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How #TwitterBan is limiting access to justice, shrinking civic space

From helping to find Iniubong Umoren’s killer, to popularising justice seeking campaigns and checking government’s excesses, among others, Twitter has proven to be a useful part of life for millions of Nigerian.

In April, 26-year-old Iniubong Umoren, a graduate of the University of Uyo (UNIUYO), took her job-hunting mission to Twitter.

“#AkwaIbomTwitter please I’m really in need of a job, something to do to keep mind and soul together while contributing dutifully to the organisation. My location is Uyo. I’m creative, really good in thinking critically and most importantly a fast learner. CV available on request,” she tweeted on April 27, 2021.

Not too long afterwards, Ms Umoren’s hope for a job appeared to be coming true as she soon got an “invitation” for an employment interview. Unknown to her, she had fallen for a bait, and she would not make it out alive.

The “job interview” scheduled to take place on April 29, 2021 was fake as the public would later learn from her friend who raised the alarm on Twitter.

Few hours after Ms Umoren left for her supposed interview, her friend with Twitter username @umohuduak1 raised the alarm about the whereabouts of her friend through Twitter.

Nigerians on Twitter swung into action and were able to deploy all sorts of online tools to unravel what had happened to her. Ms Umoren was later found, although dead.

Save Twitter, she would have been another unreported case of murder in Nigeria.

Like several other scenarios, Twitter has become a rallying point for Nigerians seeking justice in different ways, and on many occasions, it has helped to provide citizens’ desired help.

With diverse positive purposes it is being used for, Twitter has become a part of life of the estimated 40 million Nigerians using the microblogging site.

According to a 2019 survey by NOI Polls, there are estimated 40 million Twitter users in Nigeria with the majority of them aged 18 – 35, many of whom use the microblogging platform for commercial purposes.

Therefore, for many, Twitter is a platform where they exercise their economic rights.

Not minding these, the President Muhammadu Buhari administration banned Twitter operations in Nigeria on June 4, two days after a controversial tweet of the president, viewed as a threat of violence against Igbo people, was deleted by the microblogging site.

Although many Nigerians have been bypassing the ban using various Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications, government institutions, many private businesses and media outlets, among others have stopped using the site in compliance with the federal government’s directive.

Since the ban on Twitter, the Buhari administration has been more aggressive in its quest to control the media across the social, traditional and online platforms, through the push for far-reaching legislation.

Damage #TwitterBan can do

A gender inclusion expert, Busola Ajibola, fears that the ban of Twitter may have a negative effect on access to justice.

“Responses people generate on Twitter, compared to other social media platforms, are instant and prompt. You could see that a lot of professionals, civil society, all have a presence on Twitter and so if you are a victim of any form of injustice or abuse, you quickly know who to tag or reach out to,” she said.

Uncertain if such instant responses can come quickly on other platforms, Ms Ajibola believes that even if they exist, they are not as vigorous or vibrant as what is obtainable on Twitter.

She adds that the ban on Twitter will not only affect access to justice but also other interventions ranging from emotional, financial, and others, people get from the platform.

One of such interventions was seen in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when the world and especially developing economies were in short supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The Nigerian government, through Twitter, solicited support from the international communities, which they got.

Twitter has also become the foremost social media resource centre where disease control agencies of different countries, including Nigeria, share local and international updates with their citizens.

Attack on civic activities

During the #EndSARS protests against police brutality in October 2020 when peaceful protesters were detained by state forces, the Nigerian youth, through Twitter, created hotlines affected persons could reach in order to secure their release or that of their colleagues.

The bird application also drew the attention of the international communities to the plight of young Nigerians who had suffered at the hands of law enforcement.

A lawyer and human rights crusader, Inibehe Effiong, describes Twitter and other social media platforms as “veritable tools for civic engagement”.

“It gives the ordinary people a voice to air their grievances and bring to public attention, injustice that has been done to them and seek both institutional and public support,” the activist says, noting that so many citizens have got redress for injustice done to them “on account of the popularisation of such cases on Twitter.”

Mr Effiong, who has sued the federal government over the ban, says the ban on microblogging site limits “access to (justice)” and in a way, “shrinks the civic space.”

“People can no longer organise effectively as they are supposed to,” he said.

Setback for impactful positive campaigns

The Executive Director TechHer Nigeria, Chioma Agwuebo, says Twitter has been instrumental in helping to serve justice to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

“Twitter was instrumental in sensitising the public on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) issues, calling the government and relevant stakeholders to action, seeking justice for survivors, and holding perpetrators accountable.

“Indeed, it was a powerful tool for online activism and advocacy for issues of sexual and gender-based violence,” she says.

In the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown, governors of Nigeria’s 36 states unanimously declared a state of emergency on SGBV after a series of violence perpetrated against women sparked nationwide protests by activists online and at rallies.

Reports of rape, abuse, and killing of women and girls flooded the social media space. Notable among the cases were the rape and murder of Vera Uwa Omozuwa and Barakat Bello and the rape of a 12-year-old girl in Jigawa State.

These public outcries using hashtags such as #JusticeForUwa, and #JusticeForBarakat helped to sustain the call for justice which led to the declaration of the state of emergency. Several other female survivors of SGBV were encouraged and told their own stories.

Ms Agwuebo said with the ban on Twitter in Nigeria, the progress achieved in using the Twitter platform to get justice may suffer a setback.

‘Ban not the answer to abuse’

Many advocates of stringent social regulations and sanctions on tech companies have often cited how the social media platforms have been used in spreading injurious fake news, inciting violence, and divisive campaigns.

Mr Effiong acknowledged that the social media space is susceptible to abuse like other forms of media, but insists imposing a ban is not the solution.

“Fake news does not warrant banning Twitter,” he said, explaining further that the solution to the problem is “putting put out more correct news.”

He adds that an advantage social media has over other traditional media is that it is a “self-censoring platform” where users are “able to challenge (and) demand evidence.”

“You don’t find this in the print or broadcast media,” he said.

He also describes instances cited in making a case for stringent regulations of the social media space as isolated.

“I agree that social media can be abused. It is susceptible to abuse by people, just like any other media. People take advantage of social media to spread disinformation to incite violence and to cause disharmony. It does not make a case for stringent regulation,” Mr Effiong said.

He also said the divisive comments often made on Twitter are responsive to government’s divisive action and inaction such as what he described as a lukewarm attitude towards criminal activities of armed herdsmen around the country.

“Government too should look into its divisive policies,” he said.

Culled from: PREMIUM TIMES

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