Social Media in the Public Sphere of Accountability in Nigeria
Department of Mass Communication, Faculty of Social Science, Ahmadu Bello University, Samaru, Nigeria
- *Corresponding Author:
- Usman Jimada
Department of Mass Communication
Faculty of Social Science, Ahmadu Bello University
Tel: +234 803-705-4014
Received date: Jan 10, 2019; Accepted date: Mar 19, 2019; Published date: Mar 27, 2019
Citation: Jimada U. Social Media in the Public Sphere of Accountability in Nigeria. Global Media Journal 2019, 17:32.
Copyright: © 2019 Jimada U. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which
permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
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The New Social Media has provided a platform for citizensstate interaction in the public sphere. It provides higher levels of participation for younger people and an avenue for women who have not been very active and vocal with a voice to demand for accountability. Given this new platform for engagement with government and institutions, there is growing disillusionment with rulers and governments as corruption scandals have fuelled discontent with the conduct of governance in Africa. In African countries, journalists who dare to report on corruption and injustice are targeted with killings and beatings while traditional news outlets are censored; bloggers and social media activists have become the new independent media by providing the much-needed space in the demand for accountability and open governance. Recent studies suggests that Internet freedom has declined in most countries because more and more governments are targeting the social media and communication Apps that aid in the spread of information, most especially those dealing with antigovernment protests and the demand for accountability in governance. This article examines the issue of Internet Freedom, and the role of the social media in the public sphere of accountability in governance, in Nigeria.
Internet freedom; Social media; Public sphere;
The Social media is “a dynamic online medium that has
changed the way we work similar to traditional media, social
media offers opportunities to collect and share news,
communicate with audiences and advocate for change.
However, unlike traditional media, social media allows for this to
happen on the Web in real-time through highly interactive
global or regional social networks” .
The New Social Media has provided a platform for citizensstate
interaction in the public sphere. It provides higher levels of
participation for younger people and an avenue for women who have not been very active and vocal with a voice to demand for
accountability. Given this new platform for engagement with
government and institutions, how has social media affected the
responsiveness of government to the demand for social
accountability? How has government dealt with the social
media? How does a social medium affect the social norms
associated with political participation? There is growing
disillusionment with rulers and governments as corruption
scandals have fuelled discontent with the conduct of governance
In African countries, journalists who dare to report on
corruption and injustice are targeted with killings and beatings
while traditional news outlets are censored; bloggers and social
media activists have become the new independent media by
providing the much-needed space in the demand for
accountability and open governance. However, no sooner have
the social media been identified as the new outlet in the
demand for open governance and accountability than
governments resort to the old tactics used in clamping down on
free expression in the traditional media to now the social media.
The same repressive tactics are being transferred from
traditional media to citizens who dare share information and
news in the social media. Recent Freedom House Report 
suggests that Internet Freedom has declined for the sixth
consecutive year, with more governments than ever before
targeting social media and communication Apps as a means of
halting the rapid dissemination of information, particularly those
dealing with anti-government protests and the demand for
accountability in governance. This article examines the issue of
Internet Freedom, the concept of the public sphere and
accountability in governance especially in Nigeria.
The Internet and the freedom in it provide various social
media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram,
Tumblr, and communication applications the means to convey
messages and disseminate information. The technology of the
internet provides an atmosphere conducive for contemporary
transnational political activism. Its characteristic speed and
space facilitate international communication among
nongovernmental organizations . It allows protesters to take
local level events to the international level with minimal
resources and bureaucracy. Through connectivity, more people
are able to participate and awareness is raised. It also gives a
voice to those who do not have one while ensuring that those who participate are socially empowered to organize themselves
and form alliances on a transnational level using the tool of the
social media to bring about social change .
The activities of the Bring Back Our Girls [#BBOG] an activist
group in Nigeria that raised awareness which resonated across
the world, including the UN and the White House following the
kidnap of over 300 school girls by the terrorist group Boko
Haram couldn't have been disseminated so wide and far without
the social media. The Internet is also seen to be more than a
tool for mobilization by providing diversity and horizontality.
