Teddy Nwanunobi, Abuja
The passage of the Frivolous Petition Bill (Anti-Social Media Bill) met a brick wall on Monday when the duo of the Federal Ministry of Justice and Nigerian Law Reform Commission (NLRC) vehemently argued against its passage at a one-day public hearing organised by the Senate.
Speaking on the issue before the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, a commissioner of the NLRC, Mr. Chibueze Okorie, described the bill as unnecessary.
Okorie, who shot the first salvo against the bill, said that the NLRC could not support the bill, after looking at the specific position of the bill vis-a-vis the existing law.
Presenting her comments and suggestions on behalf of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Mahmud Mohammed, Hon. Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi said: “The menace of incessant frivolous petition in our nation, if not addressed and nipped in the bud, will constitute a very serious clog in the wheel of our democratic process.”
But Okorie, who pointed out that the demerits of passing the bill outweighs its merits by far, maintained that adequate implementation of the existing laws will help in punishing defamation and other malicious intents.
“Frivolous petition must be accompanied by affidavit, punishment for use of any such petition. Words used there are fluid, like investigation, inquest, inquiry are open-ended.
“The implication is that even oral statements must be accompanied by an affidavit because the law says that any petition, complaint or statement. This is too wide, and may interfere with investigations in Nigeria, even in MDAs (ministries, departments and agencies), especially in the case of Nigeria, where we have largely illiterate population.
“People may not make reports, and there are few high courts in the country. This might interfere with the freedom of the people to bring the activities of people to law enforcement agencies. The requirement of going to high court is onerous.
“Whistle blowing will be seriously hampered by the bill, and if this government is promoting anti-corruption, the people must be encouraged to report or complain about crime. It is within the discretion of enforcement agencies to know, if a complaint is frivolous or not.
“Law should be open to make their report, and leave the agencies to use their discretion to know, if the laws are frivolous or not. The position of the Commission is that it inhibits the discretion of law enforcement agencies. If we feel the law enforcement agencies are not doing their job, we should look at making them do their job,” Okorie said.
Also rejecting the passage of the bill at the public hearing was Assistant Director, Legal Drafting Department of the Ministry of Justice, Mr. Patrick Etta Oyong.
Oyong, who noted that Nigerians might suffer judicial condemnation, if the bill is passed, added that it will violate the African Charter on human and peoples rights.
“The bill is not qualified to be used in a democratically justified society. People will not want to volunteer information for law agencies, or the stress of going to get affidavit from a high courts, and it means offences committed before will never be reported.
“African charter on human and peoples rights, which has been enacted into law, have given us the freedom to disseminate information. If passed, it will violate the African charter on human and peoples rights, which the NASS (National Assembly) enacted.
“Section 39 of of the Constitution and Section 157 of the Nigeria Communication Act, which is closer to the bill, is regulation to telephone sound etc. So, those issues sort to be checked by this bill have been taken care of. What the bill seeks to prohibit is being regulated by the law of defamation in Section 375 of the Criminal Code. If as the law stands, if the penalty in the criminal code, there may be need for an amendment rather than pass this bill.
“Section 164 of Penal Code also takes care of this issue. Cost of typing of affidavit is another issue. An affidavit is not self evident that with it there is the truth of a matter, which might turn out to be false. It does not have much benefits, but interference with the exercise of the constitutional rights of the citizens.
“The attitude of the courts are always targeted at constraining any act that circumvents the rights of the citizens. Nigerians might suffer judicial condemnation. It is our view that there is no need for this bill to be passed in the form it is. Even if you expunge the affidavit, there is some form of stress on the citizens, who are mainly illiterates,” he said.
He called for the general reforms of the laws like the Electoral Act to tackle the problem.
“We are not saying that the problem you have highlighted should be allowed to go unpunished; but what we are saying is that it should be accommodated in existing laws. This bill is not necessary because there are other laws that can take care of that,” he added.
In his contribution, an online publisher, Mr. Anthony Eyilebo, observed that criminalising free speech is an infringement on the rights of Nigerians.
“Rather than stop Nigerians, there should be an avenue for the lawmakers and Nigerians to connect,” he added.
In his welcome address, the Chairman of the Committee, Senator David Umoru, assured that the Upper Legislative Chamber will enact legislations that are people-oriented, and that will stand the test of time.
In his speech to declare the public hearing open, the Senate President, Senator Abubakar Bukola Saraki, who was represented by the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Godswill Akpabio, said that the lawmakers and the stakeholders in the democratic process, have the responsibility to make laws that would hold people accountable for their actions, through transparent and open process.
He, however, noted that the outcome of the bill would depend largely on the opinions of the stakeholders and the general public during the public hearing.
He assured that the Committee would be guided in its recommendations to the Senate by the views canvassed at the public session.