ON Monday, October 26, the Federal Government, through the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) slammed fines of N3 million against three major broadcast stations over what it described as ‘unprofessional coverage’ of the #EndSARS protests. The broadcast stations are Arise TV, African Independent Television (AIT) and Channels Television. They were penalized for allegedly airing unverified images from social media.
In announcing the sanctions, NBC blamed the television stations for the violent turn which later characterised the protests. “Channels Television, Arise TV and AIT especially continued to transmit footages obtained from unverified and unauthenticated social media sources,” Acting Director-General of the NBC, Prof. Armstrong Idachaba said, adding that the pictures stimulated anger and heightened the violence that was witnessed during the crisis.
The fines generated criticism from several quarters and have been described as an attempt to muzzle the press. The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has threatened legal action against the Federal Government for failing to respond to public calls to cancel the fines.
However, barely 24 hours after the Federal Government handed down the fines on the broadcast stations, Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, on Tuesday, October 27, used the #EndSARS protests as justification to make yet another push for social media regulation in the country.
The minister had appeared before the House of Representatives Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values to defend the 2021 budget proposed by the Ministry of Information and Culture but he used the occasion to insist on the need for the enactment of an anti-social media law.
Addressing the lawmakers, Mohammed warned that Nigeria was sitting on a keg of gunpowder, which could consume the country if the issue of fake news was not urgently addressed.
Making reference to the #EndSARS protests, Mohammed noted that the next war in the country might be fought on social media platforms.
The Federal Government has already put regulations in place for the print and broadcast media – through the Nigerian Press Council and National Broadcasting Commission but going by Mohammed’s submissions, Nigeria’s biggest challenge at the moment is the absence of regulatory laws for the social media.
The minister claimed that the younger people, who make greater use of social media platforms, do not watch television, listen to radio or read newspapers.
Describing the #EndSARS protests as a ‘war’ that was fought on the social media with ‘smartphone and data’, Mohammed maintained the position adopted by the Federal Government and the Nigerian Army by suggesting that viral videos and images which depicted the suppression of protesters were photoshopped, and as such, fake news.
He said, “The recent #EndSARS war was fought on social media. They mobilised using the social media. The war today revolves around two things – smartphone and data and these young men don’t even watch television or listen to the radio or read newspapers. You will be shocked that when you start arguing with your children, they will be quoting the social media. So, we need a social media policy in Nigeria and we need to empower the various agencies and we need technology to be able to regulate the social media.”
Warning that Nigeria faces imminent destruction from fake news, if the social media was not regulated, Mohammed added, “The biggest challenge facing Nigeria today is fake news and misinformation. Based on that, we dedicated an entire National Council on Information’s meeting to that issue, after which we launched a national campaign against fake news in July 2018.
“We said, then, that the next war will be fought without a shot being fired, but with the use of fake news. We didn’t stop there.
“We went on a tour of all media houses to solicit their support in the fight against fake news. We launched the campaign to regulate social media, which was bitterly contested by the stakeholders. We kept saying that if we don’t regulate social media, it will destroy us. Social media and fake news will not destroy Nigeria.”
However, the minister’s submissions did not receive the support of members of the House of Representatives Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values, who cautioned against any attempt to clampdown on freedom of expression in the country.
Information minister, Mohammed, has been championing the Federal Government’s bid to regulate the social media through the enactment of an anti-social media law.
In a lecture titled ’Fake News, Hate Speech and National Security in Nigeria’, which he delivered at the National Defence College, in Abuja, on October 15, the minister canvassed a national policy on social media usage. He also made a case for a campaign against fake news as a feature of the national security programme.
Insisting on the regulation of the social media, Mohammed cited a report by social media marketing platform, Hootsuite, which noted that Nigerians spend an average period of about three hours 17 minutes on the social media each day – a longer duration than the global average of three hours 14 minutes.
”The fact that the Internet is unrestrained and the absence of a policy or Act of Parliament to regulate its use, at least for communication purposes, makes the platforms susceptible to abuse,” the minister said in the lecture, adding that “wilful circulation of fake news can put the lives of the citizens in danger and put the very existence of a nation in jeopardy”.
The Federal Government’s fresh push for an anti-social media law is coming against the backdrop of stiff resistance from the citizens to earlier attempts by the government to introduce the Social Media Bill.
