SO­CIAL ME­DIA BILL AND CITIZENS’ RIGHTS

THISDAY - - EDITORIAL -

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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