN]
  41. The Right 2 Know Campaign
  42. Rwanda Clubs for Peace Organization
  43. Senegal ICT Users Association
  44. SMEX
  45. TechHer
  46. Youth Initiative for Africa Development.
  47. Jamii Forums, Tanzania.



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