The Social Media Bill, also known as the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations and for Related matters Bill, 2019, proposed steep fines or jail time for spreading what the government deems as fake news.
The proposed legislation sought to give government regulatory control over conversations on social media platforms, and individuals whose posts are thought to threaten national security or diminish public confidence in the government could be arrested. Authorities could also cut the Internet access of those that violate the regulation.
Penalties for breaking the social media law, according to the draft bill, include a fine of up to ₦300,000 or three years imprisonment for individuals and ₦10 million for corporate organisations.
However, the passage of the Social Media Bill was stalled after it was greeted with spirited opposition from Nigerians who feared that it could lead to censorship and a crackdown on dissent.
Meanwhile, several civil society organisations and rights groups who spoke with the ICIR on Wednesday knocked the Federal Government for continuing to push for an anti-social media law in Nigeria.
Groups which reacted to Mohammed’s comments at the National Assembly include the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth and Advancement (YIAGA Africa) and the Resource Centre for Human Rights and Civil Education.
National Coordinator of HURIWA, Emmanuel Onwubiko, condemned what he described as the Federal Government’s fixation with the anti-social media law.
Onwubiko noted that Mohammed appears bent on stifling press freedom in the country ever since he took office as Information Minister.
“Since he (Mohammed) came into office he has been trying to stifle the freedom of the press. The way he is carrying-on makes one wonder whether he was given a special assignment to muzzle the press, including the social media. The Federal Government’s fixation with the anti-social media law is troubling – it is uncalled for.”
The HURIWA national coordinator observed that several existing laws in the country are enough to regulate the social media. He listed subsisting libel laws, and the Anti-Cybercrime Act, 2015, as legal instruments that are already regulating the use of social media.
Onwubiko told the ICIR that any fresh attempt by the Federal Government to enact an anti-social media law would be resisted.
Rhoda Tyoben, President, FIDA Nigeria, insisted that the association would never support the enactment of an anti-social media law in the country.
Noting that FIDA had achieved a lot through the social media, she said, “Gagging the citizens will be a big drawback on winning the fight against sexual gender-based violence which has gained so much support through the social media.”
Executive Director of YIAGA Africa, Samson Itodo, told the ICIR that it was not surprising that the Federal Government would seek to ‘shrink the civic space’ after the #EndSARS protests questioned bad governance in the country and also exposed government’s lack of respect for human rights.
“We shouldn’t be surprised by this resurgence in the demand by the Federal Government on the National Assembly for legislation to regulate the social media. The #EndSARS protests have exposed this government as one that has no respect for human rights and this has made them push for the regulation of the social media,” Itodo said.
He further observed that it was ironic that the government was pushing to regulate the social media when the Federal Government was actually “the purveyor of fake news by using misinformation to counter the protests”.
“The state wants to shrink the civic space. It is an attempt to entrench authoritarianism and we call on the National Assembly to resist this attempt,” Itodo added.
Executive Director, Resource Centre for Human Rights and Civil Education, Ibrahim Zikirullahi, insisted that any attempt by the government to push for the enactment of an anti-social media law will fail.
“The Federal Government has been trying to constrict the civic space. They have been trying to block the social media which has given voice to the masses. The mainstream media organisations are owned by the business class and the politicians and as such, they do not serve the people. The social media democratised the media space, that is why the Federal Government is trying to block it,” Zikirullahi said in an interview with The ICIR.
He further observed that the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government used the social media to get into power.
“The present government rode on the powers of the social media to ascend to power and if they think they can turn round to constrict the civic space today, they are wasting their time,” Zikirullahi added.
It would be recalled that 95 Civil Society Organisations, under the aegis of Coalition of Civil Society Organisations for Protection of Civic Space, had in March 2020 called on the National Assembly to reject Social Media Bill.
The coalition described the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations and for Related matters Bill, 2019 (Social Media Bill) as a draconian and modified version of the ‘defeated’ Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected Therewith, 2015, sponsored under the 8th National Assembly.
The Bill for an Act to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected Therewith, 2015, which also targeted the Internet and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp and others, was dropped by the 8th Senate in 2016, following spirited opposition from Nigerians.