By Isaac Asabor
If there is any lingering disagreement between the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and Nigerian lawmakers, it is unarguably the federal government’s insistence to regulate the social media space. This is coupled with the fact that the minister of information and culture has for the umpteenth time reiterated that there was need to inject sanity into the space as he has in his assessment concluded that it has totally gone out of control.
It would be recalled that on December 15, 2015 that the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) together with 19 Nigerians, Africans and international organizations appended their signatures to an open letter addressed to Nigerian Senators urging them to reject a bill they deemed capable of undermining press freedom, stifle public opinion, and criminalize freedom of expression in Nigeria.
According the coalition, the bill, titled the “Frivolous Petitions Bill 2015,” which passed its second reading at the Nigerian Senate on December 1, 2015, would impose a two-year prison sentence or a 2 million naira (about US$10,000) or both, for any person who “through text message, tweets, WhatsApp, or through any social media” posts any abusive statement against any person and/or group of persons or government institution, according to news reports.
The bill also seeks to compel any person who might want to petition, file a complaint, or report a person’s conduct for the purpose of an investigation to file a sworn affidavit in a court–a requirement that would compel whistle-blowers to reveal their identity and put them at risk, said Frank Tietie, a lawyer who heads the Abuja-based Citizens Advocacy for Social and Economic Rights (CASER). The punishment for noncompliance would be a six-month prison sentence without the option of a fine.
Also enshrined in the bill is , “A person who makes any allegation or publishes any petition in any paper, radio, or other medium with intent to discredit a person, group, or government institution could be punished with two years’ imprisonment or a fine of 4 million naira (about US$20,000).
Despite the wide condemnation that trailed the move to regulate the social media space, Lai Mohammed, ostensibly to exhibit federal government determination in ensuring that the space is regulated as planned, he on October 29, 2019, while addressing journalists in Abuja, said the social media has constituted real danger to the unity of the country.
He added that “What goes on social media is so ridiculous and we will contain it.”
While assuaging the nerves of those that were opposed to the move, the minister explained that contrary to insinuations, the government had no intention of muzzling the media or stifling free speech, saying the campaign was against fake news and hate speech. He said only those engaged in disseminating fake news or hate speech needed to be worried because they would not be spared.
He said, “We cannot allow fake news and hate speech to become free speech because these Siamese twins of evil are capable of inflicting untold damage on our democracy and are threatening our national unity. They represent a clear and imminent danger to our survival as a nation.
He assured that the planned social media regulation would be in line with international best practices as obtainable in Singapore, the United Kingdom and other countries.
“No responsible government will sit by and allow fake news and hate speech to dominate its media space because of the capacity of this menace to exploit our national fault lines to set us against each other and trigger a national conflagration. That is why we will continue to evolve ways to tackle fake news and hate speech until we banish both,” he stated.
Despite the fact that the social media bill suffered setback with 80% opposition at senate hearing in March, 2020, and notwithstanding the public outcry that has trailed the move even as at now, there was a clue that the federal government on Tuesday, precisely on October 27, 2020, kick-started a fresh campaign to regulate the social media space, especially in the wake of the #EndSARS protests that were largely driven on social media platforms that cut across, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, WhatsApp, Youtube, and their likes on the virtual space. The indication was glaring when Lai Mohammed said that the federal government was obligated to regulate social media space to curb the spread of what he called fake news. The minister spoke in Abuja while responding to questions when he appeared before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values to defend the 2021 budget proposal.
He said the biggest challenge facing the country is fake news and misinformation, warning that the next war that will be fought in the country and across the globe may be on social media.
While citing the recent #EndSARS protests, saying that it was fought on social media, he said:”They mobilized using the social media. The war today revolves around two things. Smart phones and data and these young men don’t even watch television or listen to the radio or read newspapers. We are sitting on a time bomb on this issue of fake news.
“Unfortunately, we have no national policy on social media, and we need one. When we went to China, we could not get Google, Facebook and Instagram”.
The aversion which Nigerians, particularly the youths, have toward the intent of the government to regulate the social media space has no doubt found expression in Desmond Eliot’s debate on Thursday, October 29, 2020, during the plenary session of the Lagos State House Assembly.
The Nollywood actor cum politician, since he bared his mind on the need to regulate the social media space, has suffered criticisms from members of the public and his colleagues in the entertainment industry, after groaning that the influence of social media was eroding the culture of Nigerian society.
Unarguably rattled by the backlash of condemnations that greeted his comment, he was compelled to apologize to the youths. Explaining his debate at the state house in an interview on Arise TV, Elliot said: “As a practitioner, and also for the kind of things I do… I watched it over and over again I can see where people thought it meant I am regulating the social media space. That was not in any way what I meant. When I do things in my constituency, I put it up on my social media space why would I ask for that? Besides, it’s constitutional. I could never have called for the social media space to be regulated.”
At this juncture, it is expedient to ask, “Who is afraid of the social media space?” To answer the foregoing question, it is germane to say that those who are ignorant of the fact that criticism is part of the political position they hold, and that they are answerable and accountable to the people, when it comes to leadership, are the ones that are afraid of the social media space. They are the ones that are ignorant of the fact that regardless of how popular they are that there will always be criticism even as there will always be commendation when they perform well in the representation of the people.
Again, it is equally germane to say that good leaders don’t fear criticism, and that it is only insecure leaders that are afraid of being criticized on social media.
Isaac Asabor is a Public Affairs Analyst.