The decision is at variance with the interim order earlier issued by the ECOWAS Court of Justice which emphasized the impact of the ban on Twitter by the Nigerian government on citizens’ rights
The Federal High Court in Abuja, on Friday, dismissed a case challenging the federal government’s directive to broadcast stations to delete the Twitter handles.
The suit was instituted by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) following the directive of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) stopping broadcast from using Twitter after the government announced on June 4, 2021, a ban on the use of the microblogging in Nigeria.
SERAP had sued the NBC, the Director-General of NBC, and the Minister of Information and Culture as first to third defendants, respectively, in the suit marked: FHC/ABJ/CS/496/21.
But in a judgement on Friday, the judge, Obiora Egwuatu, held that SERAP’s suit was lacking in merit.
The judge, after dismissing the suit, awarded N100, 000 fine against SERAP.
Why suit was dismissed
In his verdict, the judge held that national security takes precedent over fundamental rights, adding, “Twitter is not a registered company in Nigeria.”
The judge said SERAP’s fundamental rights as regards the Twitter ban had not been violated because the freedom of expression provided for under section 39 under the Nigerian constitution is not absolute.
He ruled that rights are limited by section 45(1) which deals with the issues of defence, public safety, public health and public morality.
The court also held that the media organisations that were banned from using Twitter did not raise any issue, therefore SERAP cannot “cry more than the bereaved.”
At variance with ECOWAS Court order
The decision is at variance with the interim order earlier issued by the ECOWAS Court of Justice which emphasised the impact of the ban on Twitter by the Nigerian government on citizens’ rights.
The order issued in a suit filed by SERAP and 176 others “restrained the government of President Muhammadu Buhari and its agents from unlawfully imposing sanctions or doing anything whatsoever to harass, intimidate, arrest or prosecute Twitter and/or any other social media service provider(s), media houses, radio and television broadcast stations, the Plaintiffs and other Nigerians who are Twitter users, pending the hearing and determination of this suit.”
The court said: “The court has listened very well to the objection by Nigeria. The court has this to say. Any interference with Twitter is viewed as inference with human rights, and that will violate human rights. Therefore, this court has jurisdiction to hear the case. The court also hereby orders that the application be heard expeditiously. The Nigerian government must take immediate steps to implement the order.”
The suit was initiated as a result of the order by the NBC, asking all broadcast stations to immediately suspend patronage of Twitter, the microblogging site, after it was banned for violating Nigerian laws.
SERAP 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.”
The group further said 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 NBC and its Director-General, urged the court to dismiss the suit; arguing that the directive did not in any way affect the plaintiff.
They said the action was taken in the interest of Nigeria’s national security, economy and unity.
The defendants told the court that apart from Twitter, there are other social media platforms like Facebook, through which the plaintiff could access information and interact.
Similarly, a lawyer to the Minister of Information, Nelson Orji, said the federal government operates within the ambit of the law and would not do anything to undermine it.
The Nigerian government had banned Twitter in Nigeria after the microblogging site deleted a controversial tweet by President Buhari considered as a threat of violence against an ethnic group.