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Knocks, Kudos as government presses forward to regulate Social Media

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Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, react during an interview on Nigeria’s suspension of Twitter, in Abuja. (Photo by Kola Sulaimon / AFP)


When The Guardian threw the question of whether or not the Federal Government should regulate the social media to Nigerians, it elicited mixed reactions. While many citizens, including lawyers, online publishers and human rights activists, threw their weights behind it, others kicked, warning that it would infringe on Nigerians’ right to freedom of speech and expression.

In Imo State, an Owerri-based lawyer, Gibson Nwebo, who was among those that supported the government’s move, however, said: “I am in support of regulating social media to the extent that it will not infringe on the right of expression. Expression does not mean that you run people down falsely, using social media.”

A human right activist in Bayelsa State, Wisdom Ikuli, stated that even though he had vehemently opposed social media regulation in the past, recent events in the country had made him to change his position.

He said most social media practitioners failed to understand that their rights end where those of other persons begins.

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“As we journey into the crux, it is pertinent to make a clear distinction between gagging and regulation for easy understanding of the subject. While gagging and censorship are dictatorial and undemocratic practices that deny citizens of such countries, states and systems their fundamental human rights, press freedom, freedom of speech and expression, regulation on the other hand has to do with proper management of social media as against the prevalent situation where everybody acts and behaves whichever way and manner he/she deems fit.

“There are no other alternatives or channels that government can explore to ensure that Nigerians, in the exercise of their rights to free speech, do not trample on those of other persons except through proper regulation of the social media space, which is totally different from censorship.

“Despite the seeming challenges often experienced whenever government agencies like Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) and other regulatory agencies exercise their powers due to over politicisation of issues, it is still better than leaving it unregulated,” Ikuli said.

A blogger, Sunday Fynface, said that although the social media had been giving the mainstream media a run for their money, there was need for regulations as unfettered access to the Internet had caused many families sorrow through fake news.

He noted that the advent of the social media brought about many quacks in the media industry, a situation that portends great danger not just to the media industry but to the country in general.

A lawyer in Osogbo, Mr. Jimmy Jone, said there was need to regulate social media contents to guard against circulation of misleading information on the Internet.

He argued that regulating the social media would go a long way to sanitise the system, adding that countries like Japan and South Korea had started regulating information sent to the social media space.

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“To be frank with you, I seriously would like social media contents to be regulated. It is not because I am an All Progressives Congress (APC) fan, it is necessary to guard against unwarranted and very misleading, uncouth and uncensored information easily being sent out for the consumption of unsuspecting individuals.

“It will go a very long way to sanitise the system. It’s already being implemented in other European countries. Of recent, Japan, South Korea and China started enforcing moderation in the contents of what is being made public on social media, even in the national dailies too.

“I know it will appear as though one will be running fowl of the right to freedom of expression but any law without checks and balances is bound to create much more problem,” the lawyer argued.

An online publisher, Mr. Fisayo Akinduro, also submitted that the social media needed to be regulated because some Nigerians were abusing them.

He said: “With the recent abuse of the social media platforms in Nigeria by using them to disseminate fake news, there is need to regulate them before they cause chaos and unrest in the country.

“We can’t shy away from the the usefulness of the social media in recent times. However, a regulatory body should be in place to monitor and caution the usage.

“Online media have become a glitch to the mainstream media, which the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) is trying so much to guard against. Broadcasting/publishing online does not in any way prevent regulations. The only solution to the abuse of the rights of others through the social media is to regulate and not restricting people’s access to it. Banning of Twitter in Nigeria is against the Freedom of Information Act, 2011.”

However, the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of INNONEWS, an Owerri-based online newspaper, Innocent Onyeukwu, stated that regulating the social media would “suffocate free speech.”

His words: “Regulating the social media means suffocating free speech, which is a violation of the fundamental rights of citizens who are entitled to freedom of speech or expression. This right is guaranteed by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“The abuse of the social media can only be limited or reduced through continuous sensitisation of the citizenry on the dangers of using the social media for mischievous purposes such as spread of fake news.

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“There can be a penalty or penalties for peddlers of fake news on the social media and for those who abuse the social media. The social media bill can be tailored to achieve this purpose, and not to regulate or stifle the expressions of the citizens through the platforms.”

On his part, the Imo State Coordinator of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and Secretary, Imo People’s Action for Democracy (IPAD), Chibundu Uchegbu, said he was totally opposed to regulating the social media.

“The Federal Government’s attempt to regulate the force of social media is ill-advised, unconstitutional and doesn’t make any democratic sense. It is like government has run out of ideas to fix numerous challenges facing the nation, making it to start thinking of frivolous issues like social media regulation. The world has advanced with the use of social media and Nigeria should advance alongside with the advanced world,” Uchegbu said.

In Cross River State, a human rights activist, Mr. James Ibor, argued that the social media were already regulated effectively through existing laws, citing the provisions of the Cybercrime Act.