“In countries where traditional media is a tool of control,
these new and truly social channels have the power to radically
alter our world. …Social media is one of the most important
global leaps forward in recent human history. It provides for selfexpression
and promotes mutual understanding. It enables the
rapid formation of networks and demonstrates our common
humanity across cultural differences. It connects people, their
ideas and values, like never before” .
In countries with repressive governments that control
traditional print, radio and television, the social media may
serve as the only access people have to unfettered discussion on
issues. According to Philip Howard, for the civil society, in the
21st Century, the social media creates “a digital safe harbor in
which conversations can incubate” Moreover, information
infrastructure is politics” .
In many nations, the social media is far more participatory
than the prevailing traditional political culture. There is more
discourse on issues of national politics on social media. As a
result, the new technology based politics democratizes the old
elite driven arrangements. For example, a citizen is able to
document a human rights abuse with the use of a mobile phone,
track state expenditures through the use of a spreadsheet which
is shared to others; ‘information about official corruption is
spread fast via the social media thereby strengthening the civil
society and deepening democracy. However,” Social media of
course is a double edge sword, which can be used for good and
bad, e.g. to spread hate and falsehood .
What is internet freedom?
A cursory view of some countries and their approach to the
concept of internet freedom suggests that different
governments and societies define the concept of internet
freedom differently. They also confront the free flow of
information and their transformative technologies which the
internet provides differently. For instance, some nations are
more repressive and therefore impose many different kinds of
restrictions on the internet depending on the type of
government, political traditions and cultural norms of the
country. However, access to the networks is a pre-requisite for
enjoying Internet Freedom no matter how we may choose to
define such freedom. Moreover, states differ on whether
individuals deserve to have such access or not. In some
countries access to the Internet particularly, high-speed
broadband is a right, while others conceive it as a privilege .
In Finland for instance, the Finnish see having a 1 MB
connection as a basic human rights of all its citizens. In the same
vein, the French Constitutional Council has granted every citizen
the legal right to have access to the Internet. However, the U.S
by contrast, applies the principles of the market good rather
than an entitlement. The ability to go online depends on
whether you can afford it. In other words, if you cannot afford to
connect to the Net, you remain offline, or depend on publicly
available access sites such as libraries, schools, airports and
other public places where free access to the Internet is granted
to people who are in such places. In the U.K., the United
Kingdom's new Digital Economy Act sets up a “graduated
response system that would suspend user's accounts if they are
repeatedly accused of online copyright infringement. Similarly,
the French even though guaranteeing the free access to the
internet, do balance such access with the protection of
intellectual property right. France's HADOPI [French acronym for
the nation’s law promoting the distribution and protection of
creative works on the Internet] disconnects users after three
allegations of infringement .
Societies also vary in their orientation towards Internet
freedom-Freedom from whom, or freedom from what?
However, the one key threat to internet freedom is government
and it is also seen as the biggest threat of social media use of
the internet to promote public accountability.
For example, states can inhibit online liberties in numerous
ways, one of such ways is to monitor online and make it a
criminal offence to make a speech that is considered offensive.
Another way is to block such material online. However, in the
U.S., any move to interfere with the freedom on the Internet is
resisted and the concern is typically to prevent any form of
unchecked government power .
In Europe the threat to Internet Freedom consist of European
countries being wary of the powers of private corporations to
gather personally-identifiable information about users. For
instance, recent controversies over Facebook's privacy settings
which allow a private data marketing company, Cambridge
Analytica to use data improperly obtained from about 50 million
users to sway the outcome of elections on behalf of its political
clients. It is reported to be one of the factors responsible for the
outcome of the U.S. Presidential elections of 2016. Similar
accusations were also made with regards to the outcome of the
Brexit Referendum of 2016 . Facebook is also accused of
being complicit in allowing Google's video service in Italy and
Google's Street View geo-mapping project not remaining free
from private sector as well as governmental surveillance .
