The ECOWAS Court of Justice on Tuesday restrained the Nigerian government and its agents from imposing sanctions on any media house, or harassing, intimidating, arresting and prosecuting civil society groups and concerned Nigerians for using the microblogging platform, Twitter and other social media.
In a ruling on an application filed by the Registered Trustees of the Social-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) for an interim injunction against the Federal Government’s decision to ban the use of Twitter in Nigeria, Justice Keikura Bangura said the restraining order would subsist pending the determination of the substantive suit by a non-governmental group challenging the ban.
In his ruling, Justice Bangura said the Court “recognizes that access to Twitter provides a platform for the exercise of freedom of expression, and any interference of with the access will be viewed as an interference with the right to freedom of expression.
“By extension, such interference will amount to a violation of a fundamental human right which falls within the competence of this Court pursuant to Article 9 (4) of the Supplementary Protocol (A/SP.1/01/05) Amending Protocol (A/P1/7/91) relating to the Community Court of Justice,” the court said.
The application for interim measures was based on Article 79 of the Rules of Procedure of the Court.
The Court however declined to order the Nigerian government and its agents to lift the suspension on the use of Twitter pending the determination of the substantive suit.
In delivering the ruling, the Court rejected the two grounds of the preliminary objection of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which were: that the subject matter of the suit was not for the enforcement of any human rights recognized by the Court, and that the “Court lacks the jurisdiction to determine the criminalization of an act under Nigerian domestic laws.”
The Court ordered the government to ‘take steps to immediately implement the orders set above herein.”
SERAP had asked for, among other things, a declaration that the act of suspending Twitter or any other social media and microblogging application without an order of a competent court of jurisdiction is unlawful, inconsistent and incompatible with the country’s human rights obligations.
Also, the NGO asked for a declaration that the act of the government in mandating its agents to commence and continue to regulate the social media in the country amounts to restriction and censorship which constitutes a violation of Nigeria’s obligation under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
SERAP was represented by Femi Falana, a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN), while the Nigerian government was represented by Maimuna Shiru. Also on the panel for the suit were Justices Gberi-be Ouattara (presiding) and Januaria T. Silva Moreira COSTA
Hearing in the substantive suit was adjourned July 6, 2021.
On June 4, 2021, the Federal Government ordered all internet service providers to suspend Twitter in Nigeria. The order followed the decision by the microblogging platform to delete President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweets, which it considered a violation of its rules.
The action by the Nigerian government heralded global criticisms and condemnation, with key diplomatic missions in the country deploring the action as undemocratic and not the path to guarantee a more secure Nigeria.
The Diplomatic Missions of Canada, Republic of Ireland, United Kingdom and the United States of America as well as the European Union delegation to Nigeria in a joint statement strongly supported the fundamental human right of free expression and access to information as a pillar of democracy in Nigeria.
The Missions expressed disappointment over Nigeria’s announcement suspending #Twitter and proposing registration requirements for other social media, describing the decision as inhibiting to access to information.
To mobilise global pressure on the Nigerian government to rescind the ban order, SERAP sent an appeal to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland, calling for urgent intervention in the Nigeria-Twitter ban crisis.
The group called for the application of the Commonwealth Charter to hold the Nigerian government to account for the unlawful suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, and the resulting repression of human rights, particularly the rights to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom, as well as a flagrant disregard for the rule of law.”
“The suspension order on Twitter has the character of collective punishment and is antithetical to the Nigerian Constitution and the country’s international obligations. “Nigerian authorities would seem to be suppressing people’s access to Twitter to exploit the shutdown to cover up allegations of corruption, abuses, and restrict freedom of expression and other fundamental rights,” the group said.