Since the discovery of the Index case of the Coronavirus in Lagos state late February, 2020 and its spread to other neighbouring states in the southwest, the Quarantine Act, which has come in different slightly adjusted name in the region, has become the an instrument that governors of the affected states are wielding to legalize their executive order on restrictions put in place to fight the further spread of the novel virus in their domains.
Adapted from the Quarantine Act Cap 2 Law of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, the legal instrument seeks to give a legal impetus to directives by governors on request for self-isolation, restriction of movements of goods and services, ban on public gatherings of persons, restriction of trade, business and commercial activities. However, the law also goes a step further. It prohibits the spread of disinformation and fake news about COVID 19 either on social media or through any other means. The prescription of six months imprisonment or payment of a fine was equally common to all the laws as passed by the concerned state governments. This aspect of the law could become a bone of contention very soon. This could not be divorced from the fact that it brings back the memory of the recent Social Media Bill under consideration by the national legislature.
It would be recalled that the Social Media Bill, officially named the Protection from Internet Manipulation Bill 2019, had scaled second reading stage at the Nigerian Senate in November, 2019. The bill is said to prohibit statements on social media considered “likely to be prejudicial to national security” and “those which may diminish public confidence” in Nigeria’s government. The proposed bill had also attracted condemnation from civil society and pro democracy groups in the country because it is widely believed that it would curb and criminalize any criticism against the government.
Like the social media bill, the section on the prohibition of disinformation and fake news about the Coronavirus is addressing a very crucial issue in the fight against the virus. The deluge of fake news, misinformation and disinformation that has plagued the battle against the virus has been very problematic. The World Health Organization declared it as infodemic and expressed the fear that many victims might be recorded from the scourge of fake news than from the pandemic. However, there is a more important question that hits hard at the principles of democratic right to free speech whether on or offline. This is more so that Nigerians have come to see the social media platforms as a messiah in their quest for good governance.
In Osun, the new law has had its first victim when a man, Akinloye Saheed, was arraigned before an Osogbo Magistrate Court over his COVID 19 post on Facebook. Akinloye was arrested on 11 April, 2020 when he claimed in a Facebook post that the state government imported COVID 19 cases into the state to get funds from the Federal Government. The prosecutor alleged that his post, which contravenes the Osun COVID 19 Laws 2020, was made with the intent to incite the public. He has since been refused bail and clamped to jail by Magistrate Olusegun Ayilara. The case has been adjourned to 13 May, 2020.
As the fight against the novel virus rages on, the Quarantine Act is one of the legacies that would be left behind after the battle is long won. However, whether it aids and could strengthen the battle against fake news and health disinformation without infringing on the rights of the citizens, only time will tell.