A Nigeria billionaire whose identity was not revealed
committed a large amount of money in the bid to stop the
election of the APC Presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari
during the 2015 elections. According to the UK Guardian, the
fixers for the Jonathan campaign hacked into Buhari's medical
and financial records, in a bid to sway the decision of the
electorates and determine the outcome of the elections in
favour of Jonathan . Cambridge Analytical is said to have
used similar unethical standards in the campaigns leading to the
2013 and 2017 elections of Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta .
Some countries seek to prevent infringement on one's
freedom generated by other users, for example the harm to
one's reputation that occurs from false and defamatory content.
Other cases involve states exerting pressure on intermediaries
such as Internet Service Providers and social networking sites to
police this kind of material via the threat of liability. While
others, provide immunity for anyone but the author .
Different countries thus demonstrate a range of concern
about the threats to freedom. Some countries have been found
to balance differently, freedom of expression and access to
information against the concerns about the harms that online
material can cause. For instance, those harms could be to
individuals, as in the case of defamation, to identifiable groups
such as religious or ethnic minorities, or to even share societal
The U.S views the free exchange of information to be very
important to the protection of Freedom of Speech which is why
materials such as hate speech and pornography are protected by
its constitution. However, U.S Law does prohibit certain types of
information such as the threat to life, obscene materials and
child pornography. Similarly, France and Germany also strongly
protect free and open expression, but ban hate speech online.
They require Google to filter hate speech sites from its search
results on its local language sites .
Recent research in the Middle East and North Africa [MENA]
into Internet usage across countries in these regions, suggest
that MENA Internet users had a different attitude towards the
use of the Internet far from their Global counterparts. People in
the Middle East overwhelmingly expressed the view that they
want government authorities to protect them from content
which is inappropriate and threatens cultural values . They
support their government in blocking online contents that
offend cultural and religious sensibilities such as pornography or
material that is discriminatory or racist. They also argue in
favour of their government that these bodies should censor the
content of the Internet to protect children.
The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria
guarantees the Right to Freedom of Expression and the Press.
Section 39 subsection  states:
“Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression
including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart
ideas and information without interference” .
However, while the constitution does guarantee the right to
freedom of expression, there are challenges to the
interpretation of the constitution when it comes to its
application to the New Social Media.
There is an observed steady increase in the number of people
using the social media worldwide. But Social media use has
increased more in the emerging markets. According to the Pew
Research Center In 2015-16, roughly four-in-ten adults across
the emerging nations surveyed including Nigeria were found to
be users of social networking sites. Moreover, as of 2017, 53%
use social media. However, when it comes to social media use,
people in emerging and developing markets are fast
approaching levels seen in more advanced economies. Over the same period, social media use has been generally level in many
of the advanced economies surveyed . However, this rise in
social media use in Nigeria has come with its own worries
among the elites.
The Nigerian National Assembly for instance, enacted the
Cyber Crime [Prohibition, Prevention ETC] Act, 2015 because of
the public concern over the use of social media to promote
bigotry and hatred in the society. Hence, the law prohibits any
form of cybersquatting and antisocial individuals and groups
from subjecting the Nigerian people to racist and xenophobic
attacks in any part of the country .
For example, Sections 24 and 26 of the Act provides as
Any person who knowingly or intentionally sends a message
or other matter by means of computer systems or network that:
• Is grossly offensive, pornographic or of an indecent, obscene
or menacing character or causes any such message or matter
to be so sent; or
• He knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance,
inconvenience danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal
intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to
another or causes such a message to be sent: commits an
offence under this Act and shall be liable on conviction to a
fine of not more than N7, 000,000.00 or imprisonment for a
term of not more than 3 years or to both such fine and
However, while journalists risk prosecution under restrictive
laws, including the new broadly –worded Cybercrimes Act., thus
far there has been no journalist that has been convicted of
violating the Act.
The Concept of the Public Sphere
The new public sphere refers to a medium or channel possible
for people to come together in order to discuss, analyze and
deliberate on issues beyond geographical boundaries as is now
obtainable through Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Tumblr, etc.
