The impact of technology can be felt across all sectors. This has birthed digitalization, ushering in a paradigm shift in how we do things from simple and traditional means to a more digitalized and modern way. Thus, people now interact, send messages, connect with friends, families, and professional colleagues, express opinions on social, political, and economic issues, and share personal information online, leveraging the internet and social media to do these.
Social media usage is increasing, especially with its popularity among the youth, which has spiraled over the years. In the wake of the embracement of social media usage lies the apparent right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (As Amended).1 Thus, while the right to freely express oneself devoid of any interference is guaranteed and protected, there is a need to review the same in light of social media usage to determine the existence of such a right while on the internet, the practicability or otherwise as well as limitations (if any) to the exercise of this right while on the social media space.
Against this background, this piece aims to give a holistic overview of freedom of speech viz-a-viz social media usage.
WHAT IS SOCIAL MEDIA
Social media refers to computer-based technology that facilitates sharing of ideas, thoughts, and information by building virtual networks and communities.2 It also refers to interactions among people who create, share, and exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks.3
Examples of popular social media platforms include Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, TikTok, Snapchat, etc.
WHAT IS FREEDOM OF SPEECH
Freedom of speech is the right to express one's thoughts and opinions without government restrictions.4
This right is guaranteed and protected under international instruments5 as well as under the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (As Amended) by Section 39 (1), which provides thus:
"Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference."
It is pertinent to point out that the mode of expression of this right has evolved over the years from traditional presentation through words, print media, and broadcast stations to social media tools such as blogs, podcasts, memes, websites, etc.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND SOCIAL MEDIA USAGE: AN OVERVIEW
The right to freely express oneself while using social media devoid of interference is guaranteed and protected in Nigeria. However, there is the need to be aware that this right is not absolute as it reeks of specific exceptions.6 by Section 45 of the Constitution, the exceptions to section 39 were laid down thus:
"Nothing in sections 37, 38, 39, 40,and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society –
- In the interest of defense, public safety, public order, public morality, public health; or
- To protect the rights and freedom of other persons.
The preceding suggests that although exalted, the right to freedom of expression is not absolute. Thus, it only ends where the rights of others begin, as any exercise of this right, which is against the interest of defense, public interest, or others, cannot be enforced.
The courts have also put weight on the non-absoluteness of this right as rightly canvassed in the case of DIN v. AFRICAN NEWSPAPERS OF (NIG) LTD7thus:
"The right to comment freely on matters of public interest is one of the fundamental rights of free speech guaranteed to the individual in our Constitution. It is so dear to the Nigerian and of vital importance and relevance to the rule of law which we so dearly treasure for our personal freedom. It is conceded that the right to discuss matters of public concern, does not confer liberty to make defamatory statements; however honestly made." Per ADOLPHUS GODWIN KARIBI-WHYTE, JSC (Pp 25 – 25 Paras D – E)8
The Cybercrimes (Prevention, Prohibition, etc.) Act 2015 contains provisions criminalizing the inappropriate use of social media.9
Based on the preceding, it is crystal clear that while everyone has a right to freely express themselves openly (including on social media platforms), they must take cognizance of the right of others so as not to run afoul of the law. Therefore, where in the exercise of the right to freedom of expression on social media, the right of another is infringed upon, the aggrieved person can seek redress by:
- Filing a suit for civil or criminal defamation
- An action for breach of the right to privacy (where applicable)
- Suing for misrepresentation
- She is suing for damages for the harm incurred due to false utterances against his/her person by the adverse person on social media, etc.
The right to freely express oneself is sacrosanct, albeit with certain exceptions. Thus, while exploring digitalization and social media to express oneself freely, we must take cognizance of the right of others and the exceptions to the right to freedom of expression in order not to run afoul of the law. Nevertheless, social media usage is on the increase, and with proper enlightenment and legislation to curtail people's excesses on social media, the prospects of this digitalization model can be further explored.
1. See section 39 of the 1999 Constitution (As Amended)
2. Akinkunmi Akinwunmi, The Nigerian Internet Law, 2019 P. 285
3. https://communications.tufts.edu/marketing-and-branding/social-media-overview/#:~:text=What%20is%20Social%20Media%3F,Instagram%2C%20LinkedIn%20and%20YouTube%20accounts. Accessed on March 20, 2023, at 03:00 am
4. Bryan A. Garner Black's Law Dictionary, Ninth Edition, 735.
5. See Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, and Article 9(2) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, 1981.
6. See Section 39 (3) of the Constitution.
7. (1990) LPELR-947(SC)
8. See also the case of VIOMOH Vs. COP & ANOR (2014) LPELR – 23039 (CA) and OKAFOR & ORS Vs. NTOKA & ORS (2017) LPELR – 42794 (CA)
9. See, for instance, section 24 of the Cybercrimes Act, 2015
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.