FILE: The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Geoffrey Onyeama.
The Federal Government said it is in discussions with Twitter after it suspended the social media giant’s operations in the country, foreign minister Geoffrey Onyeama told reporters Monday.
“There are discussions ongoing with Twitter, we will see how that progresses, so I cannot say for now the duration of the suspension,” Onyeama said after a meeting with diplomats on the issue.
The Government said it was suspending the platform on Friday, two days after Twitter deleted a comment from the president’s account for violating its rules.
The suspension came into effect on Saturday as many Nigerian users resorted to Virtual Private Networks to access Twitter.
Earlier on Monday, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) had directed all TV and radio stations to “suspend the patronage of Twitter immediately,” describing its use as unpatriotic.
“Broadcasting stations are hereby advised to de-install twitter handles and desist from using Twitter as a source… of information gathering for news,” NBC’s director Armstrong Idachaba wrote in a statement.
“It would be unpatriotic for any broadcaster in Nigeria to continue to patronise the suspended Twitter as a source of its information.”
More than 39 million Nigerians have a Twitter account, according to NOI polls, a public opinion and research organisation.
Some Nigerian broadcasters are concerned the clampdown on Twitter is part of more general crackdown against the media.
“It is very important we push back and fast, because they could go further. We need to talk to the different media houses and adopt a strong and common answer,” said a social media executive at a major TV station in Nigeria with several thousand followers on Twitter, who asked to remain anonymous considering the sensitivity of the issue.
“Twitter is a very important platform for us, and it brings a lot of viewers globally.”
Prosecution of offenders
Minister Onyeama insisted on the “responsible use of media” in remarks to reporters after the Monday meeting.
“We are not saying that Twitter is threatening Nigeria or any of such thing like that,” Onyeama said.
“Why we have taken such measure is to see whether we can rebalance the media as forces of good, and stop them from being used as platforms for destabilization and facilitation and encouragement of criminality.”
US Ambassador to Nigeria Mary Beth Leonard said the diplomatic community stood by its position.
“We recognise that there are issues of responsible use of social media but we remain firm on our position that free access to the ability to express oneself is actually very important,” she told reporters.
The government’s suspension came after Twitter on Wednesday deleted a remark on President Muhammadu Buhari’s account in which he referred to the country’s civil war five decades ago in a warning about recent unrest.
The presidency denied that the Twitter suspension was a response to the removal of that post.
“There has been a litany of problems with the social media platform in Nigeria, where misinformation and fake news spread through it have had real world violent consequences,” a presidency spokesman Garba Shehu said in a statement.
Shehu said the removal of Buhari’s tweet was “disappointing” and that “major tech companies must be alive to their responsibilities.”
Twitter said it was “deeply concerned by the blocking of Twitter in Nigeria” and that it would work “to restore access for all”.
International human rights groups have also condemned the move, which followed previous attempts by the government to regulate social media.
“VPN app” was the second most searched trend Saturday on Google in Nigeria, as virtual private networks can enable Twitter users to bypass the ban.
Nigeria warned however that it would prosecute violators.
“Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, has directed for immediate prosecution of offenders of the federal government ban on Twitter operations in Nigeria,” spokesman Umar Jibrilu Gwandu said.
The platform has played an important role in public discourse in the country, with hashtags #BringBackOurGirls after Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in 2014, and #EndSARS during anti-police brutality protests last year.