The public sphere can be defined as a discursive space in which
individuals and groups associate to discuss matters of mutual
interest and where possible to reach a common judgment about
The most prominent normative theorist of the public sphere is
the German Social theorists Jurgen Habermas in the 18th
Century who noted that the public sphere was originally a
coextensive with public authority. According to Habermas
“public sphere is a process that designates a theatre in modern
societies in which political participation is enacted through the
medium of talk. It is the space in which citizens deliberate about
their common affairs hence, an institutionalized arena of
discursive interaction is conceptually distinct from the state. It is
a site for the production and circulation of discourses that can
be critical of the state.” .
The basic ideal belief is that the government laws and policies
should be steered by the public and that the only legitimate
government is those that listen to the public sphere . Habermas  describes the public sphere as a society engaged
in critical public debate and for the condition of a public sphere
to exist, there must be the formation of public opinion, all
citizens have access, conference in unrestricted fashion and
debatable over the general governing relations.
Further work on the concept of public sphere in
communication discourse have been carried out by German
sociologists Jurgen Gerhards and Friedhelm Neidhart who have
developed an empirical model of public communication that
distinguishes three levels of the public sphere [encounters in
everyday life, public meetings and protests and political
communication in the mass media] and specifies the input,
through a put and output functions of the political sphere .
Giving insight as to how social media functions in the context
of the old public sphere, Professor A Sen in his paper - A social
media as a public sphere: The rise of social opposition suggests
that: “before the advent of the social media, the mass media of
press and broadcast were seen as adequate and beneficial for
the conduct of democratic politics and sustained public sphere
this is because these forms of media provided an opportunity
for information about public events to be passed to all citizens,
politicians and governments and to be criticized by the public.
But as is typical of the information flow in these types of media,
information flow is predominantly vertical and unidirectional
and the heightened commercialization of the media market led
to the neglect of democratic communities' roles between the
public itself and the leaders” .
How far do the mass media provide a public sphere in which
citizens may debate issues in a democratic forum and in which
those in power may be held accountable to the public? Several
scholars including Blumler; Garnham ; Collins et al. and
Qualter suggest that the media is responding to economic and
regulatory pressures to move from a public service model
towards a market model [21,22]. In fact, the media are changing
their relations to political processes. For instance, Habermas
attacks the media in what he says here is a great power, but can
it be harnessed for the public good? . He sees the media as
creating a society of private fragmented individuals for whom it
is difficult to form the public rational-critical opinion which could
oppose established power. He attacks the media for providing a
pseudo-public sphere which distracts the laity from political
action, being a sphere of public relations and passive
spectatorship rather than genuine public debate .
Traditional media of radio, television and newspapers have
often been constrained in their accountability responsibility due
to constraints of economic marketing and regulatory pressures.
This is the case in Africa where the limited size of the domestic
economy and the absence of critical advertising infrastructure,
like independently audited circulation figures, independently
determine the audience ratings. Waisbord  in a case study of
Latin America suggests that a strong co-dependence exists
between the state, market and the press. This often results in
severe challenges to the ability of the news media to be
watchdogs, agenda setters and gatekeepers.
For example, unregulated influence of governments and
markets coupled with the close proximity between officials and business interests have historically undermined the media's role
in democracy [21-25].
For instance, ownership structures limit the spectrum of
possible issues that the news media can address in investigative
journalism. It is not likely to uncover corporate corruption since
major economic players also own the media. There is also
editorial partisanship which is the norm rather than the
exception. The market can also act as a constraint where the
advertising industry is not sufficiently developed especially as
few media outlets can survive financially outside state control. In
most African countries most media depend on the state for
advertising. With states posing such a huge challenge to the
capacity of the news media to fulfill their ideal roles as
watchdogs, agenda setters and gatekeepers, the new social
media can be an asset to watchdog reporting.
