By Kim Harrisberg
JOHANNESBURG, June 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Almost 200 Nigerians filed a lawsuit on Tuesday seeking to lift a ban on Twitter, describing the government's decision to block the site as stifling "any dissenting voice" and digital rights.
The ban was announced on Friday, two days after the social media giant removed a post from President Muhammadu Buhari that threatened to punish regional secessionists, and the government said those who continued to use Twitter would be prosecuted.
"The (suspension) negatively impacted millions of Nigerians who carry on their daily businesses and operational activities on Twitter," said Kolawole Oluwadare of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), a local rights group.
Nigeria joins the ranks of China, North Korea and Iran in issuing a ban on Twitter, while Uganda, Turkey and Egypt have suspended the app during elections or political unrest.
Twitter said in a statement that it was "deeply concerned" as access to the internet was "an essential human right in modern society" and it "will work to restore access for all those in Nigeria who rely on Twitter to communicate".
SERAP and 176 Nigerians filed the lawsuit at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice in Abuja on Tuesday, calling for an interim injunction restraining the government from implementing the ban.
Oluwadare, SERAP's deputy director, said the ban was "final proof of shrinking civil space in Nigeria and the intention of government to stifle any dissenting voice".
Information minister Lai Mohammed told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the suspension had nothing to do with Buhari's tweet being deleted, but rather with "separatists inciting violence" online.
"Regulating social media is not about stifling press freedom. All we are talking about is the responsible use of these platforms," said Mohammed, adding that Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube were still accessible.
Since the ban was introduced, Nigerians have been downloading virtual private networks (VPN) to access the site, with #NigeriaTwitterBan and #KeepitOn trending on the platform, while also turning to Facebook.
Across Africa, governments have used myriad techniques to stifle people's ability to organise, voice opinions and participate in governance online, according to the African Digital Rights Network, a research and advocacy group.
These include digital surveillance, disinformation, internet shutdowns, repressive laws and arrests, it said.
Oluwadare said he hoped to hear back from the court by Friday.
(Reporting by Kim @KimHarrisberg; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)