The threat by the federal government to sanction US Cable News Network, CNN, over its investigative report on the shooting of #EndSARS protesters by soldiers at Lekki Tollgate, Lagos, yesterday provoked outrage across the country.
Government also challenged the promoters of #EndSARS campaign who accused soldiers of mass killing of innocent, peaceful and unarmed protesters at the tollgate to produce evidence of the mass murder or shut up.
But CNN in a statement by its spokesperson, said it stood by its story, adding that the report was carefully and meticulously researched.
Noting that its report was based on testimony from dozens of witnesses and verified footage of soldiers appearing to shoot in direction of protesters, CNN said: "Our reporting was carefully and meticulously researched, and we stand by it."
Those who expressed outrage include civil society organisations, CSOs, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, and Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SANs, who advised government to be cautions in its dealing with the news network
However, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said the report by CNN on the EndSARS protest was not factual and called on the media company to sanction the erring reporters on the matter.
He said the federal government would on its part, take necessary steps to punish the international news organisation, though he did not say what nature of punishment would be meted out on the news network.
CNN goofed -- FG
He said: "CNN goofed in its preconceived stance that the soldiers who were deployed to Lekki Toll Gate, indeed, shot at protesters, killing some of them. CNN relied heavily on unverified and possibly-doctored videos, as well as information sourced from questionable sources, to reach its conclusion. This should earn CNN a serious sanction for irresponsible reporting.
"Like everyone else, I watched the CNN report. I must tell you that it reinforces the disinformation that is going round, and it is blatantly irresponsible and a poor piece of journalistic work by a reputable international news organization.
"CNN engaged in incredible sensationalism and did a great disservice to itself and to journalism. In the first instance, CNN, which touted its report as an exclusive investigative report, sadly relied on the same videos that have been circulating on social media, without verification.
"This is very serious and CNN should be sanctioned for that. CNN merely said the videos were "obtained by CNN", without saying wherefrom and whether or not it authenticated them. Were CNN reporters and cameramen at the Lekki Toll Gate that evening?
"If the answer is no, on what basis were they reporting? Relying on second or third hand information and presenting it as 'CNN Investigation'?
"Why didn't the CNN balance its story by showing the compelling testimony of Brig.-Gen. Taiwo before the Judicial Panel in Lagos? Is this one-sided reporting what is expected from an international media organization or any serious news organization? If CNN had done its investigation properly, it would have known how fake news and disinformation were trending during the #EndSARS crisis.
"In airing its so-called investigative report, CNN conveniently forgot that on October 23, 2020, it tweeted, from its verified twitter handle that the military killed 38 people when it opened fire on peaceful protesters on Tuesday, October. 20, 2020.
"Less than a month later, the same CNN, in what it called an EXCLUSIVE report based on a rehash of old, unverified videos, was only able to confirm that one person died in the same incident.
"In its jaundiced reporting, CNN was blind to the fact that six soldiers and 37 policemen were killed in unprovoked attacks. Obviously, CNN did not consider the security agents human enough. CNN, in its 'investigation', was blind to the wanton destruction of property in Lagos and across the country.
"Also, CNN was blind to the burning of police stations and vehicles all over the country. Instead, it went to town with unverified social media footages, in its desperation to prove that people were killed at the Lekki Toll Gate.
"This is irresponsible journalism for which CNN deserves to be sanctioned. We insist that the military did not shoot at protesters at Lekki Toll Gate. They fired blank ammunition in the air. Again, anyone who knows anyone who was killed at Lekki Toll Gate should head to the Judicial Panel with conclusive evidence of such."
TO #EndSARS promoters
The minister disclosed that two of the three broadcast organisations fined by the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission have paid their fine in full, with the third having made part payment.
Speaking further, Alhaji Mohammed asked promoters of #EndSARS campaign who accused soldiers of killing innocent, peaceful and unarmed protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate to come up with the evidence of the mass murder or shut up.
He accused the promoters of using the social media and fake news to cause mayhem in the country under the guise of peaceful protests.
He insisted that the claim of a massacre at the Lekki Toll Gate was false and that attempts by the protesters and some human rights groups to tarnish the image of the country using fake news and other disdainful tactics would not change the fact.
Insisting that the military merely fired blank ammunition into the air to scare the protesters, the Minister said: "While the Judicial Panel sitting in Lagos works to unravel what really transpired at the Lekki Toll Gate, available evidence so far points to the world's first case of MASSACRE WITHOUT BLOOD OR BODIES. Those making the claims should show proof before the panel or shut up.
