Nigeria’s political elite are strange animals. They give the outward – and deceptive – impression that they want democracy but, inwardly, the only thing they truly want is power, raw power, and authoritarian power.
When the first television station was established in Ibadan in 1959, it was obvious to many that the cute little box in your living room was going to be a game changer. It turned out that way, as state after state established their own television stations. But something was amiss. Only state governments enjoyed the privilege of being proprietors of television stations. Private sector entrepreneurs were shut out. Media and civil society groups mounted pressure and campaigned relentlessly for television space to be opened to private entrepreneurs. It took about 30 years to achieve this under the administration of General Ibrahim Babangida. Since then, there have been all kinds of chains tied around the fragile neck of our television stations by the regulatory agency, National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), which has been manned at all times by media professionals. These chains are always manufactured by the political elite who instigate the regulatory agency to invent draconian provisions because they are afraid of the fabled power of sight and sound, which television represents. That battle to make television subservient to truth as defined by the political elite is ongoing today.
When General Sani Abacha was Nigeria’s head of state, it was the cowardly political elite who went to prostrate for him and to beg him to transform himself from a hardened autocrat into a paper born-again democrat. Five political parties endorsed him one after the other in an unprecedented political gimmickry fit only for fools. In an article I published in the Newswatch issue of June 1, 1998, titled “Political polyandry,” I compared those renegade politicians to a guy with real chutzpah, the equivalent of a young man who kills both his parents and then demands leniency of the court on the ground that he is an orphan. The great Cicero of Ibadan, Chief Bola Ige, described those lily-livered five parties as the five fingers of a leprous hand.
After Abacha’s death. these fellows all came out of their hiding holes and dictated how Nigeria should be run. Some of them, shameless folks, are still in the political space today. Some of their offspring are those pushing for censorship of the social media today. Six months into President Muhammadu Buhari’s first tenure in 2015, there was a Frivolous Petitions Bill, which prescribed jail terms and $10,000 fine for offensive social media posts. It was only withdrawn after a hostile public reaction to its introduction. Two other bills also followed, all targeted at the social media and on-line communication. One was the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill and the other was called the National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill. They both failed to sail through parliament because the public opposition to them was stiff. But these definitive pronouncements by the public have not deterred the censors.
The amazing thing is that these putative autocrats are all politicians who should be fighting for the expansion of the freedom space closed by many years of autocratic military rule. So, my thesis on Nigeria’s political elite is that they do not really want democracy. They, like the military elite, want nothing but power, raw, absolute, unchallenged, unaccountable power. That is why they are obsessed with placing curbs on the media, including but not limited to the social media. They are scared stiff by the awesome power of the social media even though they all use it, and some even have experts in the social media working to promote their positions, policies and politics. Social media have become a very effective digital tool for individuals to use in creating and sharing information with other people. Such social media websites as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedln and WhatsApp have been effectively used by individuals, companies, politicians and political parties for connecting with their constituents and patrons. By that process, social media has democratised and liberalised access to information and expanded the sources of information available to the public. Some users have, of course, misused the social media to fabricate and manipulate information for reasons of selfishness, mischief or mercantilism. This tends to lower the standard of truth available for public consumption.
The danger actually is in the attempt by some social media users to convert their platforms to journalism platforms without any training in the discipline. They now call what they do Citizen Journalism, Personal Publishing, Grassroots Media, Participatory Journalism or Open Source Journalism. No one should have problems with citizens communicating or conversing with each other. That makes for fluency in relationship, builds understanding and clarity and makes the populace more informed about what goes on in society. But such conversation is not the equivalent of journalism. Journalism is a regulated and rigorous profession with its time-honoured professional canons, called FOBA (fairness, objectivity, balance and accuracy), as the defining ethos. It also has a code of ethics, which ensures that the practitioners adhere to the profession’s professional and ethical demands, failing which they can be sanctioned by appropriate regulatory agencies.
Besides, journalism is organised and structured with rigour to ensure that what is published or broadcast meets the high standard of scrutiny that can lead to the publication of truth. Journalism is about truth-telling. That is why stories have to pass from the reporter to a bevy of eagle-eyed seniors whose duty it is to cross the t’s and dot the i’s before the story reaches the consuming public.
In Newswatch, we used to adopt the three-source rule as a means of ensuring accuracy. If three independent sources confirmed a story, we would go with it as authentic. The Readers Digest employs 20 checkers who consult reference books, make phone calls and even visit locations to confirm tiny details of stories. The New Yorker once called the Duke of Windsor to verify a description of the garden around his country home. On another occasion, a checker at New Yorker spent five weeks in a Washington Hotel examining 500 documents to verify an article by Seymour Hersch. These stories of the exceptional rigour in their truth-telling function are reported by Michael Ryan and James W. Tankard Jnr in their book, Basic News Reporting.
So, journalism is not a joke. It is not a situation where one person sits down and conjures stories, true or false, verified and unverified, and sends them to the world just because he has access to the public domain. A lot of that is happening in the social media. But there are checks on the deviants in several ways.
One, false stories or fake news is often promptly countered by other users of the Internet. Secondly, there are several media laws in our law books with adequate sanctions to deal with infractions. Besides, the 2015 Cyber Crime Law, with stiff penalties, is still in force and its provisions are adequate to deal with infractions by users of the social media. Also, the owners of such platforms are getting careful about falsehood.
In August 2017, Facebook stopped using the term “fake news.” Now it prefers to use the term “false news” because that is more explicit. In October 2018, the British Government abandoned the use of the term “fake news” because it believed that it was misleading.
President Donald Trump, the most prominent user of that expression “fake news,” seems to have infected Nigerian politicians with those fake, emotive and misleading words. The push for curbs on the media by some Nigerian politicians is a confirmation that they are far from being true democrats. One of them Mr. Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information, would like us to go the way of China in information management.
He says “if you go to China you cannot get Google, Facebook or Instagram but you can only use your email because they have made sure that is regulated.”
He forgets that China is a one-party autocracy and not, by any stretch of the imagination, a democracy. China is the equivalent of military rule, which Nigerians fought against for many years at great cost to dethrone.
If Mohammed wants Nigeria to be an autocratic country like China, he should canvass that idea in 2023 and see if Nigerians will vote for it or vote for his candidate or vote for his party. That will be the test of its acceptability or otherwise in our democracy.