BY SIMON KOLAWOLE
To be very, very, very clear, I will say this upfront: I am 100 percent against the move by the national assembly to regulate social media and legislate against hate speech. Mind you, I do not subscribe to anarchy. I believe in law and order. I believe in regulated public conduct. I believe in civilised human behaviour. I do not believe that any human being should have the right to invent lies against others and go scot-free under the guise of free speech. I do not believe that ethnic and religious hate should be freely propagated on any public platform without let or hindrance. It is only in the jungle that you have no rules, no regulations, no code of conduct and no laws.
However, in an underdeveloped democracy such as ours, I do not trust the government to regulate anything that has to do with freedom of speech and freedom of association. If our experience in the last 20 years is a good guide, we will only be opening the door to censorship, intimidation and subjugation. A journalist is currently on trial for trying to “overthrow” the governor of Cross River state, according to one of the charges. When you think you have seen or heard it all, you click on your browser and discover that you are just getting started. If such a ridiculous charge can be filed under the existing laws, then you can imagine the impending trouble.
Because of our history, I find it difficult to trust politicians who say they are doing something for the good of the society. Since when did our politicians start loving us so much that they want to protect us from harmful speech and shield us from the bile of social media? If the lawmakers love our peace, progress and sanity as they are claiming, they will first forfeit their mouth-watering allowances, perform selfless oversight duties and stop cornering the trillions of naira budgeted for constituency projects. Regulating social media wouldn’t be their first port of call. We can only guess then that they are merely seeking to protect themselves from public scrutiny with these noxious bills.
Nevertheless, my distrust for the political class does not blind me to the pervasive mayhem in Nigeria’s public sphere. Many social media users have taken liberty for licence with the gutter language they deploy in making comments and advancing arguments. A lot of people have been driven to the verge of suicide by social media tormentors. That is why I have been saying privately and publicly for years that a time would come when the world would rise up in unison to check these anti-social behaviours. The anarchy is against civilised human behaviour. No human being should ever have the freedom to troll people on the basis of ethnicity, religion or even looks.
It is actually a thing of irony that we call it “social media” when, in the real sense, much of it would only pass for “anti-social” media. While I can testify that the social media sphere offers much more than hate and fake news, it has unfortunately become the favourite hang-out spot for cowards who exhibit anti-social behaviours — defined as “actions that harm or lack consideration for the well-being of others”. Conducts that violate the rights of any person and behaviours that are disruptive to others are called “anti-social behaviours”. You find all these on “social” media. I am often scared by the possible consequences of the disgusting words people spew out on these platforms.
Nevertheless, we must avoid lumping everybody and everything on social media together. We should not throw the banana away with the peel. There are four major categories of postings on social media that I have observed. I would describe the first category as “informative” — offering news, facts and educative contents that leave you edified. There are lovely Twitter handles that do it well. The second category is “entertainment” — which is good for your health. The contents can make you laugh, dance, de-stress and forget all your worries. The third is “advocacy” — where public-spirited individuals agitate for change, fight for human rights and promote societal values.
The fourth category — which may actually be the target of the national assembly — is populated by the “anti-social” beings who specialise in sowing and spreading libel, slander, fake news, propaganda, incitement, hate, religious bigotry, ethnic chauvinism and anything evil. If you post a harmless story on rainfall or jollof rice, for instance, the trolls will look for an ethnic or religious angle to introduce in order to inflame passion. These are the thugs who give social media a bad name and drive away many decent people. Many public figures have had to delete their accounts because they cannot stand these vile gangsters. Some have gone into depression.
I remember reading an article by Prof Okey Ndibe, “Going to Bob Marley’s Country”, in 2010. It was a beautiful travelogue by one of Nigeria’s most cerebral essayists. But I could not believe the vile ethnic comments on such a harmless article! That day I decided that in my world, comments must be moderated. When I set up TheCable online newspaper in 2014, we decided to moderate comments. Some of my colleagues still disagree — they think unrestricted commenting is good for page views and Alexa Ranking. For me, I would take No. 2 billion on Alexa any day rather than promote hate. My personal philosophy is that business must combine these three Ps — purpose, principles and profits.
It is important to point out that regulating the media has always been an issue, even with all the professional bodies and professional ethics in the traditional media. Should there be an industry regulator (as it is in other sectors) or can the industry self-regulate? It is more problematic with the social media in which every citizen is a potential creator and sharer of content and where it is difficult to articulate and enforce professional ethics. We are not alone in the struggle to contain the possible abuse and dangers of social media. Even advanced democracies are legislating to ensure that actions have consequences and to enforce the basic lesson that no right is absolute.