"The Federal Government is very satisfied with the role played by the security agencies, especially the military and the police, all through the #EndSARS crisis. The security agents were professional and measured in their response. Even when their lives were at stake, they exercised uncommon restraint."
Alhaji Mohammed regretted that #EndSARS promoters and human rights activists failed to show empathy for several security personnel that were killed and injured in the mayhem by hoodlums who hijacked the protests.
He said: "Their professionalism and measured response saved many lives and properties. For example, despite arresting hordes of looters during the violence in Lagos, the army treated them humanely and even counseled them before handing them over to the police.
"The same cannot be said of those who unleashed mayhem on the security agents, killing and maiming them, sometimes in such a barbaric manner that is unprecedented in these parts.
"As I said earlier, six soldiers and 37 policemen were killed all over the country during the crisis. This is in addition to 196 policemen who were injured; 164 police vehicles that were destroyed and 134 police stations that were razed."
"Also, the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, the Nigeria Customs Service and Nigeria Immigration Service all lost infrastructures, equipment and other valuables to attacks by hoodlums during the crisis. Eight medium security custodial centres (prisons) in six states (Edo, Lagos, Abia, Delta, Ondo and Ebonyi) were attacked, with 1,957 inmates set free and 31 staff injured.
"The Federal Government will, therefore, not accept a situation in which some so-called human rights bodies and jaundiced media organizations will continue to harass the security agencies over their roles during the crisis.
"Soldiers, policemen and other security agents deserve commendation, not condemnation, except, of course, their critics are saying they are not human beings and that their own rights do not matter.
"It is depressing and demoralizing to continue to vilify men and women in uniform, who themselves were victims of senseless violence unleashed by hoodlums.
"The role of the human rights organisations, in particular, became suspect after they simply ignored the brutal killing and maiming of security agents during the crisis, as well as the orgy of violence that left 57 civilians dead, 269 private/corporate facilities burnt/looted/vandalized, 243 government facilities burnt/vandalized and 81 government warehouses looted.
"Instead, they continued to dwell on the bodiless and bloodless 'massacre' at Lekki Toll Gate. They did not see anything wrong in the public and private properties that were burnt or looted, neither did they see anything wrong in the fact that some of the businesses that were looted belonged to struggling young men and women. All they could see in their biased view of the whole situation was a hoax massacre."
DJ SWITCH not wanted but...
The minister also dispelled claim by a female #EndSARs campaigner, DJ Switch, that she was being wanted by the government and that her life was in danger as a result of the role she played during the protest, asking her to stop churning out falsehood against Nigeria.
"Still on the alleged Lekki Toll Gate massacre, one of the purveyors of fake news and disinformation during the #EndSARS crisis was DJ Switch, real name Obianuju Catherine Udeh, who claimed to have authentic evidence of mass killings.
"Surprisingly, instead of presenting whatever evidence she may have to the judicial panel, she chose to escape from the country under the pretext that her life was in danger.
"I ask: in danger from whom? The military has come out to say they never sought after her. To the best of our knowledge, the police never declared her wanted. Her conduct thus becomes suspect.
"Who is she fronting for? What is her real motive? Who are her sponsors? If she has any evidence of killings, why is she not presenting it to the panel? If she was so desperate for asylum in any country, does she have to resort to blatant falsehood to tarnish the image of the country just to achieve her aim?
"In the fullness of time, this lady will be exposed for what she is. At this juncture, we want to appeal to countries that have made hasty judgements on the basis of fake news and disinformation emanating from the #EndSARS crisis to endeavour to seek and find the truth," he said.
We'll regulate, not shut down social media
The minister also said the federal government had no plan to shut down social media in the country but regulate it.
He said: "Keen watchers of the developments cannot fail to notice the role played by the social media in the #EndSARS protest. As a veritable tool for mass mobilization, the organisers of the protest, of course, leveraged heavily on social media for that purpose.
"But on the other hand, the same social media was used to spread fake news and disinformation that catalyzed the violence that was witnessed across the country," he said.
"This development has reinforced the campaign against fake news and disinformation, which we launched in 2018.
"As a matter of fact, as far back as 2017, when we dedicated that year's National Council on Information to the issue of fake news and disinformation, we had been expressing concerns on the dangers posed by irresponsible use of the new media platform.
