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‘We will do everything possible to sanitise media Industry without gagging the press’

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Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed

The resolve by the Federal Government to ensure that there is sanity on social media has generated a lot of debates and (mis) interpretations, especially among the critical mainstream media. The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, in this interview with KABIR ALABI GARBA, clarifies that the efforts have become imperative in order to preserve the media profession and safeguard the nation.

How does government view the brouhaha trailing its resolve to ensure that there is sanity on the social media?
The controversy generated by the decision of the Federal Government to restore sanity into social media is a very welcome development. Welcome in the sense that it has brought to the front burner of national discourse, a matter which is of critical importance to the very existence of Nigeria and to our unity. I say it is welcome, one, there are those who are very vehemently against it and there are those who are also very passionate about it. To that extent, it means that it is a matter that is germane and it is a matter that ought to be discussed.

However, the Federal Government is not backing down on its resolve to regulate social media. Why are we not backing down? We are not backing down because not one person, even those who are vehemently against the regulation has come out to say that social media is not a purveyor of fake news, that social media is not a purveyor of hate speech. Two, not one person has said that social media that is promoting fake news and hate speech is not a danger to our national unity.

Until we can be convinced that if social media continues to be a merchant of fake news, they continue to be a merchant of hate speech they are not a danger to our unity, it is only then we are going to back down! But as long as everybody agrees that fake news and hate speech can threaten the very unity of this country; it can exploit our political fault-lines; set one group against the other and cause mayhem, we are not backing down. Or even when you look at it from a personal level, there are so many innocent people whose lives have been destroyed by fake news! So, what are we saying? We are saying that we want to safeguard the freedom of everybody to express his views subject to not preaching fake news or hate speech. We are not tampering with the freedom of the press, we are not tampering with the constitutional provision, but even the constitution says that you are free to express your views, however; it is subject to national unity. So all the people saying that the Federal Government is trying to gag the media, no, they have missed it.

Two, a thorough bred journalist has nothing to fear from either the regulation of the broadcast media or the regulation of social media. But the truth of the matter is that those people on social media are they really journalists? I think this is the point people have missed. Are they journalists? Are they bound by the ethics of the profession? If they are bound by the ethics of the profession, no matter which platform you use to practice your profession, whether it is print, broadcast or social media, if you are a trained journalist, you will know that there are certain fundamental things that are sacrosanct in this business.

Now, when they get news, do they cross-check their facts? Do they go to the relevant authorities to cross-check? Do they even do their own research? They do not even talk to their peers! But today what we find, which is very dangerous is that, even in some sectors of the mainstream media, not to be outdone by bloggers; not to be outdone by social media commentators are also threading the path of fake news and hate speech. I do not see what the brouhaha is all about. We say that no trained journalist or professional journalist has anything to fear from the regulation of social media. But those who think that this new technology can be used to destabilise the country; it can be used to pitch one tribe against the other, it can be used to distort information that we are going to go after them! We are going to regulate it and we are not alone in this: Singapore has done it, the UK is doing it. China and Russia have done it. We do not have to wait for this country to be set on fire by some irresponsible social media commentators before we do the proper thing. I do not see what all the noise is all about!

Are we saying that because there is freedom of speech, so, hate speech should become free speech? No! Are we saying because our Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, so a person can just stay in the corner of his room and manufacture a story that is not true and set one part of the country against the other? So, we are saying, we would go ahead and do our best to bring sanity to the social media. It is not just going to be business as usual. You cannot just seat in the corner of your room, because you have a phone and you have airtime and then say that Yorubas are killing Igbos in Oshodi! Do you know what that means? If that news goes out, all Yorubas in Onitsha are not safe. All Yorubas in Agbor, in Enugu, are not safe. What are we talking about? It is too dangerous to be left unchecked! Only anarchists and unpatriotic Nigerians would have complained about our efforts to regulate the social media, because virtually everybody, in one way or the other, has been victims, even on a personal level, have been victims of this unregulated social media, and everywhere in the world, people are taking steps to sanitise it.

You can be critical of government, of course, yes, that is your role and we like it, because when you are critical of the government, you help us to know that we are not doing certain things right and when you are critical of government, you give us the opportunity to also explain, probably, what you do not understand. But being critical of the government is different from being reckless and setting out deliberately to preach hate, to preach falsehood. This is what we are after! We are not after an honest, professional journalist.

