Nigeria: Govt's Plan to Regulate Social Media

7 November 2019

Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed said in Abuja on Wednesday last week, October 30, that the Federal Government is working on how to inject sanity into the social media space, which he said is totally out of control today. He said social media at present constitutes a real danger to the unity of the country and that "what goes on social media is so ridiculous and we will contain it."

The minister also said, "Since government launched its reform of the broadcast industry, many Nigerians have reached out to it demanding that it also looked into sanitising the social media space." Denying that it is an attempt to stifle free speech, he said only those engaged in disseminating fake news or hate speech needed to be worried because they would not be spared. "We cannot allow fake news and hate speech to become free speech because these Siamese twins of evil are capable of inflicting untold damage on our democracy and are threatening our national unity. They represent a clear and imminent danger to our survival as a nation," Lai said.

The minister also denied insinuations that government was trying to silence its critics. He said contrary to insinuations, the government had no intention of muzzling the media or stifling free speech, and that its main concern is to banish fake news and hate speech. The planned social media regulation would be in line with international best practices, he said.

The government's plan found support from President of the Nigeria Union of Journalists [NUJ] Chris Isiguzo, who told Daily Trust that social media regulation was long overdue as the activities of its actors "have become something else." He said, "When we talk about fake news, dissemination of hate speeches, they are so prevalent in social media. These people don't have any form of regulation; once you have a smartphone you just begin to send all manner of things."

Several lawyers and human rights activists however disagreed. They saw in the plan a move by government to silence trenchant criticism of its policies, or lack of them, in the social media. The skeptics have a reason because several African governments have taken measures in recent years to regulate the social measure in order to gag critics. Uganda in 2018 imposed a tax on social media use, allegedly to increase internally generated revenue. Tanzania too imposed a license fee of $900 which bloggers must pay into government's coffers in order to register and publish on websites. Egypt, on its part, restricted calls on social media apps by blocking hundreds of websites. Kenya, Ethiopia, Chad, Cameroon and Algeria have all used diverse approaches to stifle critics of government, hence the suspicion here that the Buhari Administration is embarking on a similar course of action.

Yet, Minister Lai's concerns about fake news and hate speech and their potential to cause serious damage to society and polity cannot be brushed aside. The advent of social media greatly opened up the space for social, political and other discourse in society. On the flip side, it placed a very powerful tool for information dissemination in the hands of totally untrained and often unscrupulous persons with almost no regulation of any kind. It is inevitable that some societies have taken measures to regulate it, even if they sometimes do so for selfish political reasons.

It is not a violation of constitutional freedoms to regulate the social media. Section 45(1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended stated that, "Nothing in sections 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society... (a) in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or (b) for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom or other persons." The key thing here is to find a balance, to protect society but guard against government using the regulation to silence its critics.

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