The hopes of the new media fulfilling this role is further
buttressed by McQuail  who contends that the new media
provides a means to provide political information that gives
room for the establishment of unlimited access to different
voices and feedback between leaders and followers. It also
provides a new forum for the development of interest groups as
well as the formation of public opinion while allowing for
dialogue between policy makers and active citizens to take
place. But perhaps more than this, it provides an arena where
public discourse and public opinion can take place. This has
brought about a new public discourse without a tangible
location but people converge in order to deliberate about
national issues and make their opinions. The formation of virtual
communities that come together for discourse over important
national issues makes the social media the new public sphere
The new public sphere of the social media provides a space
for the marginalized to speak such as minorities and women
who were excluded in the old public sphere. In the new public
sphere for instance, women participated very actively during the
Arab Spring and formed a veritable bulwark of opinion moulders
that brought about accountability and change in the Arab states.
Under the old public sphere women could not express
themselves. Their voices were suppressed as traditionally,
women were not expected to engage in the political discourse.
In Egypt, women were in the forefront during protests in Cairo
and elsewhere in Arab countries . For instance, Asma
Mahfouz, an online female political activist is credited with
launching a video call that sparked the revolution against the
autocratic military rule of US backed President Hosni Mubarak.
So much has been written and documented about the Arab
Spring. However, what seems pretty clear from the body of
literature produced is that the social media acted as a catalyst
The new social media has also given birth to the concept of
Citizen Journalism which is defined simply as a citizen who uses
mass audience reaching tools such as the Internet and mobile
phone technology to spread information and receive feedback
thus creating a platform for deliberations of sorts. Citizen is
emphasized because participants partaking in the information
dissemination are deemed to have a stake in what becomes of that society. In other words, they are critical stakeholders who
are interested in the development of that society. What
differentiate citizen journalism from its concentrated
participatory nature is that in citizen journalism, the producers
are also the consumers and the consumers are also free to
become producers as well vice-versa. Citizen journalism has
contributed a lot by encouraging citizen participation in a
manner that gives them the power to hold government
accountable. They wield powers that make them a
whistleblower and opens up a degree of anonymity on the
internet. They are able to evade being identified from retributive
justice by dictators. They also make available channels that tell
the untold stories that otherwise won't make the traditional
media, hence giving a voice to the voiceless and making
deliberations on issues that concerns citizens more
While the New Social media provides ample opportunity for
citizens to engage the government, there are limitations as
observed by Moyo , in his study on blogging down a
dictatorship in Zimbabwe. His findings revealed that despite the
internet's power as a tool in promoting people's right to
communicate, it is limited by two factors. Unequal access to the
infrastructure and liberal social movements that are somewhat
elitist in their configuration - thus not as totally popular or
representative as democratic practice would have it be. There is
also the limitation of citizen journalism being turned into
hoaxes, thus raising false alarms or leading to wrong decisionmaking
and the free ability of governments to take up the same
tools such as the internet to spread propaganda.
Howbeit, citizen journalism thrives in a democracy only when
the citizens take upon themselves to actively engage
governance, deliberate and come up with solutions among
themselves and impact governance in their respective societies
no matter the barriers to freedom of expression. In order to
have active participation in governance and not limit it to only a
few, the attitude of the generality of the populace must change
towards governance. Tomi Oladepo says that they must adopt
and imbibe an attitude of I-want-to-know-what is going on
They must adopt an inquisitive mind about governance and
not be docile to information served them by the state. If
government dominates the traditional media, they have an
alternative in the social media. They can challenge the figures
provided in the budgets and hold government agencies
accountable through proper scrutiny. For instance, in Nigeria,
the yearly budgets provided by the Ministries of Finance and
approved government budgets are now available on the Internet
and accessible for the citizens.
Accountability in the Public Sphere
Accountability has been defined by Feintuck and Varley 
from a legal perspective and offers its definition in two parts.
One of these is “a requirement to give an account of one's
actions, either directly to the public, or via public authorities”.
Secondly, it means “being liable to sanctions if found in breach of some requirement or expectation attaching to the exercise of
However, according to Anne Katrina for, accountability to
happen in the public sphere, a space must exist between the
state and civil society where, both government and the citizen
exchange information and services. For instance, the citizens
communicate their demands to the government and if they are
satisfied with how these demands are met by the government,
they accordingly reward the government with legitimacy of
office. The government provides the rules and regulations as
well as public goods and services to the citizens which must be
accounted for. As, service delivery without accountability is
insufficient to achieve good governance. Citizens are therefore,
stakeholders in the public sphere where effective
communication among them raises the citizen's voice and
thereby strengthens accountability .