"The concerns culminated in the launch of the national campaign which I referred to earlier. The social media was used to guide arsonists and looters to certain properties, both public and private.
"As we have said many times, no responsible government will stand by and allow such abuse of social media to continue. The fake news/disinformation purveyors have latched on to our concerns to allege that the Federal Government is planning to shut down social media.
"No, we have no plans to shut down the social media. What we have always advocated, and what we will do, is to regulate the social media. Nigeria is not alone in this regard.
"The issue of social media regulation is an ongoing debate not just in Nigeria but around the world, including in the United States, which is the flag flyer of constitutional democracy. Even the owners of the various social media platforms, including Facebook, are increasingly joining the call for content regulation."
He argued that if social media was left uncensored, there might be no country left to defend.
"What they have failed to understand is that the only reason we are even able to have this debate is because we have a country. If we allow the abuse of social media to precipitate uncontrolled internecine violence, the kind of which was narrowly averted during the #EndSARS crisis, no one will remember or be able to use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc, for whatever purpose.
"It is incumbent upon us all, therefore, to strike a balance between free speech - which this administration is committed to upholding - and fake news/disinformation, which it is determined to fight."
CSOs hit FG over threat to sanction CNN
Reacting yesterday, Inibehe Effiong, Legal Counsel to #RevolutionNow Movement, said: "The Federal Government's threat against CNN is brutum fulmen (an empty threat). Lai Mohammed is confusing CNN with NTA. He should stop comical behaviour. No serious person will pay attention to his threat.
"These so-called progressives who came to power on a dubious mantra of change have turned Nigeria into a lawless country.
"The international community is not ignorant of the campaign of falsehood promoted by the Nigerian Army and people like Lai Mohammed on the Lekki Tollgate incident.
"Honest people know the truth of what happened. The desperate attempt by the Buhari regime to bury the truth, crush dissent and elevate tyranny to a political ideology will eventually fail. We implore CNN to ignore him."
Similarly, the convener of Concerned Nigerians, Deji Adeyanju, said: "It is quite laughable. To be frank, we want to believe Lai Mohammed was not referring to CNN in America because even President Donald Trump has not been able to sanction that media outfit, in spite of all they have done to him.
"Now we ask; is it, then, the Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture that would sanction CNN? Does Lai Mohammed think the U.S. is Nigeria, where social media can be censored simply because those in government want it shut down?
"Does our government think America is a banana republic where elected and appointed public officials can carry-on with impunity unchecked? With all that CNN has done to the Trump administration, there has been no threat, no harassment, and no intimidation from the U.S. government. That's the beauty of democracy.
"It's only a government made up of people who see themselves as gods that would not want to be held accountable to the people that would contemplate sanctioning the media for doing its job.
"It's unfortunate that those even seeking sanctions for the media are the chief authors of fake news about the past administration, the decimation of Boko Haram terrorists and the critics of the present government.
"Therefore, no Nigerian should take Lai Mohammed seriously. Let Nigerians completely disregard the threat to sanction CNN. Instead, Nigerians should thank CNN for getting involved and exposing the rot in the country.
"We are using this medium to call on other foreign media outlets to also help us highlight other cases of impunity, injustice, the shrinking civic space, and attack on the freedom of the press by the government."
On his part, the Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, CISLAC, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, said: "When you have some not-so-serious people occupying government offices, this is the funny response they give to investigative reports of this magnitude and depth.
"They are actually undermining the government's credibility in the international scene with such threat to sanction a media company like CNN. CNN is not a parastatal under the control of the Nigerian government. So, it's a very ridiculous and reckless threat.
"There are better ways to present a credible and unbiased response if the government believed that the CNN report was not more accurate rather than throwing tantrums and issuing threats.
"We can say that some of the current officials in government are not prepared to do their work in the best interest of the Nigerian people."
Also speaking, Mr. Raphael Adebayo, the Convener of Free Nigeria Movement, said: "In proper context, the government's threat to sanction CNN may either be viewed as the barking of a toothless bulldog or as the desperate lamentation of a regime that has been hemmed-in by its own vicious crimes against humanity, for which it must now be held to account.
Meanwhile, the Global Peace Foundation appealed to the Federal Government to seek ways of healing the pains felt by the victims of the Lekki shooting rather than making inflammatory remarks.
