CONFOUNDED by unremitting criticism, the Muhammadu Buhari government has suddenly become enamoured of social media regulation in a provocative manner. Masking its sinister intentions under the cover of the worldwide concern about unsavoury content in the social media space, the government says it is forging ahead with its plan to “instil sanity into social media,” with Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture, as its vociferous arrowhead. The government’s intent so far points to a brazen attempt to constrain freedom of expression and muzzle public discourse.
The minister was in full flight on Tuesday when he told reporters that the government would “no longer fold its arms and allow activities capable of setting the country on fire to continue unchecked.” By his reckoning, social media is “currently out of control,” featuring “fake news” and “hate speech,” and like the broadcast media, needs to be reined in. Besides, they have the potential to harm the country’s democracy and threaten “national unity.” These are nebulous ideas, to say the least. Though it was popularised in the United States, politicians and pundits now use the same response to deflect and avoid scrutiny, and sometimes point out reality, argues the Brookings Institution. “Fake news” has become the go-to response to any question or news story a public figure doesn’t agree with or like.”
While abuse of media access and violations of codes should be of concern to every responsible government, it is important to separate the noble implementation of global best practices on protection of state security and ethical standards from the temptation of repressive state authorities to hide under that cover to curtail freedom of expression and public scrutiny. Social media has grown exponentially with internet penetration as largely a force for good, allowing access to information to an unprecedented number of persons and, hence, increased participation in how they are governed. But bad things also happen, including fake news, hate speech, criminality, pornography and interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.
Truly, unsavoury content in cyberspace, as in broadcasting, has tested the ingenuity of free societies. Fake news, written and circulated to damage an agency or a person, is rife worldwide; often sensational, fabricated, sometimes subtle, including photo-shopping and manipulation of facts, videos, it has the potential for negative influence and polarisation. Similarly, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights identifies hate speech as the use of cruel or derogatory language against a person or group on account of race, religion, ethnicity, sex, disability or orientation. On the heels of a lone wolf terror attack in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she did not think anyone would argue that the perpetrator of the Christchurch massacre should have been able to livestream mass murder. She is therefore pushing for what she described as a “Christchurch call,” a pact that asks companies and countries to confront violent and extremist content online.
Liberal democracies recognise the value of social media and the sanctity of individual liberty. Fact-checking sites have sprung up in the West, posting guides on how to spot fake news. The trend now is for governments to place the onus on the technology companies to check abuse. Heavily criticised for allowing nasty sites and blogs, popular search engines and networking sites have taken proactive measures. With new legislation in the US, Australia, Canada, EU member states and New Zealand where the use of social media by terrorists, drug cartels, paedophiles and spies are of particular concern, cutting-edge technology tools are being deployed by regulators, security agencies and IT firms to prevent abuse; US law requires providers to remove offensive materials within 24 hours. Artificial Intelligence also is deployed and is being researched into in the US and Europe to promptly identify and eliminate fake news and hate speech.
But authoritarian governments are taking a different approach; trampling on freedoms and suppressing the media. The Committee to Protect Journalists cited Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China, Iran and Myanmar among the censored countries where social media is under siege. Despite having over 802 million Internet users (57.7 per cent of the population), China has a “Great Firewall,” featuring human censors and advanced technology tools to block sites, blogs and online news outlets. Vietnam updated its Media Law that compels the media to serve as mouthpiece of the Communist Party in 2013, extending state censorship to social media and criminalising criticism of government. Russia introduced two new laws this year to constrain social media; one bans “fake news” and the other criminalises “insulting public officials.” Iran routinely blocks millions of independent sites, while North Korea allows less than 10 per cent of the population to have cell phones and restricts its tightly-controlled Intranet to a few. These regimes also jail journalists and label unfavourable reports as treason. They are not role models of democracy. Western countries have legislated on hate speech without hampering freedoms. This is the way to go. Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo is the lone voice for restraint by pointedly declaring, “I don’t think that government regulation is necessarily the way to go.”
Nigerians should not be pulled towards the oppressive group. Any speech or literature that is determined to incite violence can also be subject to criminal liability, and it is already illegal under our law to publicly slander or libel someone. Though the minister said responsible journalists have nothing to fear as the government’s intention was not to gag the media, this should be taken with a pinch of salt. This is a government that has been exhibiting increasing intolerance for the freedom of the press. Buhari should face the challenges of nation building squarely by addressing troubling issues of economic diversification, national integration, true federalism and corruption.
No government should be allowed arbitrary power to determine how people think or be allowed to intrude on freedom of expression or of the press in the name of controlling social media. Democracy thrives on the free flow of information and opportunities to vent diverse opinions. Buhari is reminding Nigerians of his draconian anti-press Decree 4 when he was military head of state from 1984 to 85. The government has no business regulating what is and isn’t the “truth” online or offline. It will only offer cover to a dictatorship, to shut down the views of people government finds distasteful and create a less free environment for robust national debate.