By Jerome-Mario Utomi
“Freedom of speech is not about good speech versus bad; it’s about who holds the power to decide which is which.”
—Robyn E. Blummer, editorial writer and columnist
It is no longer news that media professionals/stakeholders within the industry and across the world celebrated on Monday, May 3, 2021, the annual World Press Freedom Day declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This year’s theme, “Information as a Public Good”, among other intentions, underlines the indisputable importance of verified and reliable information. It calls attention to the essential role of free and professional journalists in producing and disseminating this information by tackling misinformation and other harmful content.
At about the same time, the celebration offered me the opportunity to reflect on how citizens of every nation (democratic or otherwise) hunger for ‘public forum or sphere’ where issues of public interest are viewed as central and openly considered, discussed or debated. And how politicians and public office-holders for their part have a great interest in how the media covers their behaviour. They depend on the media to provide the information they need about the people and society. The media practitioners, in turn, depend much on the authorities (public office-holders) for their information.
Increasingly, by choice or by accident, a number of issues daily emanate from this mutual dependency, particularly as the vast majority of public office-holders are allergic to accepting their political past/mistakes, while others are not disposed to having their political future discussed. Also, the media professional, in their search for new but personal fields to increase their wealth and wellbeing, have at some points opted out of its primary mandate of objective reportage to become a willing tool in the hands of these political gladiators and, in the process, failed to inculcate and reinforce positive political, cultural, social attitudes among the citizens, and failed to create a mood in which people become keen to acquire skills and disciplines of a developed nation. Indeed, some media professionals have overtly become more cautious than courageous in performing their agenda-setting roles. They have on many occasions watched the making of political-cum-economic decisions that breed poverty and perpetrate powerlessness, yet took the easy way out without addressing the underlying factors, thereby leaving the masses confused.
Consequently, the nation Nigeria has on countless occasions witnessed this relationship snowball into a frosty one as the government attempts to unjustly moderate, control or regulate public discourse using decrees (during the military era) and draconian legislation to impose punishments that are incongruent with logic or reason. The situation was made worse by the fact that our nation Nigeria is not a natural country but an artificial creation made up of multicultural, multireligious and multilingual groups.
Talking about such frosty relationship between the government and the press in Nigeria, while the excruciating ordeal of two journalists with the Guardian newspapers, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson, jailed by a military tribunal on July 4, 1984, for reports that were not lacking in merit but asymmetrically viewed to have contravened the infamous Decree 4, remains a very bad signpost for the military era, the feeble attempt by the nation’s National Assembly to introduce the Internet Falsehood and Manipulations and Hate Speech Bills remains the dark spots of our democratic experience. Within this space also, there was the case of the Nigerian Press Council Bill, 2018, a bill greeted with knocks and viewed by industry watchers as draconian and another attempt to take the media industry back to the dark days.
At the most basic level, the Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019, sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa (APC, Niger East), among other provisions, sought to curtail the spread of fake information and seeks a three-year jail term for anyone involved in what it calls the abuse of social media or an option of fine of N150,000 or both. It is also proposing a fine of N10 million for media houses involved in peddling falsehood or misleading the public.
The hate speech bill, on its part, proposed that any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person shall die by hanging upon conviction. This is in addition to its call for the establishment of an “Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches”, which shall enforce hate speech laws across the country
Without much labour, the most telling evidence about the bills’ good intention is signposted in their resolve to curtail the spread of fake information and hate speech in the country. However, in connection with these bills, it is necessary to especially stress at some points, which apply generally.
However, when one looks at these complex provisions, it will not be an overstatement to characterize them as a misguided priority as our failures as a nation lies not in fake news or hate speech but in the system. What was even most frightening about the bill is that it came at a time when world leaders were standing up with sets of values that encourage listening and responding constructively to views expressed by citizens, giving others the benefit of the doubt, providing support and recognizing the interests and achievements of citizens, such in the estimation of our lawmakers have become the ripe time to threaten citizens with jail terms and capital punishment.
This fact also brings an important distinction to the fore.
Social media is not just another platform for disseminating falsehood. Rather, it is a platform for pursuing the truth, and the decentralized creation and distribution of ideas; in the same way, that government is a decentralized body for the promotion and protection of the people’s life chances. It is a platform, in other words, for development that the government must partner with.
Very instructive, I have no despair about the future of media practice and freedom of expression in Nigeria but it is an unhappy truth that free speech is under attack- a state of affairs considered bad for morals.
To further support this assertion, it is a well-established axiom that ‘without wood, the fire goes out, charcoal keeps the ember glowing as wood keeps the fire burning’. Same is applicable to the factors propelling fake News/hate speeches. It is a barefaced truth that the death of leadership, the asymmetrical posturing of our political space and the refusal to have it restructured, among others, propels fake news and hate speeches.
Another silent point we must not fail to remember is that ‘where the media is free, the marketplace of ideas sort the irresponsible from the responsible. But a partisan/government controlled press helps the politicians flood the marketplace of ideas with junks and befuddle the people so that they could not see what their vital interest could mean. Free press the world over is not a privilege but an organic necessity in the society that provides a platform/avenue for positive criticism, reliable, and intelligent reporting through which the government can be informed about what the people of the country are thinking and doing. Nigerians are aware of this fact.
Also, what the government should realize is that with the advent of social media, which has in turn given birth to ‘citizen’s journalism’, the stage is set for a democratized information management and ‘pressmanism’.
In advancing the above position, the piece is aware of the social responsibility postulations which are supportive of the views that every freedom must go with a responsibility. But if that responsibility is what the federal government is driving at, then, there should be a more civil way to go about it without being draconian in outlook. In the same token, the government should take recourse also to the fact that ‘‘the function of the press is very high. It is almost holy. It ought to serve as a forum for the people, through which the people may freely know what is going on. To misstate or suppress information is a breach of trust’’ This is sacrosanct and pivotal for any development-oriented society.
The simple way to nip this situation (hate speech) in the bud is for the federal government to do the needful by rolling up their sleeves and provide the much-needed democracy dividends as promised and every other challenge including hate speech will naturally fizzle out.
‘When millions of people have been cheated for too long, restitution becomes a costly process; inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, poor healthcare facilities and very recently recession’ All these are the bitter tablets of oppression the people have been taking since May 29, 2015. Now, this neglect has accumulated ‘interest and its cost for this nation has become substantial in financial and human terms’ hence the ‘hate speech’.
Viewed differently, a critical appraisal of some of these comments tagged ‘hate speech’, will reveal that the reader or the listener must have put a statement together with previously known facts to come up with a hate speech. What this implies is that some of these so-called ‘hate speeches’ may actually be personal or subjective interpretation, opinion or commentary garnished with a basket full of prejudice by the reader or the listener.
In all, one established truth we cannot do away with is the fact that the sole aim of journalism is service and in providing this service, they enjoy great power and followership. It is therefore left for Nigerian government to provide the media industry the needed raw material to function. The raw material in question is no other but positive performance card.
To make this year’s celebration a rewarding one, the press/journalists must on their part recognize that ‘every decision they make when ‘gathering, organizing and presenting the news requires a value judgment as different decisions bring different results. All decisions have consequences that are direct and indirect, intended and unintended, short term and long term. And journalist’s decisions affect others; those decisions may influence thousands of people’s opinions on a political issue’.
• Utomi, is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Public Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), Lagos. He could be reached via;[email protected]