By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – Former National President of Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Mr. Joseph Daudu, SAN, has adduced reasons he said the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration could not gag Nigerians from freely expressing themselves on the various social media platforms.
Daudu maintained that the current administration was a beneficiary of freedom of speech, implemented by former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration.
According to him, “Nigeria remains a democracy, therefore, it will be a very long walk to injustice for anybody or government to attempt a clampdown on free speech in the country at this moment of its history.”
The ex-NBA boss, who spoke at a seminar organised by the Rule of Law Development Foundation, in Abuja, weekend, insisted that there was no basis for the current administration to gag free speech in the country.
The theme of the seminar was,”Striking A Balance Between Free Speech As An Inalienable Fundamental Right Or Is It An Often Abused Privilege?”
In his opening remarks at the event, Dauda said: “It is no news that many Nigerian leaders have military background and are oftentimes overwhelmed by their autocratic styled training.
“It is, therefore, not surprising that from time to time, Nigerian leaders in total disregard to the constitution, read ‘riot act’ to either warn or threaten the people to mind their utterances or face harassement.
“At other times, individuals and groups have been physically assaulted and persecuted for criticising governments of the day.
“Most of these cases do not eventually end up in courts for the obvious reason that the judicial system is so slow that by the time justice is served, individuals who used the instrumentality of the state to perpetrate injustice would have left office, thereby leaving the public treasury with their bad debt.
“The autocratic attitude of government does not only affect direct victims negatively, it also sends a message of impunity to the society.”
“Hence, instances abound where individuals who percieve themselves more powerful than others defame and abuse fellow compatriots without restraint.
“The level of public orientation and responsibility is further damaged by a largely illiterate public who effortlessly re-publish unverified information without fear or favour.
“In the midst of the aforesaid lawlessness, reason is lost and democracy hampered. But are these justifiable reasons to stifle free speech and a right to publication?”
He noted that President Buhari had in a nationwide broadcast on August 21, upon his return from a protracted medical vacation, inveighed against some comments in the social media that he said “crossed our national red lines by daring to question our collective existence as a nation” and “a step too far”.
Daudu further noted that the President’s speech was followed by a warning from the Nigerian Military that it had put measures in place to monitor all anti-government and anti-security expressions deserving appropriate responses.
While enjoining the government to place more emphasis on national orientation and intelligent debates on concept of free speech vis-a-vis the civil and criminal liabilities of a speech maker, the senior lawyer said the foundation of democracy in Nigeria would be destroyed if “free speech is restricted in any form whatsoever”.
He said: “It can be said that the relationship between free speech and democracy is like that of life and air, hence, any attempt to stifle one is an automatic termination of the other.
“A truly democratic society provides a level playing ground for all schools of thought to express, impart and debate their ideas in any manner whatsoever and through whatever means it deems appropriate.
“One popular opinion is that the present Nigerian Government is a beneficiary of the Freedom of Speech implemented by the previous administration. These opinion holders are not far from the truth and the government of the day does not seem to be disputing that fact.
“This could explain why many have expressed their disappointment over what they perceive as an attempt by the government of the day to gag free speech in the country.
“On several occasions, overzealous politicians, in an attempt to remain in the good books of the government have made statements suggestive of an attempt to clampdown on free speech, especially through interference with the social media.
“The statements attributed to the present administration have not helped matters either. Therefore, the need for public orientation and not harassment and threat has never been more urgent in our democracy.
“The very fabric of the society will be completely destroyed where provocative words such as ‘hate’, ‘red lines’, ‘anti-government’, ‘dare’ and the likes are continuously used by the State without definitive guidelines.
“This is more so as some overzealous security agents and political loyalists may rely on such undefined concepts to orchestrate violence in the nation”.
Daudu maintained that social media merely provided Nigerians platforms to air their views on issues affecting them, saying it should not be stiffled by rather applauded.
“Many have argued that social media has created numerous agents of harmful speech. I beg to differ. In my opinion, people have always held their opinions closely, social media only provides a new platform to express such opinions to a wider and more accessible audience.
“Social media has also broken the jinx of monopoly held by the conventional media which sieves information according to its perceived sentiment or bias.
“All the audience needs today is an efficient network provider and with data subscription, he is granted access to either express himself or access information expressed by others. This for me is an upgrade which should rather be applauded than condemned”, he added.