Abuja - Nigerian lawmakers are considering a new law to punish "abusive" or false statements published online against individuals or government bodies with up to two years in jail or a stiff fine.
The Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill, currently before the Senate, seeks to outlaw malicious and untrue publications sent "through text message, tweets, WhatsApp or... any social media post".
It also proposes punishment for similar statements made "in any paper, radio or any medium or whatever description with malicious intent to discredit or set the public against any person or group of persons institutions of government".
Rights groups on Thursday reacted angrily to the proposals, voicing fears for free speech and freedom of the press, despite assurances there will be no crackdown.
Senator Dino Melaye maintained that "credible individuals who operate on social media" were not being targeted nor anyone that publishes "any story that is true".
But he claimed "reckless" statements, particularly from online media, needed to be checked.
"Where it (social media) has become an instrument of blackmail, an instrument of intimidation, an instrument of satanic manifestation, this senate should not allow it," he said.
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Senate majority leader Ali Ndume said there was a need "to make sure that people don't just open their mouth or go online to publicise anything without being held accountable".
Online media organisations, many of them based in the United States, have been among the most vociferous critics of Nigerian politics and politicians, particularly against corruption.
Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook are also vocal.
In contrast, newspapers and broadcasters inside Nigeria have been more muted, in part due to ownership by senior business figures, politicians with ties to government or the government itself.
Information minister Lai Mohammed said on November 23 the government "does not intend to stifle free speech or abridge the rights of Nigerians to air their views freely.
"We are not about to regulate or stultify the social media," he said.
Mausi Segun, Nigeria researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the bill was "an unnecessary addition to Nigeria's existing laws on treasonable felony, sedition, defamation and libel".
"If passed it will have grave implications for free speech," she told AFP, calling it a "retrogressive attempt to restrict the ability of all Nigerians to express themselves freely".
Reporters Without Borders said the bill's wording was imprecise while the threat of a 2.0-million-naira ($9,940, 9,370-euro) fine and jail would create a "chilling effect" on the media.
"This level of imprecision in the wording of the law creates a very insecure environment for journalists and citizen journalists who might be investigating allegations against a public figure or others," it added.
"It basically can prevent investigative journalism from taking place."
Adetokunbo Mumuni, of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), said his group had written to the UN to urge parliament to withdraw the bill.
He accused lawmakers of "working to undermine access of citizens to the Internet" and creating "an atmosphere of fear among bloggers and online activists".
"The bill will restrain access to Internet and social media, curtail the freedom of the press and online content in illegitimate, disproportionate or otherwise unlawful and abusive ways," he said.
"The real targets of the bill are social media and human rights defenders that might be critical of government policies or report on corruption involving high ranking government officials."