Information Minister Lai Mohammed said on Tuesday, October 29, 2019, that the government had resolved to control social media in Nigeria because they have become overbearing with the potential to set the country ablaze. That was more than a year ago. Now, following the lessons learned from the #EndSARS protests that rattled the nation, Nigeria seems set to restart the campaign to deny the public access to, and use of, social media. The war against social media is targeted also at limiting fake news and hate speech. This is one campaign that will test the government’s ability to restrain social media.
In its opposition to social media as the vehicle for deliberative democracy, the government is worried about the widespread use of social media as a popular podium on which to organise mass protests, to mobilise, to recruit, to raise funds, to organise regular meetings, to engage in national and international dissemination of videos and photos of brutality by law enforcement agents, and to arrange venues for public demonstrations. But a government that has no issues with its citizens should have no problem with the diffusion and widespread use of social media.
In justifying the government’s war against social media, the minister said: “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.”
This is surprising because it comes against the background of other competing national priorities. Social media are widespread vehicles for distribution of information, news, and entertainment through photographs and videos. That should not imply that social media are certified channels through which fake news and hate speech are disseminated widely.
Why would the government be so fixated on curbing social media while other important needs of citizens are overlooked? Investing financial resources to limit social media use in a country in which a significant number of people can ill afford to find three decent meals each day seems to be a case of misplacement of priorities. There are more urgent problems that deserve the consideration of the government.
The deleterious impacts of social media, fake news, and hate speech are evident across cultures. Nigeria is not the only country. Social media are no more dangerous to the development of Nigeria than they are to other multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries. The effects are wide-reaching.
Why would social media be singled out as blameworthy disseminators of fake news and hate speech more than mainstream and online media? Obviously, there is the perception that fake news and hate speech are more widely distributed through social media. Perhaps that could be the reason for the government’s determination to dismantle or control social media. But does the government have the capacity and tools to engage in an adventure designed to disassemble social media?
Does the government have the technological tools, the human and material resources, and disciplined personnel to successfully regulate social media, particularly in our environment? Should social media regulation be the key concern of the government at this time of harsh economic conditions? Indeed, is it appropriate to undertake this apparently pointless mission at a time when tempers are cooling down following the recent protests?
To be clear, trying to control social media in Nigeria will be as frivolous as aiming to control the Internet. In countries that tried to limit their citizens’ access to the Internet, the ill-informed project proved mostly unsuccessful essentially because the citizens found alternative ways to circumvent the restrictions.
It bothers me that while other countries are providing for the welfare and security of their citizens, Nigeria is pushing forward a law intended to shut down public opinion and gag free expression by citizens. How controlling social media would enhance the wellbeing of ordinary people remains anyone’s conjecture. Cracking down on social media is akin to destroying one of the fundamental values of a democracy.
Former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida once expressed his opposition to the government’s attempts to constrain the use of social media. He said the controversy over social media or hate speech was unnecessary because no one could suppress the views of Nigerians or deny the citizens their freedom of expression. Babangida said: “I am surprised that this bill has resurfaced. There is no basis for this now. We are developing; we should be allowed to develop.”
Public anger over the social media bill has prompted the question: Is Nigeria a democracy? A democracy, in my view, is a country that respects the human rights of its citizens. It is a country that values the voices of ordinary people. It is a country in which the basic rights and freedoms of citizens are recognised, respected, and appreciated. It is a country in which people’s ethnicity, religious faith, region of origin, and cultural background do not constitute obstacles to equal opportunities. It is a country in which people have the freedom to question political leaders.
Nigeria is one of the countries that asserts its democratic credentials. However, the extent to which the country supports and reveres democratic principles is highly disputed. One of the benchmarks for assessing a country’s democratic qualities is its ability to conduct free, fair, transparent, credible, and peaceful elections. On this criterion, you could say that Nigeria is still far from a true democratic state. This assessment may seem harsh but it is based strictly on historical facts. There are African countries such as Ghana and South Africa that conducted relatively free and peaceful elections. Why have free elections become an Achilles heel for Nigeria?
The government’s plan to restrict social media raises an important question. Is information sharing now a crime punishable by law? Does it violate or promote citizens’ access to information, including their rights to communicate freely anywhere in the country?
If the essence of introducing the social media law is to prevent Nigerians from scrutinising their governments at federal and state levels, that law would fail. When people express their personal opinions about the performance of government officials, those views are meant to improve governance and not to undermine the government or national unity. Nigeria is operating a democratic system of government. Our democracy cannot be different.
In an increasingly evolving and fragile global community, various governments are rolling out legislation such as social media law to silence public opinion, all in the guise of strengthening national security. In some countries, those laws have been vigorously challenged because they impede free speech and citizens’ rights. Therefore, it is not surprising that violations of free speech and press freedom are on the rise across the world.
In every democracy, citizens have an obligation to scrutinise political leaders. Nigerian people would not be able to perform that basic duty if their freedom to express themselves is restrained by those who were elected to govern. Everyone must be free to hold up that torch light that exposes corruption, human rights abuses, highhandedness by elected officials, embezzlement of government property, pillaging of national treasury, and all other forms of official misconduct.