Freedom of speech in Nigeria
In whose interest is the planned gagging of the press going to serve?
Every discerning observer could tell that the ruling party in Nigeria, the APC, is no longer comfortable with the way Nigerians are venting their frustrations through the media, especially the social media. The information minister, Lai Mohamed, fired the first salvo at the opening of the 4th Commonwealth Public Relations Congress that held in Lagos last year where he described the social media as a nightmare. Nigeria’s version of Joseph Goebbels—the legendary Nazi party leader and chief propagandist who saw no evil and did no evil, obviously couldn’t hide his irritation and his sentiment is apparently shared by other members of his party.
This was followed by a draft bill to “Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and other Matters Connected Therewith” that was sponsored by Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah who is also a member of the APC. Offenders of the proposed bill will be liable to spend two years in prison, or a fine of $10,000, or even both for anyone found guilty of posting “abusive statement” either through text message, WhatsApp, Twitter or on any other social media platform. The bill also covers “false” publications in print/newspapers, radio and TV stations etc.
Just as expected, there was a public outcry by majority of the masses and non-Governmental Organizations who felt it was a ploy by government to forcefully shut them up. Nigerians may not have the type of passion for mass protest as seen in North Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring, but nonetheless, the country is home to some of the most critical and expressive people you can ever find and they have found the social as an avenue to complain about a lot of things they feel is not right about the country.
For a country of 180 million strong and vociferous citizens armed with an increasingly affordable data, then any government would have enough cause for concern, especially when promises that were made during the desperate period of election campaigns are yet to be fulfilled.
Ironically, the APC was able to defeat the previous government by maximizing the use of the social media and other media houses in launching “severe” attacks on the then president Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and his party, the PDP, with lots of alleged corrupt acts by his cabinet ministers laid bare in the media. Defeating an incumbent government in Nigeria is no mean feat and was actually unprecedented in the history of the country.
However, in recent times, the social media has been exploited by some disgruntled members of the public to pass hate messages and threats that almost sent the country down the road Rwanda was once took that caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of people.
The federal government may have a reason for raising alarm over the negative use of the social media in propagating hate speeches in the country but placing a ban on it or restricting its use would be tantamount to throwing away the baby with the bath water, and such action could be detrimental to the growth of democracy in Nigeria. Rather, what should be done is to apply existing laws or amend them if they are not effective, so that people who are found guilty of hate speech could be tried at the court of law.
With another round of elections fast approaching in the second quarter of 2019, and with the recession still biting hard on Nigerians, the APC already has their work cut out for them. They should be doing more to deliver on their campaign promises rather than bringing up controversial bills that could pitch the people against the government.