By Sunny Ikhioya
IT is often said that excessive freedom can lead to negative consequences. This can be analysed along the lines of how our independence and that of several African nations have panned out. The question, however, is whether the problem is to be attributed to the freedom in the land or the system that runs it? If freedom is that bad, why are those countries practising true democracy advancing in development over democracy-censoring nations.
Even the more authoritarian nations like China and Russia are practising a semblance of democracy in their peculiar way. The people are becoming emboldened and challenging existing structures. That is the nature of freedom. It is a two-sided affair that can take you to utopian heights or bring you crashing down to Mother Earth. It is a matter of the choice you make. If you claim to be practising true democracy, you must be ready to practise it in deed by going through the whole gamut, not partially or sectionally.
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In a true democracy, where there is freedom, there are structures and institutions set up to check excesses and everybody, no matter the position he or she occupies, must become subjugated to the rules of these institutions. So, nobody needs to tell you that you have overstepped your bounds and when you are sanctioned for it, everybody will know that, truly, the sanction is warranted. We do not know what we are practising in Nigeria and that is why the proposed social media law is getting everyone so confused, some are even worked up.
It could never have been imagined that a government that worked its way into power through the enormous backing of the free press and social media, is now the one clamouring for the censorship of the media, especially the social media segment. The Holy Book admonishes us to love our neighbour as ourselves; in other words, we must do to others, what we want others to do to us.
If we are to analyse this doctrine in line with what is happening in Nigeria, we would be confused. How can a government with a Lai Mohammed as Information Minister, Adams Oshiomhole as chairman of the party, Festus Keyamo, a minister and Prof Itse Sagay heading one of its agencies, be the one seen to be gagging the press? Do we not know of their antecedents as members of the opposition party during the Goodluck Jonathan administration?
It is an irony that critics, who were given all the freedom to practise their acts, cannot stand even a little dose of their own medicine. That is why the civil society groups are no longer taken seriously in the country. The civil society sector is in a comatose, whimpering and begging for oxygen to sustain itself. Such is life; the biggest critics are the biggest failures when they get into government. But can’t an understanding and reasonable government handle this social media menace another way?
Will the law they are introducing now bring about the so much desired sanity? We must remember that more advanced countries have tried it in the past and have had to rescind their decision. The CNN reported on August 17, 2018, that the government of Malaysia had repealed its own anti-fake news law. “The law made it an offense to create, publish or disseminate any fake news or any publication containing fake news. Those found guilty faced up to six years in prison and fines up to $130,000,” it reported.
CNN further reported that: “Teddy Brawner Baguilat, a board member of ASEAN parliamentarians for Human Rights, called the decision ‘a huge step forward for human rights in Malaysia’. This is a law that was clearly designed to silence criticism of the authorities and to quell public debate..It should never have been allowed to pass in the first place.” That was how the fake news law died in Malaysia.
I do not know if those in authority have done enough research before rushing to the National Assembly to propose the law. Looking at it closely, only those in opposition will be the target, except in very few isolated cases, because they are the ones who will try to find fault with activities of government.
The best way to defeat fake news carriers and rumour mongers is to come out with the truth, no need for any draconian law or measures. The embarrassment of discovering by any medium which values its integrity that its news is fake is enough punishment enough. We are going on with this social media law because a lot of us in society have things to hide, that they do not want out in the public. But, it is said that “the gold fish has no hiding place”. So, if you are a public citizen, you must be ready to subject yourself to public scrutiny, no matter how harsh it might seem. That is the price you pay for the status that you enjoy in society.
Sociologists refer to it as “status and roles”, you get to a stage in society and your status demands that you play certain roles. It is when you try to shy away from the role expected of you that you attract negative views and comments to yourself. Our leaders must learn to be open and transparent in their dealings, the perjury law is there to take care of those that willingly and purposefully come out to defame others. When people come out with lies against you, respond with the truth backed by evidence and you will see the lies disappear.
The bravado tactics that the regime is trying to introduce will not work because we do not have the technology to implement it. The harshest critics of the government are based abroad. How do you bring a Sahara Reporters, for example, to toe the line. The law as it affects such people is not enforceable. Fake news thrives more in environments where the government is not forthcoming with information to the people. When the doors of free information are opened in all sections of government, apart from classified areas, different interpretations will not be read to government’s news stories and the government will get the people’s support. But, if government insists on going on with its coercive law, it should be prepared for the peace of the graveyard situation. The silence of the graveyard is more dangerous than the cacophony in the market place.