Between Criminal Senators, And The Attack on Free Speech and Social Media, By Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú
Freedom of speech is a critical link in the chain of democracy. Nothing should ever be done to abridge it, especially in an emerging democracy and a fragile nation state like Nigeria.
Social media in its various forms is the village square of old now transformed into a public sphere that transcends regional, national and even continental boundaries. That is why social media has changed how we interact forever. If we look back, mass interaction and communication has never been this effortless in the history of man.
With mobile telephony, anyone can post the picture of an errant public official on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram, post video of a policeman demanding bribe on YouTube, or maintain a daily diary of court proceedings on Facebook for others to read and follow. Given advances in data transfer and communications, social media in all its incarnations has created a worldwide fora for expression and communication that is largely beneficial in an increasingly insular and polarized world.
The Social Media Gag Bill authored by Senator Bala Na’Allah is an infringement on the constitution of Nigeria. Nigerians have the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom to petition the government. The obligate thieves and their factotums may hate those of us who are vocal on social media. They may also conspire to pass the bill but we have supreme confidence in President Muhammadu Buhari. He will not assent to that bill.
This bill is wrong and its timing suspect. Who knows if it is a grand design by Senator Saraki and his co-conspirators to incite the social media crowd against the President. At this point in the life of Senator Saraki, he will do anything to deflect attention from his criminal trial. It may well be an attempt to create chaos such that his trial will get scuttled without us noticing. In like manner, Senator Bala Na’Allah the author of the bill is facing a recall from his constituency. Which if successful will be a historic first in our democratic history.
Senators with criminal past are pursuing this bill with ferocity because they can no longer control the free flow of information with mobile telephony as ubiquitous as it is. The days are long gone when they will round up newspapers with unfavourable reports and burn them. Gone are the days when they will pay and threaten the editor to kill a story. The people we elected to represent us are angry that we are empowered. They are uncomfortable with the diversity of voices and a growing culture that demands responsibility, transparency and accountability from persons and powerful institutions.
They are livid because the social media has reactivated an egalitarian army of public of writers and readers. They are angry because computer-mediated communication does not yield to authoritarian regimes’ control of public opinion and repression. The rise of the politically focused new media led by Sahara Reporters and PREMIUM TIMES and their vast network of citizen reporters who report corruption and impunity to mass audience present a particular set of worries to politicians and the elite who are not used to rigorous scrutiny.
Our Senators must come to reality that this is 2015. Times have changed and Nigerians are evolving in awareness. They must begin to educate themselves on the fine points of law. Freedom of expression is a guaranteed right that includes speech that may “offend, shock or disturb”. They must come to understanding that news, opinions, features and exposés on social media are broadcast to large numbers of people who don’t know the individuals concerned. For this reason, interpreting boundaries of abuse is difficult.
That is why it is laughable and amusing when Senator Dino Melaye called on America to gag Sahara Reporters. Dino Melaye will be best served by using those precious times wasted on bodyguard duties he performs for the Saraki family on critical reflection and to studying the constitution. Most of the social media platforms and new media outlets are dot coms within Americam jurisdiction with broad constitutional protection of the United States First Amendment. Blocks or bans targeted at such websites will not work!
It is true that information published by the media either online or offline can negatively impact an individual’s reputation. However, the stories on Nigerian politicians and the elite on new and social media are detrimental to them because of their actions while in office. None of these revelations are a lie. There is a pressing social need to disclose these information whenever it is obtained as a matter of public good. So many lives have been ruined or cut short, by the actions of looters of our joint patrimony. It is no longer business as usual, no one should be imprisoned for exposing wrongdoing in high places because some politicians are not used to being questioned.
New media sites can be prosecuted under existing laws on libel if they publish lies and it can be established. Social media sites should be left alone. They have their own internal business rules that regulate content. As private concerns, they choose what is published and allow users to flag content that are inappropriate for review and removal if and when necessary. This system promotes freedom of expression without censorship. It may not be the best system but it certainly provides checks and balances between the sites and the users.
No, to social media gag bill. Those who seek to lead must have tolerance for peaceful dissent and pluralism in opinion. Our inalienable right to freedom of assembly and association is essential for participation in public debates without any online or offline distinction. The exercise of our citizenship, especially in a democracy, must be guaranteed!
Was it not the same social networking sites we used in the last election to facilitate the election that brought many of the Senators seeking to gag us to power? There is no question that the new and social media is promoting democracy and social cohesion. Interference with online freedom of expression will interfere with freedom of assembly and association, stifle political debate, participation, protest and other forms of expressions of discontent. The Nigerian constitution protects the right of individuals to form groups to protect their interests, even those that call into question the way Nigeria is currently organized or governed provided such groups and their activities does not harm democracy. #NoToSocialMediaBill
Season’s greetings to all of you my readers, and thank you for your dedication to this column. This will be my last article in this column for the year. I wish you merry Christmas and a blessed and happy new year. See you here in January!
Bamidele maintains a weekly column on Politics and Socioeconomic issues every Tuesday. She is a member of Premium Times Editorial Board.