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Stop Buhari, others from shutting down telecoms, SERAP urges court

By Olanrewaju Olusegun
A group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has filed a lawsuit asking the court for “an order of perpetual injunction to restrain President Muhammadu Buhari and the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami, from unlawfully shutting down telecommunication networks in any part of the country.”

In the suit number FHC/ABJ/CS/1323/2021 filed at the Federal High Court, Abuja, SERAP is asking the court to “determine whether the shutdown of telecommunication networks in any part of Nigeria by the Buhari administration is unlawful, and a violation of the rights of access to correspondence, freedom of expression, information, and the press.”

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SERAP, in a statement by its deputy director, Kolawole Oluwadare, is also asking the court to “determine whether the shutdown of telecommunication networks in any part of the country is inconsistent with the principles of legality, proportionality and necessity, and the rights of access to correspondence, freedom of expression, information, and the press.”

The suit, which has been assigned to Justice Ahmed Mohammed at Court 4, is fixed for hearing on January 11, 2022.

In the suit joining the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) as a defendant, SERAP is arguing that “Large-scale shutdowns of communication networks are a form of collective punishment.

“Shutdowns exert significant chilling effects, with direct implications on participatory democracy, whose existence depends upon an active and informed citizenry capable of engaging with a range of ideas.”

According to SERAP, “The Buhari administration has constitutional and international legal obligations to enable access to the Internet for all, as access to the Internet is inextricably linked to the exercise of freedom of expression and information.”

SERAP is also arguing that “Access to information, the ability to exercise the right to freedom of expression and the participation that internet and telecommunication networks provide to all sectors of society is essential for a truly democratic society.”

According to the group, “The rights to freedom of expression and information may be restricted only in specific circumstances. Restrictions on these rights must be provided by law, proportionate, and necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others or the protection of national security or public order, or of public health and morals.”

SERAP is also arguing that “While the authorities have a legal responsibility to protect, ensure and secure the rights to life and property, any such responsibility ought to be discharged in conformity with constitutional and international human rights standards.”

It added, “The suspension of internet and telecommunication networks in Zamfara and Katsina states is particularly egregious, and suggests a disturbing trend, especially given the escalating repression and restriction of civic space in Nigeria. Shutdowns should never become an entrenched practice in the country.”

The suit, filed on behalf of SERAP by its lawyers, Kolawole Oluwadare and Kehinde Oyewumi, read in part: “Internet and telecommunication shutdowns amount to an inherently disproportionate interference with the rights to freedom of expression and information. Necessity requires showing that shutdowns would achieve their stated purpose, which they often jeopardise.

“In their 2011 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the Internet, four special mandates on freedom of expression emphasised that ‘Cutting off access to the Internet, or parts of the Internet, for whole populations or segments of the public can never be justified, including on public order or national security grounds.

“The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has affirmed the principle of non-interference with access to internet and telecommunication networks and stressed that States including Nigeria ‘shall not engage in or condone any disruption of access to the internet and other digital technologies for segments of the public or an entire population.”

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