The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the Federal Government to unblock millions of unregistered lines. Just last week, the Federal Government directed telecommunication companies in the country to bar all outgoing calls on unlinked lines from Monday, April 4, 2022. Unlinked lines are Subscriber Identity Modules (SIMS) not yet registered and linked with the National Identification Number (NIN) by users.
While reacting to the ban via a statement issued on Sunday, SERAP asked President Muhammadu Buhari to “direct the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to immediately reverse the apparently unlawful decision to block over 72 million active telecommunication subscribers from making calls on their SIMs”.
“Blocking people from making calls undermines their ability to communicate freely, and associate with others. It infringes their rights to freedom of expression and family life, as well as socio-economic rights,” SERAP deputy director Kolawole Oluwadare said.
While noting that the decision will have a chilling effect, dissuading the free expression of ideas and information, SERAP argued that the move is inconsistent and incompatible with the country’s international legal obligations to respect, protect, promote and facilitate economic and social rights. The decision contradicts the tenets of the rule of law and democratic society, it said.
“Immediately reversing the decision would be in conformity with the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 [as amended], and Nigeria’s international human rights obligations. Reversing the decision would also improve the confidence of the international community in human rights and the rule of law in Nigeria.
“The decision will cause a wide variety of harms to economic activity, and personal safety, and disproportionately affect those on the margins of society. This will directly hinder the ability of the government to achieve the 2030 Agenda’s Goal 8 on the promotion of sustained, inclusive, sustainable economic growth.
“Millions of Nigerians including persons with disabilities, elderly citizens, persons living in remote areas have been unable to capture their biometrics, and obtain their National Identity Numbers [NINs] due to logistical challenges, administrative and bureaucratic burdens, as well as the persistent collapse of the national grid,” the statement added.
“We would be grateful if the decision to block people from making calls on their SIMs is reversed within 48 hours 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 to ensure full compliance with human rights standards.”
“The rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and freedom of association, whether offline or online promote the democratic ideal by allowing citizens to voice their concerns, challenge governmental institutions, and hold government accountable for its actions.”
“The democratic ideal rationale also recognizes the necessity of having a well-informed citizenry to participate in the democratic process.” “We support any lawful means to address the growing insecurity across the country. However, 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 human rights standards.”
“While we recognize the need for your government to take measures to ensure security and safety of the people in the country, we are seriously concerned that the decision to block people from making calls appears to go beyond the restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, information, and association.”
“The rights to freedom of opinion and expression and access to information are protected under section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution, article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act.”
“These rights must be protected online as it is protected offline. Any restriction on these rights must be provided by law, be necessary in a democratic society and serve a legitimate aim.”
“The UN Human Rights Committee has stated that when a state party invokes a legitimate ground for restriction of human rights, it must demonstrate in specific and individualized fashion the precise nature of the threat, and the necessity and proportionality of the specific action taken, in particular by establishing a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the threat.”
“The decision to block over 72 million subscribers from making calls on their SIMs also amounts to an arbitrary or unlawful interference with their right to family life, and socio-economic rights, as it unnecessarily or disproportionately interferes with these fundamental human rights.”
“According to our information, your government recently directed telecommunication companies in the country to block over 72 million active telecommunication subscribers from making calls on their SIMs. The ‘order’ to the telecommunications companies was apparently to enforce compliance with the Federal Government’s National Identification Number-Subscriber Identity Module policy.”
“The policy effectively restricted outgoing calls on all unlinked lines, effective April 4, 2022.” “We are concerned that the decision to block Nigerians from making calls will have a disproportionate chilling effect on vulnerable groups that rely on such peaceful means to communicate, and convey their opinions and views.”
“SERAP is concerned that the decision appears to be arbitrary, and lack any legal framework, independent and judicial oversight. This may allow authorities to act in an unfettered and potentially arbitrary or unlawful manner.” “The decision to block people from making calls also does not appear to be the least intrusive instrument available to the government to achieve the desired results, i.e., the maintenance of national security and public safety.”
“The decision is also not proportionate to the perceived goal to be achieved, as it is not appropriately tailored to achieve its protective function in the least intrusive manner.”
“The mass disconnection of telephone subscribers from making calls is apparently without any legal justification. It is a form of collective punishment of the people affected by the decision.”
“Under international human rights law, States including Nigeria ‘shall not engage in or condone any disruption of access to digital technologies for segments of the public or an entire population.’ States must refrain from cutting off access to telecommunications services.”