THE administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has always toyed with the idea of social media regulation but the hugely successful #EndSARS peaceful protest which heavily deployed the internet in its planning and near flawless implementation has given rise to renewed official agitation to clamp down on social media. The official spokesperson of the administration and Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, says social media is a threat and must be regulated. He specifically mentioned #EndSARS movement which he claimed peddled a lot of lies about its protest, and more importantly about the official reactions to it. The National Security Adviser (NSA), Major General Babangana Mongunu (retd), has also come out publicly with the same line. It will be recalled that in 2019, a bill to censor conversations hosted on social media platforms actually scaled the second reading on the floor of the Senate before it was shut down following a deluge of public outrage spearheaded by civil society and human rights organisations.
We are opposed to social media regulation because of the potentially adversarial impact of such official move on human rights and democratic expressions. It is axiomatic that the regulation will focus on political and dissenting voices from that of the government. Meanwhile, it is commonsensical that the essence of freedom of expression guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) is not about the protection of those expressing popular opinions; it is rather about the protection of dissident expression. The one who holds and expresses views that are in tandem with that of government obviously needs no protection. What is the wisdom behind the attempt to suppress the social media in a big and pluralistic society where official communication to members of the public about government policies and programmes still needs a great deal of improvement? Will it not be more beneficial to the society to accord freedom to platforms that serve as marketplaces of ideas where debate and civil controversy can thrive rather than surreptitiously gagging free speech through the imposition of limits on the use of the social media? Or is it better to have a citizenry suffused with bottled-up anger and fear that could later erupt like a volcano just because they are prevented from ventilating same than to allow conversations that may douse tension?
To be sure, we are not oblivious of the fact that social media provides a fertile ground for online misinformation, harmful contents, unwarranted bullying and manipulations using advanced technologies. We are also aware that official concerns about this flip side of the social media are also being expressed in other jurisdictions, and not only in Nigeria. However, we have said time and again that there are extant laws to take care of those concerns in the statute books. For instance, there is a Cybercrimes Act under which issues of slander and libel orchestrated on internet can be redressed.
The extant laws of the land are adequate and should be enforced instead of attempting to make a recourse to the enactment of new laws to address challenges that are by no means novel. The social media has become a very useful forum for robust discourse and exchange of ideas by many Nigerians and the various platforms have helped the citizenry to galvanize mass action on political and socioeconomic concerns. In particular, the internet has put public officials at greater risk of exposure for malfeasance and/or non-performance. It is important that citizens realise that a clamp down on social media will shield the activities of the political class from the public eye and that is hardly in the interest of the society. The positive impact of the social media on the society far outweighs its drawbacks, so there is no wisdom in throwing the baby away with the bath water.
Ironically, the government that now seeks to impose an edit button on social media contents was a major beneficiary of free speech and unfettered social media before it came to power in 2015. Indeed, many believed, and rightly so, that Muhammadu Buhari literally rode on the back of the power and influence of free press and unchained social media, among others, to oust a sitting president from office on his way to becoming the country’s chief executive officer. And it is equally believed in some quarters that he was most undeserving of such a privilege against the backdrop of his antecedents on repression of the press and muscling of free speech. Some of the victims that are still carrying even if fading scars of his draconian law that suppressed press freedom during the dark days of his military-led leadership of the country are still around. Having reportedly declared himself a born again democrat, the expectation was that the president would eschew anything that has to do with the suppression of the press under any guise. Nonetheless, we urge him to prevail on his aides and the National Assembly to stop any attempt to abridge citizens’ rights to free speech.
Of course, the abusers of social media must get their just deserts under the law. We do not endorse the peddling of false information, incitement to disorder and chaos, and all forms of social media misuse. But while we enjoin internet users to be responsible and exhibit patriotism in respect of the kind of contents and messages they put in the public domain, government should avoid the temptation to clamp down on social media. It should instead make abusers to face the wrath of the law.
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