The Country Director of GPFN, Joseph Hayab, said: "Threatening to sanction any media and most importantly an international medium like CNN may not be a good idea.
"Those making those threats do not even have any reliable structure to challenge the media organization that they are threatening to sanction.
"Already, Nigeria is being perceived as a country that suppresses the media. So, the current threat against CNN can only further put us in bad light.
"In this era of social media, a wise government will rather work hard to convince its people with her own side of the story instead of using coercive words to threaten people or organisations about a matter that is on the public domain.
"GPFN is therefore appealing to the Federal Government to toe the path of dialogue and public enlightenment so that the people would understand that its position was in their best interest."
Tread with caution, SANs, NBA warn FG over sanction threat
Similarly, Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SANs, warned the Federal Government to reconsider its threat to sanction the CNN over its report on the Lekki toll gate shooting incident involving the Nigerian Army and #EndSARS protesters.
In separate interviews with Vanguard, the senior lawyers said there was need for FG to tread with caution, noting that the judicial panel of inquiry setup to look into the matter, had yet to turn in its findings.
Also, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, said the threat of sanction made the government was capable of creating the impression that there was a deliberate attempt to suppress information about what really happened at the Lekki toll gate.
In his reaction, Ahmed Raji, SAN, said: "I think the Federal Government should tread softly. It should rather engage CNN and ask for proof of whatever allegation they have made.
"This is because it is not likely that CNN will be frivolous. The government should rather engage them and seek to know their source of information before even putting such threat in the public."
On his part, Paul Ananaba, SAN, said: "I think the federal government should take it easy, at least until the panel set up to look into the Lekki incident concludes its public hearing. This will enable it to know the true position of things and what really happened.
"At the moment the panels are on, what if we sanction CNN and it turns out that what they wrote is true? It is good enough that the government took action by setting up the panels. There are diplomatic moves that it can initiate at the right time.
"CNN is a player in the international scene, it is not an agency you can just sanction without doing your homework.
"Sanctioning them presupposes that what they wrote is not correct, meanwhile, we have not concluded our own investigation on the incident."
Mohammed Abeny, SAN said: "I think what the government said through the Information Minister was a panicky statement over the misconduct the Army did in Lekki.
"He should remember that Army initially said it did not go there, but now it has admitted that it was there.
"What has CNN said that is different from what Army officers have confirmed? This sanction threat is just to make the whole country a laughing stock.
"There is nothing they will sanction CNN for. They don't even have the power to do so. The only thing they can do is to blacklist CNN from covering its events, which will not also be in the interest of the nation. They should know their limitation."
Constitutional lawyer, Dr. Ike Chude, said: "The earlier the government realizes what journalism is about, the better. What are they sanctioning CNN for? If the government can muzzle press in Nigeria, it cannot muzzle it everywhere.
"So long as it is in public interest and not malicious, the press has a duty to publish. This position is backed by many decided cases from the Supreme Court.
"You can quarrel with the CNN that what it published is not true. That is understandable and there is room for you to defend yourself.
"Like Lord Dennings said, the day the press will wait to be sure that whatever they want to publish is true, that is the day they will close shop.
"Questions the government should ask itself is, was CNN reckless about what it published? Were they malicious about it? It should realise that CNN owes a duty, under qualified privilege, to inform the public.
"What they did might be wrong, but under qualified privilege, they own the public a duty to disseminate the information.
"It is left for the government to prove that the report was accentuated with malice, but not to threaten sanction or gag. Under qualified privilege, the action may be wrong, but it was done in the interest of the public.
"Legally, the onus is on the federal government to show that there is malice, and not on CNN to show that there is no malice."
On its part, the NBA, through its National Publicity Secretary, Dr. Raps Nduka, said: "I will want to believe that the assertion by FG is not true. What kind of sanction can it give to CNN? Will it stop it from streaming in Nigeria?
"What they should be really concerned about is to unravel what happened. They should understand that they owe a duty to the Nigerian citizens. It should come out clean and stop chasing shadows. What exactly can it do to CNN?
"If government is convinced that CNN published falsehood, then it has the right to take it to court.
"The impression is that there is attempt to stifle anybody that has opinion about what happened at Lekki toll gate.
"If government is saying that CNN has told a lie then it should sue them, but if not, then it should focus on giving good governance to Nigerians.
"Instead of threatening sanction, sue them. Let us not create the impression that there is attempt to suppress the truth. We are talking about human lives here."
Vanguard News Nigeria