By Jerome-Mario Utomi
For media practitioners, oddities -particularly, human tragedies and other forms of unfortunate occurrences often always sell the Newspaper. But there is a more important consideration.
In more civil times, similar happenings elicited condemnations from the media, well-meaning citizens and civil society organizations. Ultimately, part of, or combination of the above-mentioned position(s) accounted for the ripple reactions that greeted the recent news about the senate’s reintroduction of two separate but related Bills in a space of one week- Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, and the hate speech bill.
At the most basic level, while the Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019, sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa,(APC Niger East), among other provisions, seeks to curtail the spread of fake information. And seeks a three-year jail term for anyone involved in what it calls the abuse of social media or an option of fine of N150, 000 or both. It is also proposing a fine of N10 million for media houses involved in peddling falsehood or misleading the public. The hate speech bill on its part proposes that any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person shall die by hanging upon conviction. This is in addition to its call for the establishment of an ‘Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches’, which shall enforce hate speech laws across the country
Without much labour, the most telling evidence about the bills, good intention is signposted in their resolve to curtail the spread of fake information and hate speeches in the country. However, in connection with these bills, it is necessary to especially stress at some points which, apply generally. Specifically, when one looks at these complex provisions, It will not be an overstatement to characterize as a misguided priority the reintroduction of such Bills as our failures as a nation lies not in fake news or hate speech but in the system. Also, his fact brings an important distinction to the fore. Social media is not just another platform for disseminating falsehood. Rather, it is a platform for pursuing the truth, and the decentralized creation and distribution of ideas; in the same way, that government is a decentralized body for the promotion and protection of the people’s life chances. It is a platform, in other words, for development that the government must partner with instead of vilification.
As strategic insights will reveal, these Bills came at a time when the dust raised by a similar move from the House of Representatives to reintroduce a similar bill seeking regulation of non-profitable organizations (NPOs), was yet to settle. A Bill which has as far-reaching restrictive provisions-establishment of regulatory commissions to facilitate and coordinate the work of all national and International civil society organisations; and assist in checking any likelihood of any civil society organisation being illegally sponsored against the interest of Nigeria. This leads to another more concrete observation that probably does more than anything else to convince Nigerians to look differently at the Bills. Precisely, a nation can make laws on the basis of its real functional strength as the case may be. But coming with such Bill in a country where constructive debate is never given a chance as it’s often seen as ‘unnecessary and divisive. Deferring political ideas and strategies are perceived as destructive to the nation’s interest, open discussion is now seen as a challenge to the leader.
Under this circumstance, how can Nigerians draw a line, or identify what constitutes fake news or hate speech? And who will be the Judge? To further lend credence to this argument, it is a well-established axiom that ‘without wood, the fire goes out, charcoal keeps the ember glowing as wood keeps the fire burning’. The same is applicable to the factors propelling fake News/hate speeches. It is a barefaced truth that the death of leadership, the asymmetrical posturing of our political space and the refusal to have it restructured, among others, propels fake news and hate speech. To many, no volume of excuse generated by the lawmakers to defend their position for coming up with such a bill can be sustained as the whole episode in my views is perceived as misguided, ill-timed and a decision arrived at ahead of logic. What is even most frightening about these proposed bills is that at a time when world leaders are standing up with sets of values that encourage listening and responding constructively to views expressed by citizens, giving others the benefits of the doubt, providing support and recognizing the interests and achievements of its citizens, such in the estimation of our lawmakers have become the ripped time to threaten its citizens with jail terms and capital punishments. In the same line of argument, duty means discipline, being always on duty means unrelaxed discipline. But, the stunning thing about the duty performed by the Senate is that it is coming at a time when there are other trends that should have left us better than worse, and when the list of actions not yet taken by the Federal Government remains lengthy and worrisome.
Take as another illustration, at the point when this ‘human tragedy’ was being presented before the senate, Governments spending on education and health remain very low minimum wage as protection is been eroded, pensioners are dying in their droves and over 13 million Nigerian children going by reports are currently out of school. As the debate rages, another area of ‘interest’ to watch is the relationship of this bill with the media/press. I am aware that every media should reinforce and not undermine government effort. However, similar to their global counterparts, Nigerians are also aware that; ‘a free press is not a privilege but an organic necessity in a society. That without criticism, reliable, and intelligent reporting, and the government cannot govern. For there is no adequate way in which it can keep itself informed about what the people of the country are thinking, doing. Finally, for the Senate to think that the proposed moves will solve the problem of fake news or hate speech can only but meet with a mirage, Rather, like an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countrysides and devastates crops, even so, will these bills, if allowed to fly, will heighten the already polarized political environment, present fake news/hate speech as alluring as ‘whatever that is forbidden is most admired’.