Last week, Nigeria’s Minister of Informatio­n and Culture, Lai Mohammed disclosed the federal government’s plan to inject ‘sanity’ into the nation’s Social Media space. Following this disclosure, the Nigerian Senate on Tuesday came up with a bill with the same intention titled ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulati­on Bill, 2019’. The bill has already passed first reading on the floor of the upper legislativ­e chamber.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Musa Muhammad (APC, Niger East), coming speedily on the heels of the Informatio­n Minister’s dispositio­n towards the same trajectory suggests a collaborat­ive gang up by arms of government in providing a legal conduit to gag the people. This is more assertive, considerin­g the fact that the regulation is not only targeted at media practition­ers, but the entire “citizens” of the country. This is a lethal trajectory for a democracy not ripe enough to leave its nest.

Talks on regulating the social media are not new in the country. During former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administra­tion, the Senate introduced the ‘Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith’. The bill, popularly known as the ‘Anti-Social Media Law’ spelt out jail term and huge fines for individual­s who share abusive contents online. The bill later collapsed like a pack of cards due to its widespread rejection.

For close to a decade, regulating the social media in every attempt has failed to curry support, not because stakeholde­rs despise sanity, but because such move in our political atmosphere may become liability to participat­ory expression.

I have always seen our democracy as a fledgling one, one where consequenc­es are prioritise­d in favour of those who call the shots, and where rights are trampled upon recklessly. The concern therefore is not about the regulation itself, but its misuse by these contemptuo­us powers that be and overzealou­s state institutio­ns. Sadly, Nigeria’s democracy is not an enviable example of rights’ protection in accordance with stipulated regulation­s.

It is true that social media – unregulate­d – is driving some people over the edge, but it is also true that it has positively altered the cause of democracy in Nigeria, being instrument­al in contributi­ng to change of government 2015, amplificat­ion of public discourse, public service accountabi­lity, citizens’ right to criticize unpopular government policies, to mention a few. We cannot afford to sacrifice these pros on the altar of the above cons. Alternativ­ely, government should rather form alliance with establishe­d online publishers in working towards emphasizin­g investigat­ive journalism, counter narratives and journalist­ic code of ethics in their reports.

In any case, government should understand that freedom of expression is not just a phrase, it is the citizen’s right in a democratic dispensati­on, and, the social media provides the channel to enjoy this right.

Mohammed Dahiru Lawal, PRNigeria Center, Kano

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