SERAP frowns on shutdown of telecoms services in Zamfara, urges government to reverse action

*Shutdowns generate a wide variety of harms to human rights, economic activities, public safety and emergency services that outweigh the purported benefits, says Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project

Gbenga Kayode | ConsumerConnect

While contending the suspension of telecoms services is a “form of collective punishment” for Nigerian consumers resident in the two North-West states, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has urged President Muhammadu Buhari to direct Prof. Isa Ali Pantami, Honourable Minister for Communications and Digital Economy, and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to immediately reverse the recent shutdown of Internet and telecommunications networks in Zamfara State, and 13 Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Katsina State.”

ConsumerConnect had reported the NCC, as the West African country’s telecoms regulator, in a memo recently ordered telecoms firms to suspend all telecommunications networks in Zamfara State, and in at least 13 LGAs of Katsina State in order to curb the disturbing spate of banditry and terrorism in the enclaves.

President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR, and SERAP

Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, Executive Vice-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (EVC/CEO) of NCC, had said this in a memo to the telecoms firms Friday, September 3, 2021.

The shutdown of telecoms services in Zamfara State lasts for two weeks, according to the regulatory Commission in the country.

Tackling banditry far easier after shutdown of telecoms services ─Zamfara Commissioner

The publication also reported that sequel to the Federal Government’s recent directive to deactivate the telecoms base stations in the state over the increasing insecurity, the Zamfara State Government disclosed that the ongoing military onslaught against the marauding bandits “is yielding tremendous success.”

Ibrahim Dosara, Honourable Commissioner for Information, in Zamfara State, stated this development Tuesday, September 7, 2021, at a media briefing in the state.

Dosara said: “Zamfara State Government in efforts to ensure the crashing of the bandits has requested for the closing down of all networks in the state and this has been effective.

Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State

“The security officials are finding it very easy to deal with the bandits in their enclaves in the forests.”

According to him, other measures have also been taken, based on credible information and intelligence available to the Nigerian Government.

Dosara further noted: “These include the immediate closure of the following places suspected to be habouring bandits and their collaborators.”

Such places, he stated, include some illegal motor parks and roadside markets, especially those at Kauran Namoda-Jibia road, Lambar Bakura junction, Mayanchi-Anka junction, Garejin Mai Lena, as well as Filin Jirgi rice and vegetables market in Gusau Metropolitan.

Recall that in relation to efforts at tackling the growing insecurity in the state, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) had directed telecommunications providers to shut down services.

But telecoms service shutdowns should never become an entrenched practice: SERAP

The rights group in an open letter dated September 11, 2021, and signed by Kolawole Oluwadare, Deputy Director of SERAP, however, stated that the move by NCC is “without any legal justification, is inconsistent with the principles of necessity and proportionality. “The suspension is a form of collective punishment of Nigerians resident in these states.

According to the organisation, the development is “egregious, and suggests a disturbing trend, especially given the growing restriction of civic space in Nigeria.

“Shutdowns should never become an entrenched practice in the country.”

The Deputy Director of SERAP also said: “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.”

The group’s letter stated in part: “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.

“Shutdowns generate a wide variety of harms to human rights, economic activity, public safety and emergency services that outweigh the purported benefits.”

It also said: “The suspension has the potential to affect millions of internet and telecommunication users in these states, and those on the margins of society are most impacted by it.

“The suspension of internet and telecommunication networks in Zamfara and Katsina states fails to meet the requirements of legality, necessity and proportionality.

“The requirement of necessity also implies an assessment of the proportionality of restrictions such as the telecoms blackout in these states, with the aim of ensuring that restrictions target a specific objective and do not unduly intrude upon human rights.”

According to SERAP, “while ‘checking the activities of bandits/terrorists in these states could conceivably be viewed as justification for exceptional measures necessary to protect public order or national security, the authorities have so far failed to show how shutting down internet and telecommunication networks in the entire Zamfara State, and 13 local government areas of Katsina State is necessary to achieve the stated purposes.

“The imposition of any restrictions should be guided by the objective of facilitating the right, rather than seeking unnecessary and disproportionate limitations on it.

“Restrictions must not be discriminatory, impair the essence of the right, or be aimed at causing a chilling effect. Internet and telecommunication shutdowns fail to meet all of these conditions.

“Internet and telecommunication shutdowns amount to inherently disproportionate interference with the rights to freedom of expression and information. Necessity requires a showing that shutdowns would achieve their stated purpose, which in fact they often jeopardise.”

The organisation, further stated “we would be grateful if the suspension of Internet and telecommunications networks in Zamfara and Katsina states is reversed within 7 days of the receipt and/or publication of this letter.

“If we have not heard from you by then, SERAP shall take all appropriate legal actions in the public interest.”

It also argued that “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 telecommunications 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.’ ”

SERAP also noted: “There is no convincing justification that the stated objectives of checking the activities of bandits/terrorists could not be achieved through measures with a lesser impact on the rights to freedom of expression and information than the wholesale blocking of internet and telecommunication networks in these states.

“Therefore, urges you to sponsor an executive bill to explicitly recognise the right to access and use the Internet as a constitutional and legal right, and as an essential condition for the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and information.

“The rights to freedom of expression and access to information are protected by Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution, 1999 [as amended], Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

It stated: “These rights must be protected online as they are protected offline. Access to the internet is a fundamental right.

“Access to the internet is also a necessary precondition for the exercise and enjoyment of human rights online and offline.

According to the rights group, “your government, therefore, has a legal obligation 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.

“Access to information, the ability to exercise the right to freedom of expression and the participation that the internet provides to all sectors of society is essential for a truly democratic society.”

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