The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS Court) granted the application of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights to intervene as amicus curiae in the case challenging the decision of the Nigerian government to indefinitely ban the use of Twitter in the country.
The #Twitterban case filed by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) originates from the order dictated on June 4 by the Nigerian Government banning access to Twitter from the country. The lawsuit seeks, among other reliefs, an order of the Court directing the Nigerian government and its agents to revoke, withdraw, and/or rescind its suspension or potential indefinite ban of Twitter and/or any other social media service provider in Nigeria. In addition, SERAP sought and obtained an interim order restraining Nigerian authorities from arresting Nigerians circumventing the Twitter ban by the use of Virtual Personal Network (VPN).
As a party to several regional and international treaties which guarantee the right to freedom of expression, Nigeria is obligated to protect and respect this human right. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), just like the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), establishes that the right to freedom of expression “includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers … and through any media.” In addition, human rights mechanisms in Africa, Europe, and the Americas have asserted that rights that exist offline must be protected online. RFK Human Rights’ amicus curiae brief addresses these international and regional standards on the right to freedom of expression online and offline; the scope of States’ obligations to protect the rights and right to use encryption technology such as VPN.
“There is international consensus that internet platforms are media for expression and international human rights law protecting free expression offline applies to online expression,” said Ikechukwu Uzoma, staff attorney at RFK Human Rights. “In addition, there is growing consensus that the use of technology such as VPN for encryption and anonymity is protected under international law especially given the trend of reprisal all over the world.”
In addition to freedom of expression, Twitter and other social media platforms play a crucial role in the full enjoyment of the right to freedom of association and assembly in Nigeria. The #ENDSARS campaign for accountability and reforms in the Nigerian Police Force was largely organized and sustained online. The current Twitter ban was put into effect a few days before the June 12 democracy protest for good governance in Nigeria.
“Social media platforms like Twitter have become an important manifestation of civic space, allowing citizens from around the world to organize, engage, demand, and/or protest laws and policies that affect them as a collective,” said Angelita Baeyens, VP of international advocacy and litigation at RFK Human Rights. “This has made social media susceptible to interference by Governments interested in silencing dissent or critical voices, and therefore, requires judicial protection.”
As amicus curiae, RFK Human Rights urges the ECOWAS Court to utilize the opportunity created by this case to reinforce its positive jurisprudence on online expression in keeping with the advancement in international human rights law, especially around anonymity and encryption. The judgment in this case should recognize the essential role social media plays in civic engagement and specifically compels the Nigerian authorities to respect and protect citizens' right to use internet platforms without interference.