The social media in the public sphere accountability posits
that the social media can directly hold those in power/
government to account by acting as watchdogs over leaders.
• It provides a platform for robust, constructive public dialogue
in the public sphere.
• It provides a platform for those in power to answer for their
• Improve participation.
Although the social media provides the platform for citizens
and civil societies to engage government in an unfettered
access, in the open quest for transparency and accountability,
governments too are also discovering the use of the social
media as a means of promoting their activities in response to
the challenge by citizens and civil societies.
The use of the social media by governments is creating the
means to improve governance. For Instance, social media is
providing the means for easy publication and the rapid spread of
information, thereby creating a transparent atmosphere that
can strengthen citizens' goodwill towards government. In the
words of Anita Dunn, former White House Communications
Director for President Barak Obama, “If you are not
communicating with social media, you are leaving a growing
part of the population out of the conversation” . It is not
social media versus the conventional press. These are not
competitive channels. It is an additive process. In other words
social media complements the traditional media. If you are only
communicating through the social media, you leave out a
significant part of the population. And if you communicate only
through traditional media, you leave out a significant amount of
the population .
That is why governments are communicating in all platforms
just like the citizens; NGOs and civil societies have become
dexterous in the use of social media platforms for activism.
Governments too, have learnt to use the social media to
counter attacks and to present their own side of the story. While
in the U.S Government, communication directors combine both
responsibilities for social media and traditional media, the
Nigerian government has appointed a Special Adviser to the
President on Social Media. As governments are discovering, web pages, social media and mobile technology hold great potentials
to enhancing communication between governments, journalists
Government communicators can get more information out
faster to reporters than when they are physically present in the
newsroom. Governments can use tweets and blogs to clarify
information, deal with rumours and counter falsehood and
misinformation. Governments can also present their
information, pictures and videos directly to the public without
going through the filters of the news media. For instance, when
so much rumours and falsehood were being spread about the
health status of President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria his
media advisers were always quick to send pictures of his
meetings with government officials in London where he was
undergoing medical treatment. In one instance, the social media
had it that he was dead.
But several pictures of his meetings with government officials
from his vacation home in London went viral in both the social
media and the traditional media.
The social media has opened up avenues for access to
government and government officials and created the avenue
for possible new community driven initiatives. Moreover, it
saves time and money and provides information through social
media channels which is faster, easier and cheaper to access
particularly by younger people who tend to use, read and
operate in the social media space. The social media creates new
ways of working through online collaboration across
government departments and with citizens. This has led to
changes in the way government operates and develops policy.
The Nigerian Federal Ministry of Finance has created a
website through which it posts the monthly Federal allocation to
states and the Federal Capital Territory. Through the postings of
what is accrued to each state, citizens are able to monitor
precisely what each state derived from the federation account.
It provides the platform to engage state governments and hold
them accountable in terms of how they utilize the state
In the move to ensure open disclosure of information, the
Nigerian Vice President on 22nd September, 2017, launched the
public –private partnership Web portal. The Web portal which
was built with the aid of the World Bank is to ensure public
accountability and open access to good governance. All
information about government and private sector partnership in
the execution of and awards of contracts will be in the public
While such open disclosure of information is to ensure open
accountability in governance, there are fears that unless citizens
are engaged and made to overcome their inertia and general
participation, such web portals may remain dormant without
achieving the purpose to which it was put in place for in the first
Censorship of Social Media
A quartz Africa Report on the Internet performance in African
countries states that in 2016, government directed internet outages became the rule rather than the exception as many
African governments intentionally disrupted the internet or
electronic communication with the intention of exerting control
over the flow of information and thereby infringing on freedom
of expression .
