Buhari restricts comments to Twitter posts

NIGERIANS who want to reply to President Muhahamdu Buhari’s tweet posts can no longer do so at will, at least for now.

The president has limited those who can respond to his message on a per- tweet basis.

Unlike his pre-election days when his Twitter account was open to all for comments, now, the president’s four million followers can only ‘like’ or retweet his posts as they want but not express their views about the government policy statements.

The ICIR waded through some of the recent tweets by the president and discovered that many Nigerians, including journalists, had been shut out.

On Wednesday, March 10, the president tweeted only four times. But Nigerians could only respond to one out of the three tweets because he has locked the rest of the tweets.

On International Women Day, Monday, March 8, President Buhari also tweeted four times. The first tweet was about the election in the Niger Republic, which the president said: “went well”. The other three were congratulatory messages to his vice president, Yemi Osinbajo.

“Happy 64th Birthday to@ProfOsinbajo, a reliable and dedicated deputy who is not only admirably competent but also exudes confidence and passion in the performance of his job; a cool-headed gentleman who puts the interest of Nigeria above other narrow considerations.

“Vice President Osinbajo is an incredibly patient politician who demonstrates remarkable intellectual and mental energy in the discharge of his duties. I’m proud to have selected him as my running mate, and he has given a good account of himself since our journey began in 2015.

Read AlsoWhy Twitter suspended Osinbajo’s Twitter account

“I wish him many more prosperous years and Almighty God’s continued guidance and blessings,” the president tweeted. But none of the tweets was open to accepting a reply.

On Saturday, when the president and his vice received their vaccine, Buhari tweeted about it three times. As of today, the combined tweets have been “liked’ by 4,862 and retweeted by 1,465 followers, but no Nigerian could respond to the tweets because they were locked.

Samples of Buhari’s tweets to which his follower could not reply, as at the time I filed this report.

Other President’s tweets checked by The ICIR from March to December 2020 followed the same pattern. Some were open; others were locked.

Not many Nigerians were surprised, though. The ex-general hardly engages his fellow citizens in a national address, and when he did, it was brief.

The ICIR sent messages to the four spokespersons of the president: Femi Adesina, Garba Shehu, Bashir Ahmad and Tolu Ogunlesi, asking to know why the president wanted to restrict responses to his tweets. Mr Shehu replied that the question should be directed to Ogunlesi, the president’s special assistant on digital/new media.

“The President has an SA on new Media. Speak to him,” he replied in a text message. But Ogunlesi has not replied as at the time this report was filed for publication.

Speaking on ARISE Television programme recently about the Buhari presidency’s behaviour, Dele Olojede, founder of the defunct NEXT newspaper and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, said President Buhari just “went into Aso Villa and just closed the door behind him.”  Shutting the Twitter gate against Nigerians may have validated Olojede’s claim.

In a debate between Elizabeth Joh, a law professor at the U.C. Davis School of Law and  Danielle Citron, another law professor at the Boston University School of Law in 2016, the two experts expressed divergent views on the proprietary of a president blocking comment on Twitter.

According to Professor Joh, an expert on constitutional law, the president should keep open his social media account to all.

“In a democratic society that values transparency and accountability, keeping the social media account of a president open to all ought to be part of these [democratic] custom. Twitter and other social media platforms are part of the new normal, a shared reality that demands new best practices about press freedom and good governance,” she argued.

Another example

Professor Citron, an expert on information privacy, free expression, and civil rights, argued differently.

“If the president tunes out advice from strangers or intimate, that is his choice.  Blocking followers on Twitter is not a matter of government censorship but rather of expressive freedom to listen and speak.






     

     

    “The president can decide if he wants to hear out the public in-person, on the phone or online. The choice to block is no different from a decision to decline an invitation to a conference. It may be inadvisable, but ultimately it is his decision.”

    But when former President Donald Trump blocked people from following his Twitter account because they criticized or mocked him, a federal appeals court ruled in 2019 that he violated the Constitution.

    Judge Barrington D. Parker then wrote that government conduct is subject to a “wide-open, robust debate” that “generates a level of passion and intensity the likes of which have rarely been seen.”

    It is yet inconceivable in Nigeria that citizens will file a lawsuit against the president that shut the Twitter gate against his countrymen.

    Ajibola Amzat, Managing Editor at The ICIR. He can be reached via [email protected]
    and @ajibolaamzat on Twitter.

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