Many mainstream newspapers have written critical editorials about this government, we have not tampered with their freedom. Ditto the mainstream TV and radio stations. As long as you do not breach the broadcasting code, you are free to say whatever you want to say, but you must respect the broadcasting code. It is not true that this government is after journalist or trying to gag the media, it is not true! Those who are comparing, probably, what it used to be in 10 or five years ago with what is happening today, have forgotten that the explosion of technology has actually blurred the distinction between a trained journalist and an anarchist. Before, we knew who journalists were. We knew what qualification you needed to have to become a journalist, as well as the bodies you needed to belong to.

Bodies such as the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), National Association of Women Journalists (NAWOJ), the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) and so on. They are self-regulating bodies. They discipline themselves. But today, how many of the guys who are on social media are members of the NUJ, NGE, NAWOJ, and NPAN? Before, when we had problems, we knew who and where to go to. We could go to all these bodies because they also knew if they were not self-regulated, they could be self-destroyed, they were even very strict on their own members. But today, the guy that just posts a comment or story, is he a journalist? Is everybody that posts a story on social media a journalist? This is the issue! So, we are very clear in our minds of what we are doing and we know we are doing it not only in the interest of just the government but also of Nigeria!

What format will the regulation take in terms of involvement of stakeholders?
All stakeholders will be involved. We are not going to sit down and say these are the rules that will guide the process. We are carrying everybody along because we cannot do it alone. We cannot sit down in one room and say this is how we are going to regulate social media. We are going to ask for their help because, at the end of the day, we are helping them to preserve the industry and their profession. Today, when people read the news on social media, the first impression is, ‘this can’t be true!’ We have seen instances where social media has hyped up stories that came out to be completely false. The credibility of social media today is getting lower and lower and of course, if you do not take time, it is going to affect serious journalists too. What we are trying to do is to uphold the profession, introduce sanity and weed out those who ought not to be there.

Why the interest in a new regulation when the government has equally refused to empower a body, the Nigerian Press Council, which could have helped in this regard?
There was a problem between the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) and the NPAN and the matter got to the Court of Appeal in favour of the NPC. I think the NPAN has gone to the Supreme Court and we are trying to see how we can get the matter resolved amicably. But the Press Council regulatory authority is without prejudice to what we are doing. We are saying that at the time the Press Council Act was put in place, there were no social media. And the new technology was not covered completely by the Press Council Act, so, what we are doing now will even strengthen and help the press council more. It will be a regulation that would empower them (the NPC and National Broadcasting Commission, NBC) to take certain actions. Yes, the Press Council is there, just like the NBC is there. Even NBC, we are also trying to ensure that the broadcasting industry is more has even more sanitised.

For instance, President Muhammadu Buhari has just approved the recommendations we proposed, such as stiffer fine/penalty for hate speech and inciting news and indecency, insulating the regulatory body from partisan politics, ensuring that better technology and equipment is deployed to NBC for them to do their jobs properly. You see what beats my imagination is that when the government approved those recommendations, about six or seven altogether, the majority of which is even going to strengthen and help the regulatory body, nobody mentions those ones! The ones they mention are those that they think will affect reckless journalists. For instance, of the 8 recommendations the government made, four among these should be of interest to every practicing journalist in broadcasting, why? The decision of the government to insulate the NBC from partisan politics.

In other words, if you are on NBC, you must be politically neutral, because you cannot be a regulator if you are also partisan. I think that should be applauded by everybody, but on the contrary, the government is being abused. Two, the decision of the government to say that, look we found out that there are only 200 staff in the NBC regulating the entire airwaves of over 1000 television and radio stations, let us increase the number of monitoring personnel should be applauded; the fact that the government has recommended that you also need better equipment and better technology should be applauded.

The fact that the government has said you cannot expect people to monitor and regulate their peers and you pay them peanuts, so increase the welfare package of those who work in the NBC, so that they will not be easily compromised should be applauded. Rather, all that everybody has focused on is the fine and licensing of web TV and radio. They are necessary and you see posterity will be there to judge us. I do not want to be remembered as the Minister of Information who was helpless when the social media took over the country, spinning hate speeches and false news, and dividing the country. I will not be intimidated! We will do everything possible to sanitise the industry whether broadcast or social media without gagging the press.