According to the report, the interruptions occurred during
critical electioneering periods as was the case in Gabon, and
during protests advocating for social justice in Ethiopia. For
instance, such shut downs were witnessed in the Gambia in the
period preceding the 2016 elections .
In Ethiopia, after months of protests that led to the death of
hundreds, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn
was said to have decried the use of the social media in a speech
delivered at the United Nations describing it as a tool to exploit
people's genuine concerns and spread their message of hate and
bigotry without any inhibition”
In Nigeria, legislation was another way governments tried to
subvert the use of the internet and social media. The hash tag
#No to social Media Bill was used to protest a proposed bill that
will jail for two years or fine $10,000 anyone posting an “abusive
statement” on Twitter, WhatsApp or any form of social media
Many countries in Africa according to Access Now have in
their draft Cybercrime laws in Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and
Zimbabwe significant elements of concern in using and
accessing the internet. Many clauses in the bills placed
restrictions on whistleblowers and digital security researchers.
Similarly, The Freedom House 2016 Report “Silencing the
Messenger::Communication Apps Under Pressure'' states that
more governments than ever before have targeted social media
and communication Apps as a means of halting the rapid
dissemination of information, particularly during
antigovernment protests. The report further highlighted the fact
that public facing social media platforms like Facebook and
Twitter were subjected to censorship for several years. While a
new trend by governments is to target voice communication and
messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram. These services
are able to spread information and connect users' more securely
while making it more difficult for the authorities to control
information or conduct any form of surveillance.
According to the report, governments censored more diverse
contents as they expanded their censorship dragnet to cover a
growing diversity of topics and online activities. Among the sites
and pages censored in many of the countries included those
through which people initiated digital petitions or calls for
protests. Websites and online news outlets that promote views
of political opposition groups were also among those targeted
Similarly, contents and websites that dealt with the issues of
LGBTI [lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex] were
also increasingly blocked or taken down on moral grounds.
Censorship of the written word has intensified likely due to the
case with which users can now share them and the fact that
they often serve as compelling evidence of official wrong doing.
In authoritarian countries, governments used antiterrorism
laws to prosecute users for simply writing about democracy,
religion, or human rights .
The internet remained a key tool in the fight for better
governance, human rights and transparency. For instance, in
more than two-thirds of the countries in the study by Freedom
House, internet based actions had led to some sort of tangible
outcomes. From the defeat of a restrictive legislative proposal to
the exposure of corruption through citizen journalism. In Nigeria
for example, internet activists helped to thwart a bill that would
have limited social media activity in the country. In many other
countries, individuals are using messaging apps as private social
networks where they can enjoy greater freedom of expression
than on more established public facing social networks such as
Facebook and Twitter. New messaging and calling apps also
provide greater anonymity than conventional voice and SMS
services that can be tracked due to SIM card registration
requirements. Several others offer end –to –end encryption that
prevents wiretapping and interceptions. Activists and human
rights defenders in repressive countries have found ways to
protect their communication by convening on WhatsApp, Vibe
and Telegram in order to share sensitive information conduct
advocacy campaigns or organize protests .
Penalties for Social Media Infractions
While many governments attempted to place restrictions on
the access to social media and communication platforms, far
more turned to traditional law enforcement methods to punish
defaulters and deter users. Since June 2015, police in 38
countries arrested individuals for their activities on social media
compared with 21 countries where people were arrested for
content published on news sites or blogs .
The increased penetration of the social media in countries
considered as repressive has enabled discussions and
information sharing on issues that governments deem sensitive
which often results into arrests of journalists and politicians,
activists and ordinary citizens who may not be aware they are
crossing the red line.
In Nigeria, two Premium Times journalists were arrested by
the Nigerian Police following their reports of corruption
allegations against the Nigerian Chief of Army Staff. General
Tukur Buratai. Security officials sent plain clothed officers to
arrest the publisher Dapo Olurunyomi and one of its
correspondents that cover the judiciary, Evelyn Okakwu. This
raid by the police led Amnesty International to condemn the
action. while, CPI had called on the Nigerian authorities to drop
the charges against the journalists and to desist from further
attempts to intimidate the media. Lawyers of the Nigerian Chief
of Army Staff had filed charges against the social media and the
arrests of the journalists came a few weeks after the publication
of the website .
