Social Media: MRA Chastises FG of Losing its Way

Social Media: MRA Chastises FG of Losing its Way

…Urges it to Abandon Preoccupation with Content Control …Says Govt at Central, States Are Chasing Shadows Frontline media advocacy group, Media Rights Agenda (MRA) has accused the Federal Government of hopelessly losing its way, asking it to abandon its fruitless preoccupation with controlling social media content in Nigeria. It also urges the Government to retrace

…Urges it to Abandon Preoccupation with Content Control

…Says Govt at Central, States Are Chasing Shadows

Frontline media advocacy group, Media Rights Agenda (MRA) has accused the Federal Government of hopelessly losing its way, asking it to abandon its fruitless preoccupation with controlling social media content in Nigeria. It also urges the Government to retrace its steps by focusing on its primary purpose, which is ensuring the security and welfare of the people.

Citing Section 14(2)(b) of the Constitution, which provides that “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government”, MRA’s Programme Director, Mr. Ayode Longe, says in a statement in Lagos, that it was clear that the Federal Government as well as many of its State counterparts, had abandoned their primary purpose and were now preoccupied with chasing shadows to the detriment of Nigerians.

MRA’s statement is in response to the declaration of the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr Lai Mohammed at a meeting with a Finnish Government delegation in Abuja that his Ministry will this month convene a stakeholders’ meeting as part of its efforts to design a framework for the sanitisation of the social media. 

The Minister said, while receiving the Finnish Ambassador to Nigeria, Dr. Jyrki Pulkkinen, and the Ambassador of Innovation of the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Finland, Mr. Jarmo Sareva, who were on an advocacy visit to promote the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC), that the move was government’s response to the irresponsible use of the social media to promote fake news and hate speech and that it was working with stakeholders to devise a mechanism to sanitise the social media.

Mr. Longe noted that the Minister’s insistence at the meeting that the initiative was not aimed at stifling press freedom or infringing on the rights of individuals was neither believable nor reassuring given the Government’s track record of using every means to suppress the right to freedom of expression, including its ongoing abuse of legislation such as the Cybercrime Act as well as anti-terrorism and treason laws to suppress media freedom and punish citizens who are critical of the Government or government officials.

According to him, the denial by the Minister in an interview with Tim Sebastian of DW’s Conflict Zone, which was posted online on January 31, 2020, of the existence of the social media bills pending at the National Assembly only serves to reinforce his lack of credibility and undermine the credibility of the government that he speaks for, not just on the issue of the government’s efforts to control or regulate social media content and repress freedom of expression, but on virtually all issues.

Mr. Longe said: “A government whose chief spokesperson is notorious, domestically and internationally, for lying about virtually everything can have no credibility when claiming that the Government is concerned about fake news and misinformation, whether online or offline. If the Federal Government was truly concerned about fake news, it should by now have fired the same Information Minister, rather than reappointing him.”

He argued that “With Nigerians facing a level of violent crimes and general insecurity never before experienced in the country, with unemployment at an all-time high and with most citizens experiencing the most horrendous conditions of living, postings on social media should not be the greatest concern of any responsible Government at this time as the Government’s attitude evidences a lack of appreciation of its role and priorities.”

MRA also criticized the arrest on January 31, 2020 of five journalists who were subsequently detained and paraded by the FCT Police Command on February 1, 2020 for allegedly attempting to cause panic in Abuja, saying it was yet another instance of the Government and its law enforcement agents of impeding the work of journalists carrying out their legitimate duties.

The journalists, Ms Pricilla Ajeshola, Mr. Jacob Orji, Mr. Abayomi Adedoyin, Ms Peggy Shande and Mr. David Gold Enemingin, were arrested for reportedly going to Wuse District Hospital in Abuja, where it was alleged that they claimed that one of them had Coronavirus.

Their employer, The Nigerian News Group, speaking through its Media Officer, Mr. Lawrence Audu, says they were illegally arrested while gathering materials for a special report on Lassa fever and Coronavirus and that despite their efforts at an amicable resolution of the issue, the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory refused to yield to pleas as his staff insisted on parading the journalists as criminals.

Mr. Longe posits: “We strongly condemn this egregious action by Government authorities as a violation of media freedom and a breach by the Government of Nigeria of international commitments, particularly Article 66(2)(c) of the ECOWAS Treaty which obliges ECOWAS member States ‘to ensure respect for the rights of journalists'”.

But Mr Mohammed says, “Our attempt to sanitise the social media is not at all an attempt to stifle the media and I want to make this very clear…. As we speak today, we will be meeting later in the month with leaders of the media, civil society, security and other stakeholders on how to sanitize our social media and make it safe for all.

