The media has come under attack once more. This time, it is not just the mainstream media, but the new or social media that is under attack thanks to the introduction of a controversial Social Media Bill by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC, Kebbi South) on the floor of the Senate. The bill, among other things, proposes:
- Up to seven years in prison or N2 million fine for “anyone who intentionally propagates false information that could threaten the security of the country or that is capable of inciting the general public against the government through electronic message.”
- Up to years in prison or $10,000 fine or both for anyone disseminating via text message, Twitter, WhatsApp, or any other form of social media an “abusive statement.”
- This also involves messages intending to “set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law.”
An amazing aspect of this bill is that its sponsor(s) did not bother to make a deliberate effort to define what they mean by “abusive statement.” On which the strength of the bill lies. There are two things one can infer from this: the bill was hurriedly packaged in the light of the recent expositions of mind-blowing corruption allegations against some former and present public officers whose agents, the sponsors of this bill represent. Secondly, the sponsors of the bill do not have thoroughness as part of their daily routine for them to have made this important omission.
Acknowledged it is on record that President Muhammadu Buhari has never had it smooth with the media. He is not known to be media-friendly. We cannot continue pretending about this fact. His reputation as a dictator during his term as Nigerian Head of State (1983-1985) may pass on well as the darkest period in the Nigerian media history, with the notorious “Decree 4” featuring prominently. The widely reported “ban” on African Independent Television (AIT) from covering his activities as president-elect some months ago strengthens this position. The introduction of this unfortunate Bill, if passed by the Senate, can only lay credence to this fear of him becoming a dictator.
While no responsible democratic government will deliberately gag the press; nothing in press freedom supports hate speeches, inciting statements or outright falsehoods. In this regard, we use freedom of press to mean that the media can publish news items and opinions without being censored or “gagged” by any authority. When press enjoys freedom, it indicates that the press can publish news and opinions on any issues without facing any restrictions and prohibitions. But it does not mean that this freedom is absolute or arbitrary. The media cannot just publish whatever they wish; rather they should publish things that are constructive for the society or the country and should refrain from publishing any propaganda or biased news and anything that can harm society or the state. So, press must realize the meaning of the scope of its freedom, otherwise their power can turn into an instrument of great public harm and damage. While such freedom mostly implies the absence of interference from an overreaching state, its preservation may be sought through constitutional or other legal protections.
Let us come back to that unfortunate Bill. As far as some of us are concerned is just another waste of time because with the overwhelming majority of Nigerians against it, the Senate will have no option that to drop it or face public wrath. The fact that President Buhari has even come out against the unpopular Bill means they must tour the path of honour to kill that bill altogether!
This is specifically where ill-fated AIT case fits in. This media station, either deliberately or for pecuniary reasons chose murder honour. Its role during the election can be classified as ignoble. Owners of the TV station were more of a candidate even their principal. They sponsored hate campaigns against Buhari, calling him unprintable names, including broad day lies. They even went as far as insulting Buhari’s family accusing him of been responsible for the death of his first daughter, Zulai who died of sickle cell anaemia about two years ago and his late wife. After doing all these, the media station’s owners didn’t even bother to even apologise for their below morally par role during the presidential campaign. This would have been alright if this Bill intends to curb reckless media stations like AIT rather than the wild goose chase of monitoring the social media users.
This so-called bill may just be another attempt for corruption to fight back. At the risk of being accused of fallacy of argumentum ad hominem, a cursory look at the sponsors and pushers convinces me of this fear. The bill, if passed, will not be at home with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), intending to strengthen citizens’ participation in governance. Like we earlier wrote, just as no responsible government will gag the press; no responsible citizen will support hate speeches, slander or libel. But we need to stress more emphatically that this bill is needless in the face of several laws against irresponsible speeches and reckless abuse of the media like we witnessed in the case of the AIT during the presidential campaigns earlier this year.
We need to equally make some important connections here. Some people are presently in court standing trials for cases dealing with corruption. You do not expect a good soldier to just sit back and watch while you fire your missile, they will fire back. They will not only fire back, they will fire from all cylinders. It will then be foolhardy to assume that the introduction of this so-called bill should be regarded as mere coincidence. “When you fight corruption,” as it is now a said in Nigeria, “corruption fights back.”
Some of us have the fear that this bill may just be sponsored to serve as a blackmail tool against President Buhari, whose opponents have been doing their best to make his administration look “anti-democratic”. The fact that the President himself has come out to strongly distance himself from the needless bill leaves the sponsors to answer the moral question: “Who sent thou?” We have to understand that the social or new media has become a powerful medium for communication, so the senate must be very careful in its handling of it. Many, if not all, the political office holders today won their elections thanks to the powerful influence of social media.
A quick advice to those pushing this bill is for them to not with caution, that those pushing them into sponsoring this bill will readily deny them when they need them most to defend them. They are quiet now in the face of overwhelming public outcry against this new madness in town. Their silence is just so deliberate, because they are aware there will be elections in less than four years. They can look so stupid now for all they care, but those waiting to profit from their open display of madness are only waiting to strike. Senator Na’Allah and his co-travellers need not be reminded the 2015 election battle was fought largely on the social media. We also need not tell them that most, if not all, of them found themselves in the Senate today thanks to social media. We pray earnestly that these people don’t come back seeking for votes in 2019 because the social media, which they now intend to kill, will outlive them!
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