Omoyele Sowore of the Sahara Reporters is another reporter
who also suffered similar fate at the hands of security agents
when the police in Lagos arrested him on criminal charges of
defamation and blackmail. The online publication had in its
January 2016 report that Mr. Fatodu stood as front for a former Minister of Aviation, Femi Fani Kayode in the mismanagement of
funds meant for the purchase of arms for the military. Mr. Fani
kayode is standing trial on allegations that he received funds
from a former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki. Sowore
is the founder of Sahara Reporters and it is out to promote
citizen journalism and to expose corruption, human rights
abuses and other political misconducts.
A Nigerian Senator, Shehu Sani, spoke out against the arrests
by security agents. He said “The increasing arrests points to a
nation repulsive and allergic to free press and slowly gravitating
Before this incident, in 2014, Tonye Okio who was a former
aide to the governor of Bayelsa State, Timipre Sylva at the states
liaison office in Abuja had spent 86 days in prison in Bayelsa. His
arrest and subsequent detention without trial in a Bayelsa
prison over a comment he was alleged to have posted on
Facebook sparked off a public outcry and condemnation in the
print, electronic and social media. He was arrested because he
had criticized a serving governor of Bayelsa state, Seriake
Dickson on Facebook who ordered the police to arrest him in
Abuja and take him down to Bayelsa State.
In the northwestern Katsina State of Nigeria also, a Facebook
critic of the Katsina State Governor, Aminu Masari, Ibrahim
Bature remained in prison for over 35 days after his arrest.
The police had arrested Bature on August 28th, 2017 on
charges of inciting disaffection to the government and
defamation of character. An F.I.R read that sometimes in July
2017, Bature published and tweeted false report that Governor
Masari was trying to ruin the state's future by collecting loans
worth N77, 7 billion and that the government was going for
another loan of USD 110 million to build hospitals in 34 local
Among the allegations against Bature was that he had said in
a video “Comrades and activists of Katsina state let us form a
strong coalition and collectively say enough is enough. Enough
of this nonsense, we did not agree on this idea”.
Instead of the Katsina government refuting such allegations
using the media and social media platform with facts and
figures, it resorted to using the law enforcement to arrest,
intimidate and suppress such social media activists.
In the course of carrying out their duties, Journalists and
social media activists sometimes face attacks by security
officials. Such attacks against them may go unprosecuted, and in
an environment in which such impunity against attackers
combines with the threat of legal prosecution and harassment in
connection with critical coverage, this could encourage selfcensorship.
That the new social media technologies is enhancing
democratic debate and citizen empowerment across Africa is
not in doubt. The democratic space has been further expanded
with the participation of the social media, however, the promise
with which it is held as an alternative to the traditional media in the public sphere of accountability has brought its users into
conflict with governments.
The possibilities created by the new public sphere channels
for people to come together in order to combat corruption,
wasteful spending or abuse by government through sharing of
sensitive information, advocacy campaign, organize protests,
discuss, analyze and deliberate on issues beyond geographical
boundaries as is now obtainable through Facebook, Twitter,
WhatsApp, Tumbir, etc. faces new challenges and constraints.
While Nigeria allows a relatively open Internet environment,
bloggers, journalists and social media activists when not
incarcerated, face intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrests
and even torture. In Africa there are full panoply of repressive
measures to control the internet and invariably the flow of
information. Moreover, many countries have cybercrime laws
which raise significant elements of concern in using and
accessing the internet. However, to circumvent these
restrictions, and make the internet an open and secure platform
for all, different organizations, NGOs, civil societies and
communities must work together to protect these digital
platforms and human rights
The role of the social media should be to facilitate the
creation of viable alternatives to state-controlled media; In this
regard therefore, adequate care needs to be taken in order to
create an environment in which new technologies can foster
citizen empowerment, which in turn will provide for good
governance and accountability in Africa.
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