The governors of the 19 northern states recently called for the censorship and regulation of social media in the country in view of its capability to spread fake news. The governors, who spoke after a meeting in Kaduna on the recent EndSARS protests, argued that the best way to check the spread of fake news is for the government to regulate the use of social media. The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, has also supported the move because of the harmful effect of spreading fake news. According to him, the government will not allow fake news and hate speech dominate the media space and exploit the national fault lines to set off a conflagration.
This is not the first time the government will attempt to control the social media. However, the good news is that most Nigerians will, like in previous occasions, oppose it. In 2018, a Hate Speech Bill was introduced in the National Assembly. It essentially sought the establishment of an “Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches,” which would enforce the hate speech laws and eliminate the menace across the country.
According to the bill, any person found guilty of harassment on grounds of ethnicity or racial contempt shall be jailed for not less than five years or pay a fine of not less than N10 million or both. It also prescribed death sentence for any person found guilty of any kind of hate speech. Following criticisms against the bill by many Nigerians and some civil society organisations such as the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, the Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership, and others, it was dropped.
However, in 2019, the Hate Speech Bill resurfaced in the National Assembly and imposed death penalty by hanging for offenders. The bill known as the National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches (Establishment) bill 2019 was sponsored by Alhaji Sabi Abdullahi. Like others before, it also died a natural death.
Also, the attempt to pass the Nigerian Press Council Amendment Bill in the National Assembly did not succeed because the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO), made up of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Nigeria Guild of Editors and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) as well as other media stakeholders, vehemently rejected it. All other attempts to control the social media or muzzle the media generally were unsuccessful.
We deplore the new attempt to control the social media in whatever guise because it is an affront on freedom of the press. The envisaged plan to control the social media will contradict the extant constitutional provisions on the freedom of press and freedom of expression.
Specifically, Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) states unambiguously that “the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people.”
Similarly, Section 39(1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) provides that “every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
Arising from these constitutional provisions, we enjoin the government to stop mooting the idea of regulating the social media or trying to control the media. We say this because no democratic culture will thrive without the freedom of expression. Furthermore, no society can achieve much development without a free press.
The concerns over the abuse of the social media are genuine. However, censoring the social media is not the solution. We believe that good governance and inclusive democracy can unite the country. Already, there are many laws in the country to address any abuse by the press. Therefore, there is no point bringing new laws or new measures to control the media in the name of censoring or regulating the social media.
Besides being used for negative purpose, government must acknowledge the fact that social media can also be used positively. Moreover, some Nigerians use the social media for their businesses. Any attempt to control it will not augur well for them and the economy. It is bound to increase the unemployment rate in the country.
Apart from news, the social media has platforms for learning, marketing, advocacy, social interaction and other uses. The government should not deny Nigerians access to social media in a 21st Century world. Instead of regulating the social media, the government should pay more attention to checking rising poverty, insurgency and other violent crimes.