A West African court has restrained the Nigerian government from “unlawfully” prosecuting people from using Twitter, while it is considering a legal action launched by activists and journalists seeking to reverse a ban on the social media giant.
Authorities in early June indefinitely suspended Twitter, two days after the platform removed a post from President Muhammadu Buhari that threatened to punish regional secessionists, which Twitter said violated its rules. The Nigerian attorney general further said those who defied the ban should be prosecuted, but did not provide any details as to which law would be invoked.
In response, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), a local rights group, along with 176 other Nigerians, went to court to fight the ban.
On Tuesday, a statement describing the decision to suspend the hugely popular social media platform’s operations as an attempt to silence criticism of the government from SERAP quoted the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as saying it was restraining the government from acting against citizens or media outlets over the use of Twitter, pending a substantive ruling on the core issue.
BREAKING: Twitter ban: According to the ECOWAS Court: “The court has listened very well to the objection by Nigeria. Any interference with Twitter is viewed as inference with human rights. This will violate human rights. Nigeria must take immediate steps to implement this order.”
— SERAP (@SERAPNigeria) June 22, 2021
“The court has listened very well to the objection,” SERAP said. “Any interference with Twitter is viewed as inference with human rights, and that will violate human rights,” it added.
The lawsuit’s applicants had argued that the Twitter suspension “escalated repression of human rights and unlawfully restricted the rights of Nigerians and other people to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom in the country”.
Applicants also urged the court to hold the Nigerian government liable for the violation of “their fundamental human right and for breaching its international obligations” by banning Twitter.
We urge the @GovNigeria to abide by the decision of the ECOWAS Court, take steps to relax restrictions on citizens’ access to social media in Nigeria and respect the right of Nigerians to free expression online and offline. #ProtectCivicSpace #KeepItOn.
— RFK Human Rights (@RFKHumanRights) June 22, 2021
The government’s move prompted an immediate backlash among social media users and human rights activists, with #NigeriaTwitterBan and #KeepitOn trending on the platform as Nigerians used virtual private networks to access the site.
There was no immediate comment by the Nigerian government following Tuesday’s ruling.
Nigeria’s Information minister Lai Mohammed has previously said the suspension had nothing to do with Buhari’s tweet being deleted, but rather with “separatists inciting violence” online.
“Regulating social media is not about stifling press freedom. All we are talking about is the responsible use of these platforms,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube were still accessible.
In 2021, Nigeria ranked 120th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index.