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Blocking access to Twitter in Nigeria is a flagrant violation of fundamental rights

Update: January 13, 2022 After seven months of deliberately blocking access to Twitter, authorities in Nigeria have today lifted the ban on the social media platform. 

According to media reports, the government indicated that Twitter had pledged to fulfil certain conditions which had been discussed behind closed doors. Twitter also confirmed that it had been unblocked in the country, but did not acknowledge the conditions, or indicate if it planned on fulfilling them.

While Access Now welcomes the government’s decision to end the Twitter ban, many aspects of this decision remain unclear, so appeal to both parties to be transparent and consultative in regard to the discussions that occurred, or will take place, and ensure that the fundamental rights of the people of Nigeria are not jeopardized in the process. 

“Ending the ban on Twitter in Nigeria is the right thing to do, but it is incredibly unfortunate that it took the authorities so many months to do so,” said  Felicia Anthonio, Campaigner and #KeepItOn Lead at Access Now. “The ban was an unnecessary attack on fundamental rights, while costing the country’s economy over a billion USD.”

Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition maintain that internet shutdowns are unnecessary and disproportionately affect fundamental rights, and urge governments to immediately end their practice.  

Access Now eagerly awaits the ECOWAS court ruling on the Twitter ban on January 20, 2022. Its decision is binding on ECOWAS members, including Nigeria, and hopes the court sets a strong precedent to prevent future shutdowns in the region.

Update: July 5, 2021 — The #KeepItOn coalition is again pressuring authorities in Nigeria to immediately rescind Twitter’s “indefinite” suspension. The original call, signed by over 50 organizations, including Access Now, was published on June 26, 2021. 

Since Twitter was blocked on June 4, people across the nation have been unable to access the social media platform without circumvention tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Civil society, however, has risen to defend freedom of expression through a series of legal actions. 

Last month, a coalition of over 170 civil society actors and individuals led by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) challenged the government’s threat to arrest and prosecute anybody violating the Twitter ban at the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). On June 22, the Court issued a preliminary injunction against prosecution of people using Twitter or other social media. A full ruling on the pending case — and more lawsuits — are expected in the coming weeks.

“This Twitter ban and attempts to double down on social media censorship places Nigerian authorities on the wrong side of history,” said Felicia Anthonio, Campaigner and #KeepItOn Lead at Access Now. “The #KeepItOn coalition supports Nigerian civil society’s ECOWAS challenge, and will continue to do so until all platforms are open and accessible across the country. 

Meanwhile, five civil society organizations, including Paradigm Initiative, and four journalists, have also filed a suit against the Nigerian Federal Government at the ECOWAS Court asking it to declare the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria a violation of human rights under international law, order the government to immediately rescind the suspension order, and compensate people who use Twitter for the violation of their rights. In addition, another lawsuit by Paradigm Initiative in defense of the fundamental rights of Nigerians was lodged  at the Federal High Court in Abuja.

In a setback on July 1,  however, members of the House of Representatives rejected a move to overturn the suspension of Twitter operations in Nigeria.

June 5, 2021 — Access Now deplores the government of Nigeria’s suspension of Twitter operations in the country, and demands all services be fully reinstated for all. Authorities implemented the shutdown on June 4 citing “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” 

This “indefinite” suspension comes amidst a wave of online oppression following both the #EndSARS protests that were globally trending on Twitter last October and Twitter’s more recent decision to remove President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet threatening genocide on Nigerian citizens in the south. It also builds on longstanding efforts to pass regressive social media regulation, including a government directive to tax so-called over-the-top (OTT) services. 

The Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, has directed that persons found “violating the ban” are to be arrested and prosecuted.

“Shutting down Twitter is already impacting millions of people both inside and outside of Nigeria,” said Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn Lead at Access Now. “Blocking a platform that has been vital to exposing government-sponsored police brutality is an attempt to suppress access to information that’s essential for accountability.”

The #KeepItOn coalition called on Nigeria’s government to refrain from this kind of disruption to essential communications platforms in October 2020 as the #EndSARS protests against police brutality in the country first gained international attention. Access Now reaffirms the call in that open letter — signed by more than 50 civil society organizations around the world — and now urge the immediate restoration of access to Twitter and other platforms that may be affected. 

The government’s actions violate regional and international human rights standards, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) resolution on the right to freedom of information and expression on the internet in Africa. The resolution spotlights concern over “the emerging practice of State Parties of interrupting or limiting access to telecommunications services such as the Internet, social media and messaging services, increasingly during elections,” and calls on states to “guarantee, respect and protect citizen’s right to freedom of information and expression through access to Internet services.” Blocking access to popular social media sites infringes on these freedoms, while impacting association and assembly as well as economic, social, and cultural rights. 

“Directives such as the one issued by the government of Nigeria are a direct affront to the freedom of expression and the right to access information — they should not be allowed to stand,” said Bridget Andere, Africa Policy Fellow at Access Now.

Access Now calls on the Nigerian government to withdraw the Twitter blocking order and ensure any future regulations robustly protect digital rights. We call on telecommunications companies in Nigeria to resist orders to violate human rights, including in court, and disclose such demands. We further urge all stakeholders around the world to denounce these measures, and call on the government of Nigeria to reinstate social media access, and take steps to safeguard their citizens’ freedom of expression and access to information.