That said, as much as I believe that the anarchy in the cyberspace needs to be contained, I cannot trust the government to regulate social media and curb hate speech. My first ground of objection, which I stated earlier, is that when you allow politicians in an underdeveloped democracy to regulate freedom of speech, you are giving them a dangerous weapon which they can use to clobber you at any time. Anything can be interpreted as hate speech. I saw a picture on Twitter last week in which a truck is stuck on a horrible road. The witty comment was: “How to avoid hate speech — this trailer wants to spoil this beautiful federal road.” That’s an example of being “too careful”.
My second ground of objection to the bills is that the enemies of democracy may take advantage of them to clamp down on the good guys on social media. The real trouble with social media is the toxic wing, populated by trolls, miscreants and propagandists. Those who use the platforms to provide good education, authentic information, exhilarating entertainment and altruistic advocacy ought not to be affected — but government officials who cannot tolerate dissent and criticism will hide under the social media regulations to target their critics, not just the trolls and hate merchants. This is the real hidden danger. Genuine commentators and activists will be targeted.
Finally, we have enough laws in our statutes that can take care of the infractions. We have the Cyber Crime Act, the Nigerian Communications Act 2003, the Penal Code and the Criminal Code, among other laws. They can address issues of falsehood and incitement to violence as well as regulate the use of communication tools. Our problem in Nigeria is that instead of enforcing existing laws, we always want to write new ones. That is why we are always agitating for new constitutions when we have not implemented 50 per cent of the one in our hands. At the slightest provocation, we set up new agencies to do what can be done by existing bodies. That is how we roll in Nigeria.
My suggestion, therefore, is that the Social Media Bill and the Hate Speech Bill should be gathered together, bound with ropes, taken to the car park of the national assembly and set on fire. There is no single offence contained therein that cannot be punished with existing laws. We should focus our energies on using the existing laws to seek remedy and bring culprits to justice. Attempts to tame bad behaviours that anonymity encourages on social media should not stifle legitimate free speech or provide a tool for shielding politicians and public officials from scrutiny and accountability. The compromise, in my opinion, is to enforce existing laws not make new ones.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
President Muhammadu Buhari has, thankfully, upturned the decision of Mallam Abubakar Malami, Nigeria’s attorney-general, to engage consultants to demand an estimated $43 billion debt — being the backlog of Nigeria’s share from production sharing contracts since 2008 — from oil companies. The consultants were to pocket about $2.15 billion — or 5% — as commission. Malami, however, thinks we should be grateful to him: he alleged that previous governments gave 30% commission. Very kind of you, Honourable Minister, but this is a job that should be done by the Department of Petroleum Resources and FIRS without collecting commission, not even 0.00001%. Regards.
THE YARI DOCTRINE
Do you still remember Alhaji Abdulaziz Yari, the great Zamfara governor-cum-scientist who discovered the link between fornication and meningitis? When meningitis killed hundreds of Zamfara citizens under his watch, he amazingly discovered that a virus called “fornication” caused the epidemic. He is back in the news after his exit from office. Despite pocketing N300 million as severance pay, he is miffed at the non-payment of his monthly N10 million “maintenance” token in a state that cannot pay the N30,000 minimum wage. I’m sure Zamfara citizens now know that fornication does not pay. Greed is more rewarding. Shikena!
Mr Mohammed Bello Adoke, Nigeria’s former attorney-general, was recently arrested by Interpol in Dubai, UAE, based on a warrant of arrest issued by a Nigerian court. However, the warrant had been vacated by the court since October but the Nigerian government did not inform Interpol. Now, for Adoke to be released, Interpol wants the government to attest to the vacating order. Pardon my stupidity, but how can Interpol expect such attestation from the same government that wanted to arrest Adoke since 2015? Seriously? Am I missing something? If his case is political, as Adoke has been claiming all along, Interpol will have to wait till eternity for the attestation. Stalemate.
MINISTER OF NCC
I know Sheikh Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami is the minister of communications and digital economy but, from the look of things, he would rather be the executive vice-chairman of the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC). The way he has been dishing out instructions and orders to the telecom regulator is unprecedented. His admirers may be happy with his populist pronouncements that lack any scientific or economic basis, but they have to hope that he won’t wake up one day and give an order that will end up sinking the entire industry. He may also need a crash course on the difference between a regulator and a ministry. Usurpation.