Social media censorship: A threat to free speech

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Nigeria’s democracy is facing unanticipated threats from its political class who had sworn to uphold the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria.

That Constitution guarantees various freedoms including freedom of association and freedom of expression.

Promoters of the recent youth protest against police brutality have had their bank accounts blocked on the orders of a court.

One of the promoters who wanted to travel out of the country was stopped at the airport and her passport seized by security agencies without any reasonable explanation.

Four television stations namely AIT, Arise, Channels and TVC have been slapped with hefty fines by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the regulatory agency for electronic media in Nigeria.

The fines are said to be for alleged infringements though there was no due process or fair hearing before the hammer fell on the media houses.

These verge on political rascality, a scenario that was prevalent in the days of military dictatorship.

The Ministers of Information and Defence as well as the National Security Adviser are campaigning at every available forum for a draconian regulation of the social media.

This fresh push for the censorship of the social media and by extension the media generally seems to be a fallout of the successful but peaceful protests initiated by Nigeria’s youths against police brutality.

Some sponsored do-gooders jumped into the fray, disrupted the protests, killed some protesters which eventually led, regrettably, to mindless riots and looting in various parts of the country.

The nation is still trying to bind the wounds arising from that episode.

The abiding lesson is that the political elite have a lot to answer on the awful situation in Nigeria.

Instead of paying attention to the many unresolved issues that have inflicted a lot of pain on Nigerians, they have resorted to searching for scapegoats in the shape of social media.

There are, of course, some excesses in the social media because it is a citizen-centred form of communication.

And no citizen is infallible. But there are redeeming features. One, where there are irrational cases of abuse in communication, there are other sane voices that call insanity to order.

That provides a countervailing force. Two, there are already various laws in the books that regulate the conduct of people who practice journalism whether in the electronic, print or social media.

These laws are still adequate for the regulation of professional practice of journalism.

Three, we also have the Cyber Crime Act of 2015 which provides jail terms, stiff fines or both for purveyors of fake news and libellous information.

We believe that these are adequate for the regulation of the public conduct of journalists or other users of the internet.

Social media comes with a lot of benefits but in every circumstance, there are no benefits without burdens. We must bear the burdens of social media with grace if we intend to nurture this democracy to ripe old age.

The suggestion by the Minister of Information, Mr. Lai Mohammed, that Nigeria should borrow a leaf from China in the regulation of the internet is a non sequitur.

He says that China does not allow the operation of Google, Facebook or Twitter in its territory.

But China is a closed, one party, authoritarian, iron-fisted dictatorship. It cannot, must not, should not, be compared to Nigeria of 2020.

We had our many years of iron-fisted military dictatorship which brought us a lot of pain. But in 1999 Nigerians voluntarily chose multi-party democracy with the people’s rights duly enshrined in the Constitution.

Though some of these rights have been breached from time to time by some of our civilian dictators, those rights remain sacrosanct as the defining ethos of democratic governance.

In the 8th National Assembly, a bill for the censorship of social media was canvassed.

After a vigorous public debate, it was shot dead with the lethal bullets of public criticism. It remains dead.

The new attempt to resurrect it will suffer the same fate. Democracy is about the wishes of the people, not about the dictates of the minority ruling elite which seems to be out of touch with the wishes of the people who gave them the mandate.

It is doubtful whether Nigerians want to return to the ignoble days of Decree 4 when people were barred, on the pains of imprisonment, from publishing the truth if it affected government officials.

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Those were the days of unaccountable, non-transparent leadership, where there was severe opacity around government decisions and projects.

All of these fresh attempts at censorship represent a drift towards dictatorship, a lack of respect for the wishes of the people, an appetite for unaccountable governance and the attempt at shredding the fundamental rights of the people enshrined in the Constitution.

This is unacceptable to The Daily Times.

About the author

Ihesiulo Grace

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