The times in our country are tense. We claim to practice democracy yet some of the buttons being pushed are not in tandem with democratic spirit. Assault on democratic institutions is in vogue. We have factionalized the Nigeria Labour Congress, Academic Staff Union of Universities, the Judiciary is looking for cover and the Legislature is increasingly dancing out of rhythm. The argument as to whether democracy is the best form of governance is on and it will remain so for a long time. That should not trouble us here; what is important is the knowledge that our country has chosen the democratic path and if it is so, it should be clear that when one subscribes to a concept, it is taken for granted that there is agreement to follow the principles.
Democracy has principles and the characteristics are encapsulated in the sense of private initiative which the concept promotes with a sense of mission and vigour. Among the characteristics, civic rights occupy a significant chunk. Civil rights refer to issues concerning the individual as a citizen and what the state makes available so that his human essence is magnified. Rule of law exists so that people can live and compete. The other important one is freedom to hold views and to express such views without let and hindrance. Some of these rights are so cardinal that countries who know, take special measures to protect them. Some of the countries we imitate today took the same route and the history is there for those who care to educate themselves.
We will restrict ourselves here to America from where we copied what we have. We share similar experiences with America, which is about 250 years old, yet it is still a society in transformation. Today it is an example to be followed; the question is why? America in reacting to situations did not follow the approach of muzzling. The strategy was rather to improve on what was not perfect. Take racism for instance, it served the purpose of the system manipulators for the aberration to remain, but the majority knew racism was evil and had to give way but there was a hindrance, no law. The Judiciary and the legislators were very exceptional in regard.
In our country the political class would have continued with the reign of impunity and humiliation and the judiciary would have likely have supported them on account that the law books lack provision on the matter. Americans did not go this way; the leadership and the people called up the matter and did extensive review including definition of terms and reached a conclusion that racism was evil and must go. The first step was a law that all men were created equal. The judiciary followed with progressive judicial verdicts. The judiciary began by saying yes there are no laws on this but what was happening was wrong and inhumane, subsequent verdicts began to defang racism by abrogating different aspects of segregation.
There is also this example on demonstration and protest. At some point the American government had gone to court, to procure a ruling to ban citizens from public demonstrations and protest in the interest of public good, especially security of lives and property. The request was not granted because the judiciary justifiably felt that citizens’ right to protest was inalienable and if any of the parties were to be feared it ought to be the state which is the chief controller of means of violence. The strategy of guarding protesters by security agents came from such rulings. In America the issue of freedom is so critical that there is a provision that any new rule is null and void to the extent that it tries to infringe on the civic rights.
The point one is making is this: countries where reason rules, laws are not just thrown at problems. Rather, new regulations would be made after an in-depth examination of the matter has been done. The subsequent regulation would be to straighten and improve and not abridge. If the managers of our country took time to examine the concept of democracy, the place of the citizens and what would enhance their flow as citizens, centrality of participation in governance, they would thoroughly look at social media, its advantages and disadvantages. Certainly the recourse won’t be to close the space; perhaps education and enlightenment could have been a better response. The threat about social media is there but it is exaggerated. Social media can never compete with the formal media, semblance of competition has come because operators in the formal media have abdicated their key responsibilities.
The social media is like big bread broken into pieces or slices and like everyone knows a piece of bread is not as satisfying as having a full loaf. Citizens still need proactive reporting, news breaks, investigative journalism and fine prose. All of these you can’t find in the social media and the formal media where you should find them, they are not there. Feature pages in the newspapers from which citizens read the news-behind-the-news, are dead and buried. These are the issues.
Technology has definitely brought deep-rooted changes to the world of mass communication. It has given unimagined latitude to freedom of expression, created a world without borders, exposing hitherto hidden things and throwing up new challenges. Yet, perceptive governments are coming up with modern ways to appropriate the gains of technology. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are American companies making billions in profits, they are in possession of citizen’s data, and millions use the channels to say all manner of things against the country, their leaders and public exposed personalities. The companies want to gag them and it took the president to say you can’t do that, it is against the law.
This is the way to go but unfortunately this is not what is happening in our own case. Our leaders want to close the space and they don’t mind the consequences. Perhaps they don’t know. If they don’t know we have a responsibility to identify them and bring it to their notice quickly. Malcolm X was the one who told us that the media is the most important entity in the world, because it controls the minds of citizens. This is true and that is why media is the first point of attack by agents of poor governance and tyranny. James Madison gives us better reason why those supporting abridgement of freedom of expression should be careful: “When tyranny and oppression come to the land, it will be in the guise of fighting crime.” They have told us they want to abridge freedom of expression on account of threats to the unity of Nigeria but the truth is that the social media was there and people were talking when Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan were presidents of Nigeria, yet the country did not divide. Is threat to national security the reason the Supreme Court gave verdict on presidential contest without explanation? Or is it the reason media regulatory bodies have become more active than even the presidency.
Conflicts emanate from reckless competition and subversion of the political class. The other would be to tell the president and his assistants to work hard and give us a country worth living in. The Minister of Information should work hard to make Nigeria the leader in transparent communication for Africa and the Black Race.