Nigerians are criticising lawmakers for trying to pass a controversial bill aimed at tackling the spread of false allegations against Nigerian officials and institutions. The Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected Therewith passed a second reading at the senate on 1 December.

If the bill becomes law, people "who intentionally propagate false information that could threaten the security of the country or that is capable of inciting the general public against the government through electronic message" could be jailed for up to seven years and fined up to 5m Naira ($25,000; £16,000).

The bill has been criticised by some as a way to curb freedom of speech, particularly on social media, and punish critics of the government and lawmakers, frequently attacked by the public for their high salaries, perceived lavish lifestyles and their involvement in corruption scandals. Nigerian citizens have taken to social media to vent their outrage over the bill under the hashtag #NoToSocialMediaBill.

Social media users and human right groups are urging the senate to scrap the bill or amend the social media section contained in the draft law. This section reads: "Where any person through text message, tweets, WhatsApp or through any social media posts any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2m or both fine and imprisonment.

"Where any person in order to circumvent this law makes any allegation and or publish any statement, petition in any paper, radio, or any medium of whatever description, with malicious intent to discredit or set the public against any person or group of persons, institutions of government, he shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment term of two years or a fine of N4m."

Human Rights Watch warned that the bill was designed to muzzle free speech and could affect more than 15 million Nigerians who are active on social media.

The bill aims 'to stop unlawful petitions'

The bill is being sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na'allah, from President Buhari's party All Progressive Party (APC). In a document obtained by The Vanguard, Na'allah said the bill did not aim to curb criticism of the government, but aimed to make sure petitions were accompanied by affidavits from the High Court of a state or the Federal High Court. He said: "The bill seeks to provide punishment for frivolous petitions by making sure that only credible and verifiable petitions are presented to the public."

According the draft bill, petitions not accompanied by a sworn affidavit will not be used by government institutions. The bill sees a fine and a jail term of between six months and two years for people who publish and use unlawful petitions.

The bill is also supported by lawmaker Dino Melaye, from Kogi state, who lambasted the New York-based media platform Sahara Reporters for allegedly publishing false allegations on him and the senate. Melaye said during a discussion at the senate: "While I celebrate the social media as one of the actors, this senate should not be blackmailed. The bill moved yesterday by Ibn Na'allah has been misconstrued by the same people. This senate should not be quiet about it."

Other lawmakers alleged that other media publications publish false reports on Nigerian officials and that false allegations are on the rise.

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