By Dr. Dons Eze
After using the press, and the social media in particular, to climb to power, the APC led federal government is now coming hard on the press by introducing some obnoxious and repressive laws aimed at gagging or intimidating members of the press profession. This is akin to one biting the fingers that had fed him.
Some few years ago, when the APC was in opposition, members of the party were always on the offensive against the then ruling PDP, and attacked them, right, left and centre, through the instrumentality of the press, particularly on the social media. The APC members never spared the PDP. They had no respect for the people and the government in power, even for the President of the country, Goodluck Jonathan, whom they called all sorts of unprintable names. But the man kept his cool and never ruffled any feathers.
It was essentially due to these attacks and criticisms in the media that had made the generality of Nigerians to develop morbid hatred for the PDP and its members, which eventually led to the overwhelming defeat of the party in 2015.
But since the APC came to power, members of the party never hid their hatred for the press, both in the utterances of some members of the administration, as well as by the various legislations proposed by some APC members in the legislature.
To prepare grounds to deal with the press, the administration had invented some catch phrases and words like “fake news”, “hate speech”, “wailers”, etc., aimed at putting the media practitioners, and the opposition generally, on the defensive, and to portray these people as enemies of the country.
In the Eight Senate headed by Senator Bukola Saraki, for example, an APC Senator from Niger State, Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, had proposed a bill titled: “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Therewith”, which had essentially sought to deal with the social media. The bill passed Second Reading, but following public outcries and criticisms against it, the bill was withdrawn, perhaps, due to the principled stand of the then Senate President, Bukola Saraki.
Not deterred, and still determined to stifle freedom of expression, another APC Senator, Mohammed Sani Musa, a few days ago, brought a new bill to the Senate titled: “Protection From Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill, 2019”, which, he said, would be aimed to curbing “fake news” in the Internet.
Part of the bill read: “Any person who unlawfully uses, publishes, or cause to be published, any petition or complaint not supported by a duly sworn affidavit, shall be deemed to have committed an offence, and upon conviction, shall be liable to imprisonment for six months without an option of fine”.
The bill further stated that “anybody who acts, uses, or cause to be used, any petition or complaint not accompanied by a duly sworn affidavit shall be deemed to have committed an offence, and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for a term of two years or a fine of N200,000.00, or both”.
The proposed law obviously falls in line with the often quoted statement by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, that the federal government was poised to “regulate” the use of social media in order to “curb” their “excesses” as purveyors of “fake news” and “hate speeches”.
The bill was quickly followed by another bill titled “National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches (Est. etc.) bill 2019 (SB. 154)”, proposed by the same Senator Sabi Abdullahi, now Senate Deputy Chief Whip, who in the Eight Senate, had sponsored the bill on the Prohibition of Frivolous Petitions and Other Related Matters, that was later withdrawn. This new bill proposes life imprisonment or death penalty for any contravention of the law.
That shows how serious the matter is, and the desperation by the APC led federal government in making sure that Nigerians are denied their inalienable right of freedom of expression, as guaranteed by the Nigerian constitution.
But who actually determines what constitutes “fake news” or “hate speeches”, and what does not, other than the federal government and its agencies? Any person not in their good books would easily be labelled purveyors of “fake news” and “hate speeches”, and consequently picked up, and thrown into the gulag for violating any of these laws.
But why are our Senators so anxious to introduce new legislations to “regulate” the press, when we already have enough laws in our statute books, which could be easily used to deal with any person who violates or infringes on the rights of fellow citizens through the press or any of the social media platforms?
May be, our lawmakers have nothing very serious to engage their attention other than to dwell on the trite issue of trying to “regulate” the operations of the press, and the social media in particular. But the media practitioners and the Nigerian public, are not likely going to take this lightly. They are definitely going to resist it, even with the last pint of their blood.
Eze, a public affairs analyst, writes from Enugu.