Two civil society organisations – Global Rights and Tap Initiative for Citizens Development have applied to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Banjul, the Gambia to invalidate the Twitter ban by the Nigerian government and any measures or steps taken to implement the ban.
The groups also asked the commission to issue an order directing the federal government to afford just satisfaction to them by way of damages for the losses suffered by them in consequence of the ban.
Further, they asked the commission to hold that Nigeria, by imposing a ban on the use of Twitter has violated Nigerians’ right to freedom of expression as provided for by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Nigeria is a state party to the Charter, having deposited its instrument of ratification of the Charter on 22 July 1983.
The Charter is also part of Nigeria’s law having been domesticated by the African Charter (Ratification and Enforcement) Act of 1983.
The applicants therefore asked the commission to declare that the twitter ban ordered on June 4, 2021 amounted to internet shutdown or disruption incompatible with the charter.
They prayed the commission to declare that the ban and the threat to prosecute anyone using Twitterviolate Articles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 13, 15, 16, 17, 22 and 26 of the charter.
Other reliefs sought by the applicants are: A declaration that the threat of the federal government issued on or about 5 June, 2021, to prosecute all or any users of Twitter within its territory is an abuse of power, which has a chilling effect on and violates the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Articles 5, 9, 10, 11, 13, 15 and 17 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
A declaration that the order issued by the Respondent State on or about 7 June, 2021, to all media houses to deactivate their Twitter handles and stop tweeting violates Articles 9, 10, 11, 13, 16 and 17of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
A declaration that the failure of the Respondent State to maintain the courts and keep them open since 6 April 2021, is a denial of the right of the applicants to local remedies and violates Articles 1 and 26 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
A declaration that by reason of the violations aforesaid, the Respondent State is in violation of its obligations under Article 1 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
There are hurdles the applicants must scale before the commission can hear their application, one of which is that they must have exhausted local remedies before approaching the commission.
To scale these hurdles, the applicants argued that as at the time they filed the communication, courts in Nigeria were shut as a result of the strike embarked upon by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria.
In accordance with Rule 100 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the applicants prayed the commission for provisional measures against Nigeria pending the determination of the communication.
One of such measures asked for by the applicants is for the commission to stop the federal government from arresting or prosecuting them, their staff, personnel or associates or taking any steps to impair their rights of on grounds of their use of Twitter pending the determination of the present complaint or the lifting of the ban on Twitter by Nigeria.
They also asked the commission to refer the complaint against Nigeria to the African Court on Humanand Peoples’ Rights for determination.
Nigeria deposited with the Commission of the African Union its instrument of ratification of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Establishment of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights on 9 June, 2004 (hereafter called “the African Court Protocol”.
However, Nigerian citizens cannot file a case directly at the African Court on Human and People’s Rights, because Nigeria has not made a declaration under Article 34(6) of the African Court’s Protocol accepting the competence of the court to receive cases from individuals and non governmental organisations.
But the applicants claimed that Internet disruptions violated the right to receive information and freeexpression (Article 9(1)-(2)), the right to freedom of association (Article 10), and right to freedom of assembly (Article 11).
According to them, freedom from censorship, including freedom from blocking or filtering of the Internet, is central for the exercise of freedom of expression.
“The right of access to information (Article 9(1)) is also an important part of th right to freedom of expression, as it is needed in order to build opinions and express them. Blocking, filtering and censorship, plus the possibility of criminal prosecution, limit access to information and stifle online debate. State manipulation of the information that citizens are permitted to see (and not see) online also impedes the right of access to accurate information”, they added.
The applicants argued further that disrupting access to the Internet services hinders the full enjoyment of a wide range of fundamental rights and freedoms, particularly the right Articles 2, 3, 5, 9, 10, 11, 13(1) and 16 of the African Charter.
They said: “The Twitter ban adversely impacts on ordinary lives by preventing people fromcommunicating, harming businesses and livelihoods. In practical terms, it impacts most adversely on the poorest people, who are less able to afford alternative or more costly means of communication thereby creating unjustifiable discrimination, promoting inequality, and unlawfully impinging on the dignity of persons contrary to Articles 2, 3 and 4 of the African Charter.”
In its resolution on the Right to Freedom of Information and Expression on the Internet in Africa, the commission recognises the role of the Internet in advancing human and peoples’ rights in Africa.
The applicants argued that, “The current ban on Twitter in Nigeria clearly contravenes the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, issued by this honorable commission, according to which ‘States shall not interfere with the right of individuals to seek, receiveand impart information through any means of communication and digital technologies, through measures such as the removal, blocking or filtering of content, unless such interference is justifiable and compatible with international human rights law and standards.”