“We, especially in this ministry, have watched with some trepidation the social media front and we have seen how some people try to abuse this platform to cause disaffection, especially by pushing fake news and hate speech,” he quips.

According to him, the government remains overwhelmingly committed to the protection of human rights, both offline and online, noting, however, that it will not shy away from ensuring that Nigeria has a responsibly free media.

The Minister said that in spite of the plurality of values, tribes, cultures and religions, the government has striven to strike a balance between press/individual freedom and national security.

“For us in Nigeria, respect for human rights is a cardinal principle of not just our constitution but of our day-to-day governance. I am yet to see any country with the kind of population we have, the kind of multi values, multi cultures and multi religions we have that has at the same time striven to balance national security with freedom of the press.

“I make bold to say that this administration in particular has no intention and does not tamper with the freedom of speech or freedom of individuals,” he says.

The Vice-President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, had late last year counsel against the regulation of the social media by government, saying it is not necessarily the way to go. This came few days after the former Chairperson, Board of Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), Mr Edetaen Ojo expressed fears that regulation of the social media may lead to infraction on the right to information.

Osinbajo, who spoke at an inter-faith tolerance dialogue organised by the United Arab Emirate (UAE) in Abuja, however cautioned Nigerians against the abuse of social media, noting that it can precipitate war and violent conflict, if used to misinform.

The Vice President specifically warned against using social media platforms to promote religious disinformation, which he said could easily lead to a breakdown of law and order.

Calling on religious leaders to go beyond talking about tolerance to making sacrifices that were required, Osinbajo said: “As religious leaders and media personalities, also as people of faith in general, we share a common calling to apprehend the truth. We absolutely need to be careful in our use of social media and if we do not want to promote the kind of conflict that can go completely out of hand, we must be sure that we are policing and regulating ourselves, especially, with social media.

“I don’t think that government regulation is necessarily the way to go, but I believe that we as persons of faith and we, as leaders, and those of us who use the social media actively owe a responsibility to our society and to everyone else, to ensure that we don’t allow it to become an instrument of conflict and instrument of war,” Osinbajo says.

While speaking at the recently concluded West Africa Media Excellence Conference and Awards (WAMECA) held in Accra, Ghana, Mr Ojo says, “It seems to me that given the present state of the jurisprudence in the area of freedom of expression, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to legitimately and legally regulate social media in order to guarantee the truthfulness of the information shared or distributed on social media platforms.”

As the Inter-American Court held many years ago in the Schmidt case, he further explains, “A system that controls the right of expression in the name of a supposed guarantee of the correctness and truthfulness of the information that society receives can be the source of great abuse and, ultimately, violates the right to information that this same society has. ”

Ojo, who recently stepped down as chairperson of the board of MFWA after six years on the saddle, concedes that “Social media, on the other hand, is a free for all. It has no guiding principles; there are no professional standards to guide users and we really have no assurance or guarantee that we will find the truth or even a semblance of the truth in that stratosphere of communications.”

The antidote to the nuances of the social media, he argues, can be countered by commitment to professional journalism. “By strengthening professional journalism to improve content production and ensure better distribution of their content, we can provide the public with reliable sources of news and information and thereby mitigate the negative effects of fake news and false information shared and distributed through unregulated social media platforms.”

Mr Ojo, also executive director, MRA, a leading media rights advocacy group, is however more concerned by the increasing restriction on media freedom in many countries in Africa including Nigeria where the clampdown on journalists has become rife.

“Another issue, which I would like to put on the table for consideration, is how we can better protect media freedom and freedom of expression in our region.  In recent times, there has been a noticeable regression or rolling back of the progress that has been made in the last few decades. 

“In my country, Nigeria, the onslaught on the media and on journalists has been relentless and we are now routinely assaulted with images of journalists in handcuffs, charged with treason and terrorism for simply doing their jobs and treated worse than the actual terrorists.

“This situation will gradually spread across the region given the tendencies of our governments to share “worst practices” and borrow ideas from each other about how to repress their citizens.

“Given the loss of global leadership from western countries in the promotion and defence of freedom of expression, our governments are largely free from the fear that they will be challenged internationally for their negative human rights practices and some of them are becoming quite lawless.

“We must come up with countervailing measures to respond to this new reality, otherwise we are soon likely to witness democratic regression in our region or even across the continent, especially when you consider other legislative measures and administrative practices that our governments are adopting to shrink civic space in many countries” Ojo says. 

Photo: Information and Culture Minister, Mr Lai Mohammed

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