Thursday, May 30, 2024

Free speech not a threat to Nigeria’s corporate existence

They fantasise about their stranglehold on traditional media and wish they could exert the same level of cowering power over social media.

• November 2, 2020
Lai Mohammed
Minister of information and culture, Lai Mohammed (Photo Credit: Twitter)

At the heart of every thriving democracy are the fundamental ethos of participation by the people in their government through credible periodic elections; a separation of power between arms of government in such a way as each checks against the excesses of the other; the ideal of rule of law founded upon beliefs that the law is supreme and that every citizen is equal before and subservient under the law; a guarantee of independence for the press and, the right of the people to receive/disseminate information. These principles are well enshrined within the letters and spirit of the 1999 Constitution.

The EndSARS protests have led to renewed calls for a dust-up of now truncated Social Media Regulation Bill which presentation before the 8th and 9th sessions of the National Assembly saw Nigerians rise in near unanimous condemnation of attempts by the government to censor free speech. 

Proponents have latched onto the protests to claim that the EndSARS protests are one of the negatives of social media. They accuse social media of purveying fake news and inciting people to violence. 

But, that is not remotely true. The high point of social media for the EndSARS protests includes its use as an amplifier for the voice of young Nigerians who galvanised themselves across ethno-religious divides and social strata towards a common aim; a veritable tool with which young Nigerians raised funds for a cause and showed accountability by giving blow-by-blow details of income and expenditure (something alien to the older generation) etc.

Attempts to demonise social media on the back of EndSARS are a smokescreen and a façade to mask deep seated insecurities of the Nigerian state and her governments. They feel threatened. They realise that social media gives the people not just a voice but puts in each their hands a tool with which they are equipped to hold their government to account for stewardship. To the establishment, social media is therefore an obnoxious irritant. 

They fantasise what stranglehold they wield on traditional media and wish they could exert the same level of cowering power over social media to manipulate narrative through threats of sanctions.

Many times, what they call incitement and hate speech is the speaking by Nigerians of very inconvenient truths. They do not have a problem with when bad things happen in Nigeria. No. What they despise is that Nigerians will ever talk about those bad things. 

Nigerians too, in the spirit of true patriotism, suck up on those bad things, take them in good stride and not talk about them. For them, talking about Nigeria’s problems and failures and challenges would mean to embarrass their country and its government.

So, when Army officers shoot at and murder unarmed Nigerians at Lekki, the evil was not as much in the fact of the event but in DJ-Switch beaming the massacre live over social media to a global audience. She and others who shared pictures from the scene washed our dirty linens outside. That was inciting! It was hate speech.

Because Nigeria is a constitutional democracy in which the rights of every citizen to hold an opinion and to air the same are sacrosanct, duty behooves it upon us all to respect the rights of those who desire to re-enact Decree 4 of 1984 in 2020. 

They have a right to hold that opinion and to express the same, no matter how obtuse and out of sync with democratic ethos those ideas may be. We must respect the rights of those who draw parallels between the status of free speech in Nigeria and that in less democratic societies like China and the United Arab Emirates must. That is the constitutional thing to do.

Patriotism however calls upon all Nigerians to, in the interest of their nation and in the preservation of this democracy, stand vehemently opposed to attempts by such persons to bring to birth in Nigeria, despotic fantasies of taking away from Nigerians their voice or curtailing what rights and privileges the Constitution has given them. 

Without free speech, Nigerians become slaves in their own country. Free speech is not a threat to Nigeria’s corporate existence. What most threatens Nigeria’s unity is the lack of disposition of Nigeria’s government to effectively manage our nation’s diversity and fault lines. Those who talk those fault lines are not the enemies of Nigeria.

Nigeria’s social media landscape is already effectively regulated by a plethora of statute. 

From libel/slander/sedition/perjury provisions contained within many several penal laws in the country to the Cybercrime Act, Nigeria is not in want of and does not need any new laws to regulate social media. Such laws will only muzzle free speech. Such has no place in our budding democracy.

Those threading the paths of stifling the people’s voice, after having ridden to power on the same voice must caution themselves with the admonition of our elders. “A man is not to defecate on his way to the farm. He will have his feces waiting for him on his return from the farm.” 

They must remind themselves that they’ll not be in power forever. No smart person climbs to the top with a ladder then crumbles that ladder thinking he wouldn’t need it on his descent. They must be careful what monster they let off a leash because it is convenient to their biases today. Tomorrow, they may themselves get fed to that same beast they created.

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