“The Social media platforms are already regulated; so when Lai Mohammed is talking about regulating social media, I don’t understand what he means. A lot of people are successfully suing others for libel on information published on social media. So, I think what he is saying is that we should not exercise our rights under the constitution to freely express ourselves.

“This government today is the one that is selling fake news. They feed us with fake news every day and because our institutions are very weak, they have not been able to regulate themselves and the things they sell. We see pictures that they Photoshop to tell lies. So, I think they should regulate themselves because social media itself is effectively regulated. What he is simply saying is that we should no longer tell the truth we know on social media,” he said.

Ibor, who is also a lawyer, alleged that the government had the intention to gag the press or to shrink the freedom space.

“We have many laws already regulating social media and one of them is the Cybercrime Act. But it is sad that most times, the way government even interprets the provisions of the Cybercrime Act is defeating its intention. The intention is not to gag the press or to shrink the civic space or to even inhibit freedom of speech, it is to regulate falsehood in the social media space. But they are using those provisions now to clamp on anybody who is critical of government policies.”

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An online publisher in the state, Efio-Ita Nyok, said the government misused opportunity and should not regulate the social media. He urged the Federal Government to use provisions of the 1999 Constitution and the Criminal Code to regulate the social media rather than amending the NBC Act.

“Nigerians have the right to air their minds. This is another attempt by the government of Nigeria under President Buhari to deny Nigerians the freedom of access to information, which is a fundamental human right. It is a right that is pre-social; it is pre-constitutional by the fact that we are human beings. The Nigerian government cannot come and deprive us of a right that they did not give to us.

“There are many avenues through which the government can regulate the social media. One of them is the 1999 Constitution as amended. That is why I keep saying that there is no need for the Nigerian government to ask the National Assembly to consider amending the NBC Act or whatever. The 1999 Constitution and the Criminal Code are enough regulatory instruments. All we are saying is let the Nigerian government accept the principles of the rule of law,” he said.

The Convener and Director of Access to Justice Action Group (A2J), Joseph Otteh, argued that social media platforms fall under freedom of expression, which is the right of every Nigerian under the 1999 Constitution. He, however, stated that social media could be regulated by legislation if found wanting but not banned outright like the Federal Government did with Twitter.

Otteh said: “The freedom of any media to disseminate information derives from the right guaranteed in the nation’s constitution to express opinion and disseminate information, commonly known as the freedom of expression. Like other rights, they are subject to derogation in qualified and specified circumstances. 

“The Nigerian constitution specifically says a legislation can limit the exercise of the freedom of expression if that restriction is ‘reasonably justifiable in a democratic society’ and is for the purpose of preventing disclosure of information received by courts in confidence, or regulating telephony or wireless broadcasting. I think social media would fall into this category.

“There are additional grounds for limiting freedom of expression found in the general limitation clause of Chapter 4 of the constitution. They are predicated on the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health. Of course, all around the world, a media platform – whether print, electronic or social – is subject to some form of regulation. Regulations aim to protect the public from the harmful misuse of the power of speech, tools of speech or communication.

“However, before the government can interfere with the operation of any particular medium of speech, as we have said, particular conditions must be met. Any law that is not reasonably justifiable in a democratic setting will not be accepted. Any law whose purpose or reach is overbroad, that is, greater in extent than is required to meet a specifically recognised purpose as outlined above, will be unconstitutional.”

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On other channels the government could explore asides regulation to ensure that Nigerians, in the exercise of their right to free speech, do not trample on other people’s rights while making use of the social media, Otteh aligned with earlier submissions that there are existing laws that protect reputational interests, such as laws on slander and libel.

“In some other countries, new laws have been passed to deal with new forms of abuse facilitated by online media platforms. The government can pass laws limiting the spread of a particular content considered harmful to the public. But a government cannot wake up one morning and, in a rush of adrenaline, say it is suspending or banning the use of a particular platform in an arbitrary fashion. Every decision to sanction a media must be based on a duly determined breach of an existing legislation or regulation that we clearly don’t have in this case,” he said.

To another human rights activist based in Jos, Plateau State, Joshua Johnson, social media should not be regulated in the country at all.

Johnson argued: “If there is anything that should be regulated, it should not be the social media, particularly Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, etc. Instead, government should create an enabling environment for the young, the middle aged and the old to have access to the various media fora.

“The government, in the first place, has signed into law the Freedom of Information Bill, which is the best thing that can happen to a developing democracy. I do not see why the same government will sanction users of social media.

“Social media have guaranteed job creation, thereby reducing unemployment for jobless youths roaming the streets. Over 10 million Nigerians depend on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp to earn a living.

“This is done through advertising their legitimate businesses there. It will be morally and legally wrong to regulate social media in Nigeria, because the country has signed conventions and treaties with international communities on fundamental rights, which include freedom of expression through any type of electronic media. So, Nigeria cannot be in isolation. No country can develop without the contributions of the social media whether economically, morally, socially or religiously.”

