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Twitter Ban: Court Dismisses Suit Against FG, Fines SERAP N100,000

A Federal High Court, Abuja, on Thursday, dismissed a suit filed against the Federal Government for directing television and radio stations to delete their Twitter accounts.

Justice Obiora Egwuatu, in a judgment, dismissed the suit for lacking in merit and awarded the sum of N100,000 against the plaintiff.

The Incorporated Trustees of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) had, in June, filed a fundamental rights enforcement suit marked: FHC/ABJ/CS/496/21, against three defendants.

In the suit, SERAP had sued the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the Director-General of NBC and the Minister of Information and Culture as first to third defendants respectively.

The suit followed the order by NBC asking all broadcast outfits to immediately suspend patronage of the social media giant after it was banned for violating Nigerian laws.

The group had sought an order of perpetual injunction restraining the Federal Government and the regulator from “censoring, regulating, licensing and controlling the social media operations and contents by broadcast stations and activities of social media service providers in Nigeria.”

It also sought and order setting aside the directive asking broadcast stations to stop using Twitter, as being “unconstitutional, unlawful, inconsistent and incompatible with the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 [as amended], and the country’s obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

SERAP stated further that the court had an important role to play in the protection and preservation of the rule of law to ensure that persons and institutions operate within the defined ambit of constitutional and statutory limitations.

It argued that the directive amounted to a fundamental breach of the principle of legality, the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom, and incompatible with the country’s international human rights obligations, among others.

In their preliminary objections, the first and second defendants urged the court to dismiss the suit. They argued that the directive did not in any way affect the plaintiff.

They further averred that the action was taken in the interest of the country’s national security, economy and unity, adding that the suit was filed in bad faith.

The defendants told the court that apart from Twitter, there are other social media platforms through which the plaintiff could access information and interact like Facebook, among others.

Also in his argument, the Minister of Information, through his lawyer, Nelson Orji, said the Federal Government operates within the ambit of the law and would not do anything to undermine it.

He said that the operation of Twitter, an American microblogging and social media outfit, within the Nigerian cyberspace required it to operate within the confines of the laws. He told the court that the company was not registered as a company in Nigeria as required by the law.

According to Orji, by the provisions of the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA), foreign businesses wishing to carry on business in Nigeria are required to be registered by the Corporate Affairs Commission as a Nigerian company.

The lawyer argued that Twitter, as a company operating in the country, had not been paying taxes as required by the law.

He told the court that what the government had done was to suspend its operation of business activities pending its willingness to operate within the Nigerian laws.

Orji also stated that apart from Twitter, there are other microblogging social media outfits like Facebook, WhatsApp, among others, that are still operating within Nigeria which Nigerians are still using to disseminate information unhindered.

He added that Twitter was suspended because its activities became a threat to the country’s national security and the welfare of its people.

“The primary role of government as provided for by the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) is security and welfare of the people,” Orji had told the court.

He argued that the ban on Twitter for violating the law did not affect the rights of SERAP.

Delivering the judgment, Justice Egwuatu held that the fundamental rights of the plaintiff had not been breached because the freedom of expression provided for under Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) is not absolute.

He stated that the section is limited under Section 45(1) which deals with the issues of defence, public safety, public health, public morality, among others.

The judge held that the media houses, under which SERAP had filed the suit, did not complain about the ban, hence, the plaintiff cannot cry more than the bereaved.

He also agreed with the defendants that there are other microblogging platforms through which the plaintiff could express information like Facebook and others.

Egwuatu held that when national security is threatened, the issues of fundamental human rights take a second stage. He said besides, Twitter was not a registered company in the country as required by the laws.

Justice Egwuatu, who dismissed the suit for lacking in merit, awarded a cost of N100,000 in favour of the defendants.

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