By Amir Abdulazeez
Three apparently co-incidental events happened in quick succession in the past few weeks. The first was the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed’s meeting with Nigerian bloggers and social media influencers in Lagos where he stressed the Federal Government’s resolve to protect free speech, but tasked social media users on self-regulation. The second was the emergence of a mocked photo of an ‘improperly’ dressed Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah which went viral on social media. The authenticity and source of that picture cannot be verified but several netizens kept mocking the Deputy Senate Leader on the basis that he could not properly utilize his wardrobe allowance. The third is the presentation of a draft bill titled “Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other matters connected therewith,” proposed by no other person but by the same Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC, Kebbi South), and it has passed second reading in the senate.
Outrage and condemnation broke out particularly on social media shortly after the bill-popularly but ignorantly referred to as ‘The Anti-Social Media Bill’-passed second reading. The bill according to competent media sources makes it illegal to start any type of petition without swearing to an affidavit that the content is true in a court of law. It also proposes up to two years in prison, or a fine of N2million, or both, for anyone posting an “abusive statement” via text message, Twitter, WhatsApp, or any other form of social media.
The bill reads in part “Where any person through text message, tweets, WhatsApp or through any social media post any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and or group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2million or both”.
Actually, apart from the massive public misconception and suspicion, there is no problem with the content of this bill, but there are four vital issues we should understand and reflect from this emergence of this bill. Firstly, there is massive mistrust between the governors and the governed in Nigeria. This mistrust is getting worse by the day and this is caused by several obvious factors. For instance, the generality of Nigerians tend to by default disagree with the National Assembly on almost everything because they see them as people not serving their interest. As such, we always have a preconceived negative disposition towards many things emanating from our leaders. Despite assurances by the lawmakers that the law is meant to protect Nigerians, the public insists that the draft bill would muzzle free speech and are bent on giving it not the slightest of chances. Secondly, the emergence of this bill once again stresses the fact that we are only interested in making laws and having law officers but not actually committed to enforcing these laws and ensure their strict adherence. For instance, with or without the so called bill, spread of falsehood, abuse and hate campaigns against individuals, groups and institutions on social media or anywhere else are unlawful and anybody caught should be arrested and charged to court by the police; we don’t need any new bill to take care of this. It is that simple. Thirdly, Nigerians are once again demonstrating their gullibility to go with the bandwagon effect. Assumably, more than 75% of Nigerians opposing this bill are virtually ignorant of its content or are basing their arguments on misinformed notions and they apparently don’t care to find out. Most of them are not looking forward to any public hearing on the bill to have the opportunity of constructively ventilating their grievances either on the whole bill or some parts of it. Presently, many Nigerians are calling for the removal of fuel subsidy after they vehemently opposed it four years ago. If we had objectively studied the fuel subsidy issues irrespective of our mistrust for the Jonathan Government at the time, we would have gave it at least, the benefit of the doubt and the subsidy would have been removed long ago, the rest would now have become history.
The impact of the social media on global political development cannot be overemphasized. Through the social media, a revolution happened in Tunisia and Egypt and subsequently led to the popular Arab Spring. Countries like Turkey and Bangladesh had partly tampered with access to social media platforms like Twitter and Whatsapp in fear of the replication of what happened in other countries.
The Social Media is probably the best thing that has happened to Nigeria’s Democracy in the last 16 years. It has helped raised political awareness, increased participation, encouraged debates, promoted accountability and established synergy between the leaders and the led. President Obasanjo was just lucky that the social media wasn’t as it is today during his time, he would probably have been given a good run for his money. Contrary to views that the social media was deployed against President Jonathan, the truth is that political participation in it reached its peak during his time and no other president would’ve survived its heat. President Buhari is currently in the social media oven and his handlers can best describe how the heat is hard to contend with. However, the level of social media abuse by users in the name of politics is fast undermining the aforementioned gains recorded. The integrity and credibility of the Social Media is becoming a subject of debate. It is fast losing credibility and integrity not for want of good people but for the actions of some people who use it as a medium for all sorts of vices. For this reason, many people have either refused to join Social Media or have chosen to join but remain inactive.
Many average Nigerians cannot simply discuss political issues on social media without insulting each other. This makes the sociability of the social media questionable in the Nigerian context. If we use the so-called ‘social’ media to rain abuses upon each other and others mostly in reaction to falsehood and half-truths, then how social is that social media? In essence, we collectively contribute a lot in making the social media unsocial for Nigerians. The main victims of the vices coming from social media are the youths-most of whose faculties of learning and intuition are still under construction-who find it easy to believe and assimilate what they are being fed with. This portends the intellectual future of our youths in bad light and in serious danger along with potential unpatriotism.
The major problem we are facing is the attempt of many of us to completely divorce online life from physical life. Hence, the assumption that a vice online is not a vice offline. It is most unfortunate that the Social Media Bill issue is coming up at this time, but it is an anticlimax of long term usage of Social media for the spread of abuses and hate campaigns.
While we may oppose this bill for the fear of its disguised use or future abuse in the long-run by authorities to clampdown on free speech, we must self-regulate. We must be concerned about the overall integrity of the platform which offers us the cheapest but most efficient opportunity to express ourselves. The cyber unit of the police must also stand up to its responsibilities. It should be able to professionally police activities online just as they normally police our streets and anyone found wanting should be prosecuted. Any crime online is a crime offline.
Personally, I am vehemently against any legislative provision to ‘checkmate’ activities on Social Media for many reasons, but I think Lai Mohammed’s call for self-regulation should be taken very seriously.