The Publisher, Trumpet Africa Magazine, Prince Charles Omejere, toed the same path arguing that monitoring or censoring the social media in Nigeria would constitute a threat to human rights.

He further noted that censoring what people do privately on social media, especially relationship, trade and investment would amount to dictatorship of the highest order.

“It is wrong for people to canvass for control of what is dished out of the social media when there is already an existing law in Nigeria that stipulates what is offensive or not.

“Government does not need to be sentimental or personal in taking decision. One thing that everybody in public office should know is that whatever decision you take must be fair to all, reasonable and generally acceptable, because you must put yourself in the shoes of ordinary people who are not living in a free house like you.”

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According to him, there is no reason whatsoever to further regulate information being transmitted on social media, government should instead endeavour to find out if the businesses people do on the social media violate the law in any way.

Omejere, who suggested that government should bring anybody who violates the law on the social media to book, said “before anybody is convicted, the onus should be on government to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused has broken the law.”

A Lagos-based lawyer, Kingsley Ekwem, said the government’s plan to regulate the social media was offensive to constitutional democracy.

His words: “As much as we expect the media platforms and their users to be responsible in the use of their platforms, the plan to regulate the media is very undesirable in a supposedly democratic nation. It is offensive to constitutional democracy, rule of law, and has no place howsoever in a decent society.

“If there is a material made in the media which is considered offensive or against any known law, all that needs to be done is to challenge the makers of the material considered offensive via a due process of law. Hence, I am honestly against the manner the government wants to regulate social media.”

Reminded that the mainstream media in the country are regulated, Ekwem argued that the issue differs.

“That’s not the issue. The issue is not allowing a democratic form of government to degenerate into dictatorship, if not fascism. Be it off stream or mainstream, there are adequate laws to protect irresponsible use of publications.

“To further regulate or regiment free opinion in a democratic society is akin to gagging people’s freedom of speech and expression. That, in my view, is unconstitutional,” he stressed.

A blogger and digital strategist, Omolabake Matthew-Ibrahim, on his part, posited the social media should be regulated but not totally banned in Nigeria.

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“In Nigeria today and largely among the youth who are the predominant users, social media have done a lot more good over the years. From the rise of social media entrepreneurs in the midst of unemployment who make their livelihood mainly from selling their products, creativity or services on social media, to connecting virtually to everyone in the world for opportunities, there are just a few downsides, which can be curbed through effective regulation.

“Government should focus on implementing laws that guard against negative use of social media and also invest heavily on artificial intelligence just like Facebook does, which will help detect fake news, hate speech, ease of scamming and cyber bullying, trampling on other people’s rights. They can thereafter pull such posts down and immediately punish whoever is involved.

“I believe these can be curbed by strictly implementing laws that guard against negative use of social media. The provisions of the laws and repercussions for defaulters should be publicised so that people will know,” she said.
  
The Chief Executive Officer and Chief Creative Officer of X3M Ideas, Steve Babaeko, also expressed a similar view.
Speaking recently during a programme on Television Continental monitored by The Guardian, Babaeko said the government was making a knee jerk reaction to a problem without looking at the challenges the reaction might pose. He noted that many young Nigerians eke out their livelihoods from the social media, hence the need for the government “to look at the issue and resolve it in a gentler way that it will not create other challenges like we are experiencing right now as a result of the ban on Twitter.”

He added: “There is so much unemployment within that youth bracket, and if there is going to be any upheaval in the country, those are the people who are energetic enough to do it. But if people are busy, to be honest, they don’t even remember there is a government in power. If people are busy and they are making money, they don’t care. So, I think it should be in the bigger agenda of the government to create more enabling country for the citizens.

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“If you look at the sectors that grew last year, they were ICT and finance. ICT grew by about 29 per cent while finance grew by about 9.4 per cent, according to data from the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Don’t forget we came over from a very difficult year. What grew those segments? It is the digital economy that is beginning to bubble. If we are not careful, we are going to lose that choice space that we already occupy to Rwanda. What we need to do is to be consistent with our policies and do less of those knee jerk reactions that will throw away the baby with the bath water.”

The Director General, Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), Francis Ingham, said public relations could not be practised effectively without free speech and free media.

“Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right and the global PR industry is united in its belief that this matter must be resolved quickly,” he said.
 
The Chief Executive Officer, Black House Media (BHM), Ayeni Adekunle, said: “As Nigeria, her citizens and companies continue to build a future that could see the world benefit more from their talents, ideas, products and services, this is the time to use the resources that technology, communications and globalisation provide not just for economic reasons, but for national pride, internationalisation and mobilisation.

“Nigeria is an African leader, and it is our wish that the government focus on the value that platforms like Twitter add to free speech, public conversations, social collaborations, media innovation and electronic commerce while working with big tech to optimise around identified downsides.”

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