The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court has ruled that a seven-month ban on Twitter by Nigerian authorities in 2021 was unlawful and infringed freedom of expression and access to media. The court, which is a political and economic union of fifteen West African countries, has directed Nigeria to ensure that the unlawful suspension does not happen again, in an important decision for online rights across the region.
In June of 2021, Nigerian authorities directed internet service providers in Nigeria to block access to Twitter after the platform flagged and removed a tweet from Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari for violating its rules. The deleted tweet was seen by some as a threat of genocide; Twitter labeled it abusive. The Nigerian government’s rationale for the ban was vague. The Minister of Information and Culture claimed “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria's corporate existence.”
ECOWAS joined several cases challenging the Twitter ban, including prominent Nigerian NGO Paradigm Initiative, Media Rights Agenda, the Centre For Journalism Innovation & Development, International Press Centre, Tap Initiative for Citizens Development and four journalists, represented by Media Defence. Along with Access Now and the Open Net Association, EFF filed a joint application to file as amicus curiae in the case against the ban, brought by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP). In the application, we argued that the suspension of Twitter was not based on any law or court order, nor was it clear what law was breached by the company. Additionally, the application explained the rights contained in several legal codes, including the Nigerian Constitution, the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). In their decision, the Court agreed, ruling that the suspension unlawfully infringed on freedom of expression and access to information and the media contrary to the ICCPR and ACHPR. The Court ordered the government to ensure that acts of unlawful suspensions don’t happen again in the future; contradicting laws and policies must thus be amended.
The ban was lifted in January of this year after Twitter agreed to some conditions, including registering its operations in Nigeria. But the seven month-ban was particularly troublesome for the country: Twitter is one of the main outlets Nigerians have to criticize their government, and around 20% of the population have an account on the platform. It has played a large role in political discourse in the country: for example, in 2020, the platform was used by activists to organize the largest protests in a decade in the country, against police brutality.
Government bans or blocks of websites or social media platforms ripple out beyond the individual sites and countries affected, chilling speech across the internet. They intimidate those who wish to speak out elsewhere, either on other platforms or in other countries. They deprive people of the most powerful tools that exist for sharing information. Though circumvention techniques exist (and many Nigerian users reportedly accessed Twitter via VPNs and other methods despite the ban), internet shutdowns and large scale bans are repressive tools that violate online users’ rights to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as to peaceful assembly and association. We will continue to fight these unlawful and dangerous bans.