What is your view on linking the efforts to regulate the social media to the third term agenda?
Sometimes, people just want to play to the gallery and people just want to be noticed. What has the third term agenda got to do with all the issues we are discussing? This is why I go back to where we started; no commentator, even those who are vehemently against the regulation of social media, has come out to say, no! Social media does not disseminate fake news. They have not said so. They have not come out to say social media does not disseminate hate speech. They are just been emotional and playing to the gallery. What has third term agenda got to do with regulating social media? Like I said, regulating social media is not just for the government, but also for the people. We have given an example of people whose reputation has been affected by social media and they do not come back to apologise and if even when they do, the harm has been done. So, what has third term agenda got to do with it? Some people just want to be noticed and they make very outlandish statements. We would remain focused; they would throw mud and bricks, but we would remain focused. As a matter of fact, it is when those people become victims of social media falsehood, they will come back to us and thank us for what we are doing.

But the noise about 2023 these days is worrisome given the fact that the second term has just begun and people are still expecting the implementation of those campaign promises…

Have you seen any member of the government talking about 2023? To the best of my knowledge, all members of the cabinet are focused on delivering on the promises of the government. I am not aware of any member of this government that is talking about 2023.

What about the perceived victimisation of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, which is being linked to 2023?
That is all in the realm of rumours. Absolutely, it is in the realm of rumours!

And the sacking of his aides?
I have listened to the position of the Presidency. Reducing staff that they deemed not necessary, I do not think that is persecution. I do not think so; I do not believe so. We must not allow our senses to be ruled by innuendos. Now, the government could take certain measures in good conscience, but we could simply link it to third term agenda or prosecution of A and B. I do not think so.

Where does the government take the initiative of licensing WebTV and online radio?
That is precisely why we set up a committee to implement the recommendations approved for the broadcast sector by the President. The panel will come out with their recommendations; we will look at it and see how workable it is. That is why we have professionals and experts in the committee. I think it is too early to start second-guessing them. Let them bring their report and if the report says it is not possible, that is a different thing, but we cannot second-guess them. It is a committee of professionals and experts who are competent in this matter; they will come out and tell us how we can implement those recommendations. I can assure you that those who recommended them did not recommend them from the air, they did the recommendations based on their knowledge that it was possible, because it has been done elsewhere. I would rather wait for the report of the committee which will be in about two weeks time.

As for the social media regulation, that is why we are having a committee made up of all stakeholders including bloggers, online publishers amongst others so that we can all sit together. What is happening in Singapore? What is happening in India, Russia, China? The Chinese solution might not be the same as ours; the Russian solution might not be our own because we have precise objectives that we want to achieve and that is to ensure that hate speech does not become free speech. Meanwhile, there is a consequence for any person that uses social media to disparage, demean anybody, set one group against the other or preach falsehood that can destroy people’s reputation. I think it is doable because other people have done it. So, we will wait for the report of the committee and see where we go from there and then we are soon going to inaugurate a committee that would restore sanity into the social media as they will be given their own terms of reference.

How long will it take to review the aspect of the NBC Act that mandates the President as the final authority to grant a broadcast licence?
I think people do not understand how these licences are issued. Mr. President does not advertise or collect applications for issuing licences. It is the NBC that does that. The president is not involved in the compilation of those who have met the criteria; it is the commission that does that, putting into consideration how many licences have been issued, to which part of the country, where do you have the frequencies? Now, it is only the recommendation that is sent to the Presidency, they will look at it and ascertain why A, B, C have been recommended for licence and if they are satisfied, they then push the matter before the President who then gives the final approval. It is really about checks and balances that allow only Mr. President to be the final approving authority.

Supposing it is the other way round, how can you guarantee there will be no abuses? Supposing it is the Minister that does it, for instance, what is going to happen is that the Minister becomes too powerful. He will look at the licences and compile and give to those who he also likes. But even after the NBC recommends, it comes to the Minister who looks at it also to confirm it has passed all the requirements before he then passes it to the President. I think it is all about checks and balances. Those who are thinking otherwise should also think about the abuses. If the bulk stops at the Minister’s table, the licence seekers can pressurise the minister. But the President sees things from the national perspectives. For our situation today, I think it should remain that way.

How true is the comment that the last set of approvals had been withdrawn because certain abuses were noticed?
I am not aware that any of the approvals that were given has been rescinded, but I will check. However, what I can assure is that this is a government that believes in due process and that there is no list that goes to the president that does not first go through the Minister who will then recommend to Mr. President.

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