West African Court Says Nigerian Government’s Seven-Month Twitter Ban Was Unlawful

from the court-makes-good-points-that-will-be-ignored-by-the-Nigerian-govt dept

Last June, the president of Nigeria, Muhannadu Buhari, issued a tweet that looked a lot like a call for genocide in response to often violent anti-government protests:

Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.

Twitter responded by blocking this thinly veiled call for violence. In response, the Nigerian government said something incomprehensible about Twitter “undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” Then it blocked Twitter indefinitely. And it backed that up with more nonsense: a newly enacted requirement that all social media services operating in Nigeria obtain a license from the government.

“Indefinitely” turned out to be about seven months. The ban was lifted after Twitter agreed to register with the Nigerian government, appoint a local representative, comply with Nigerian “tax obligations,” and grant the government access to a communications portal that would allow government officials to contact Twitter directly when offended by something Twitter did.

It was seven months of pure censorship, all in response to Twitter blocking a tweet that appeared to call for violence. The problem wasn’t what was blocked. The problem was who was blocked. The move made it clear no one was allowed to criticize Nigeria’s president: not tacitly, as in Twitter’s removal of the tweet, nor directly, via a platform that is very popular with Nigerian citizens and had been used in the past to organize anti-government protests.

Twitter is one of the main outlets Nigerians have to criticize their government, and around 20% of the population have an account on the platform. It has played a large role in political discourse in the country: for example, in 2020, the platform was used by activists to organize the largest protests in a decade in the country, against police brutality

The ban has been lifted, thanks to Twitter’s concessions. But the court victory detailed here by the EFF is still important, as it will make it easier for Twitter to contest future censorship efforts by the Nigerian government.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court has ruled that a seven-month ban on Twitter by Nigerian authorities in 2021 was unlawful and infringed freedom of expression and access to media. The court, which is a political and economic union of fifteen West African countries, has directed Nigeria to ensure that the unlawful suspension does not happen again, in an important decision for online rights across the region.  

Nigerian citizens may have been muted by their government, but plenty of others were willing to speak for them in court.

ECOWAS joined several cases challenging the Twitter ban,  including prominent Nigerian NGO Paradigm Initiative, Media Rights Agenda, the Centre For Journalism Innovation & Development, International Press Centre, Tap Initiative for Citizens Development and four journalists, represented by Media Defence. Along with Access Now and the Open Net Association, EFF filed a joint application to file as amicus curiae in the case against the ban, brought by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP).

The decision says such a ban must not occur again. It also instructs the Nigerian government to amend any laws that give the government the power to unilaterally ban internet services and social media platforms. While the Nigerian government may still find some way to silence critics and foreign service providers, it won’t find it nearly as easy to defend these moves in court. And if it does decide to go internet nuclear, it will need to find a much better reason than the “this threatens the something-or-other” it offered last time.

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