The court gave the ruling in a suit filed by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and 176 concerned Nigerians, in reaction to the suspension, announced by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration in June, 2021.
In its judgment delivered on Thursday, the ECOWAS court declared that it has the jurisdiction to hear the case, and that the case was therefore admissible.
The Court also held that the act of suspending the operation of Twitter is unlawful and inconsistent with the provisions of Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights both of which Nigeria is a state party.
“The Buhari administration in suspending the operations of Twitter violates the rights of SERAP and 176 concerned Nigerians to the enjoyment of freedom of expression, access to information and the media, as well as the right to fair hearing,” the court ruled.
The Court also ordered the Buhari administration to take necessary steps to align its policies and other measures to give effect to the rights and freedoms, and to guarantee a non-repetition of the unlawful ban of Twitter.
Also, the Court ordered the Buhari administration to bear the costs of the proceedings and directed the Deputy Chief Registrar to assess the costs accordingly.
The Nigerian government had announced the ban after a tweet by the President was deleted by the social media platform for violating its policies. It had also threatened to arrest and prosecute anyone using the platform with the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) also asking all broadcast stations to suspend the patronage of Twitter.
This prompted SERAP and others to sue the government.
Reacting to the judgment, Femi Falana, SAN SERAP lawyer in the suit said, “We commend the ECOWAS Court for the landmark judgment in the case of SERAP v Federal Republic of Nigeria in which the Judges unanimously upheld the human rights of community citizens to freedom of expression, and access to information. Even though the Court had granted an interim order of injunction last year which restrained the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami SAN from prosecuting Nigerians who defied the Twitter ban, SERAP deserves special commendation for pursuing the matter to a logical conclusion.”
“Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and the full enjoyment of this right is central to achieving individual freedom and to developing democracy. It is not only the cornerstone of democracy, but indispensable to a thriving civil society.”
“With the latest decision of the Court to declare the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria illegal it is hoped that the Heads of State and Governments of the member states of the Economic Community of West African States will henceforth respect and uphold the human right of community to freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights.”
SERAP 176 concerned Nigerians had in suit No ECW/CCJ/APP/23/21 filed before the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in Abuja, sought: “An order of interim injunction restraining the Federal Government from implementing its suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, and subjecting anyone including media houses, broadcast stations using Twitter in Nigeria, to harassment, intimidation, arrest and criminal prosecution, pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit.”
The suit, read in part: “if this application is not urgently granted, the Federal Government will continue to arbitrarily suspend Twitter and threaten to impose criminal and other sanctions on Nigerians, telecommunication companies, media houses, broadcast stations and other people using Twitter in Nigeria, the perpetual order sought in this suit might be rendered nugatory.”
“The suspension of Twitter is aimed at intimidating and stopping Nigerians from using Twitter and other social media platforms to assess government policies, expose corruption, and criticize acts of official impunity by the agents of the Federal Government.”
“The free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens and elected representatives is essential. This implies a free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censor or restraints, and to inform public opinion. The public also has a corresponding right to receive media output.”
“The arbitrary action by the Federal Government and its agents have negatively impacted millions of Nigerians who carry on their daily businesses and operational activities on Twitter. The suspension has also impeded the freedom of expression of millions of Nigerians, who criticize and influence government policies through the microblogging app.”
“The suspension of Twitter is arbitrary, and there is no law in Nigeria today permitting the prosecution of people simply for peacefully exercising their human rights through Twitter and other social media platforms.”
“The suspension and threat of prosecution by the Federal Government constitute a fundamental breach of the country’s international human rights obligations including under Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Nigeria is a state party.”
“The suspension has seriously undermined the ability of Nigerians and other people in the country to freely express themselves in a democracy, and undermined the ability of journalists, media houses, broadcast stations, and other people to freely carry out their professional duties.”
“A lot of Nigerians at home and abroad rely on Twitter coverage of topical issues of public interest to access impartial, objective and critical information about ideas and views on how the Nigerian government is performing its constitutional and international human rights obligations.”
“The implication of the decline in freedom of expression in Nigeria is that the country is today ranked alongside countries hostile to human rights and media freedom such as Afghanistan, Chad, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Colombia.”