The Standing Committee of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) met last week in Lagos. The meeting reviewed the state of the Nigerian nation, particularly the Federal Government’s plans to “sanitize” the social media space in order to curb what it describes as the “phenomenal increase of the incidence of fake news”. The communiqué of the Guild’s meeting strongly advised against the government going the way it planned. Instead, it said the government should “seek ways to maximize social media to disseminate information on the activities and policies of government, rather than its current attempt to stifle it.
“The Guild urges the government to engage the founders and promoters of social media, namely: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, among others, to creatively find ways of sieving information disseminated through their respective channels, to curtail extremisms of violence and hate speech.” According to the Guild, “Nigeria is already in the red zone of nations with very poor record of Press Freedom and Freedom of Speech… For instance, the 2019 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders places Nigeria in a distant 120th position among 180 nations under review. Also, in the 2019 Global Impunity Index published by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), which chronicles countries where criminal groups, politicians, government officials, and other powerful actors resort to violence to silence critical views, dissent and particularly the media, Nigeria ranks as high as the 12th position, sharing the top bracket with impunity-prone and conflict-riddled nations like Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Mexico, Pakistan etcetera.”
The communique noted the Guild’s sadness that “this is not a good profile and the Federal Government of Nigeria should not take further actions that would add to this unpleasant tar on the nation by seeking to ‘sanitise’ Social Media but, should rather build bridges and collaborations with the Nigerian media and promoters of social media. Such synergy and partnership in an Information Age, is the best way to make the most of the advantages of social media which far outweigh any perceived disadvantages.” It also noted that “Nigeria has enough extant laws, including the Cyber Crime Act 2015, to deal with issues of ‘hate speech’ and ‘Fake News’. It urges the government to test such laws in the courts of competent jurisdictions in accordance with due process of the law rather than create another legal instrument and atmosphere that would give agents of state the latitude to harass and criminalise citizens especially journalists.”
We agree with the position of the Guild on the government’s planned onslaught on social media outlets. Firstly, it contradicts the government’s earlier decision, taken exactly in October 2018. It was not to muzzle the media but to work with them. Information Minister Lai Mohammed, while on a working visit to Peoples Daily, told the paper’s senior editors unequivocally: “Our approach is to appeal to the sense of social responsibílity of media practitioners, bloggers and social media influencers. We are not toeing the path of coercion or censorship. We are not advocating the enactment of new laws because we believe there are enough laws in our law books to deal with the problem. We believe in the capacity of the media to self regulate so as not to self destruct.”
In our editorial “Fighting fake news” of Oct. 9 2018, based on the assurances given by the minister, we expressed our concerns. “We fear, in this fight (against fake news), the odds are stacked against the government. Firstly, there is no universally accepted definition of fake news. What may be fake to the government may not be to the other party. US President Donald Trump first coined the phrase “fake news” when he found himself fighting the American news media over his unorthodoxy. Secondly, the government is fighting on unfamiliar territory – a territory that it cannot win and hold. It is the Internet.
“Yes, appealing to the media’s sense of social responsibility may help. However, ultimately it is the government that will have to help the media to be able to help it. It can do this by being forthwith with the right information at the right time. No room should be given for speculation to thrive. How about making the FoIA(Freedom of Information Act) work?”
It is regrettable that the government, one year after choosing to work with the media, has decided to work against the news industry. As the Guild warned, the government’s plan is unconstitutional and undemocratic. What more, as happened to previous attempts against Free Press, this latest move will also fail. And the government will end up the loser. Our advice: work with, not against, the media.