By Dirisu Yakubu
Freedom of Speech and Expression is one of the distinguishing features of constitutional democracies. Unlike other variants of government, democracy avails humanity the right to make known to the public inner thoughts and opinions, regardless of the substances or absurdities thereof.
For this and many related reasons, the media, academia, rights advocacy groups, civil society organisations in Nigeria to mention a few, fought military establishments with courage of the audacious kind, until the return to democratic government in 1999.
In the past few years, however, the internet, arguably one of man’s most enabling inventions, has become both a cause for excitement and grief in some parts of the world. Nigeria, the world’s largest black nation is not immune to the vices of a few unpatriotic elements bent on seeing the nation go up in flames.
Riding the levers of constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, some folks whose skills are for hire to the highest bidder had at one time or the other, fed the public with half-truths and outright falsehoods, with attendant repercussions. In a country where the line between politics and governance remains blur, libellous publications have appeared time and again, especially on social media to negatively portray occupiers of elective offices and other sensitive positions.
Given that constructive criticisms are an essential ingredients of democracy, opposition to some government’s policies and programmes is an acceptable norm. But what about outright falsehood, particularly those capable of setting the nation on the edge?
In the last quarter of 2019, an audio file circulated on WhatsApp caused quite a stir with fake alert warning passengers not to travel along the Kaduna/Zaria/Kano highway that fateful Friday in October. The female voice warned would-be- travellers that Christians were being hacked to death along the ever-busy route by Islamic fundamentalists. It, however, turned out to be a lie, perhaps, orchestrated to birth a crisis between Christians and Muslims in that part of the country.
Who will forget in a hurry the conspiracy tales woven around President Muhammadu Buhari when he took ill and embarked on medical vacation abroad? While some pronounced him dead, a then sitting governor told the world he was in possession of eleven photographs showing the President on life support.
Needless to state here that the first citizen returned to the country hale and hearty.
All these largely informed the resolve of Senator Mohammed Sani Musa (APC, Niger East) to sponsor the “Protection From Internet Falsehoods and Manipulations and Other Related Matters Bill,” to stem the tide of fake news in the country.
The lawmaker has consistently insisted that the bill, when passed into law, would help the journalism profession in ridding itself of quacks that take advantage of the internet of things to give the noble profession a bad name. Information according to Senator Musa, is key in the actualization of the social contract between the government and the governed, stressing however that falsehoods would only portray the former in bad light in the eyes of the latter.
In a chat with Saturday Vanguard on the bill, Auwal Ibrahim Rafsanjani, Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, CISLAC, advanced reasons for his organization’s opposition to Senator Musa this way:
“It is worthy of note that while the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill, 2019, also known as the Social Media Bill plagiarizes a similar Bill by the Singaporean parliament, the latter explicitly define some terms, while the Nigerian bill leaves a lot in the air with frightening ambiguity.
“While there is a need to control the spread of false information, the danger lies in being a victim of the relativity of the interpretation of the terms “Falsehood” and “Truth,” which not only gives the government a monopoly on the truth but violates the enshrined constitutional rights to freedom of expression.”
Logical as the fears raised by Rafsanjani are, it is apt to state here that government cannot easily morph into a monopolist as the sole definer of what constitutes truth or falsehoods.
Surprisingly, the distinguished Senator has been accused of plagiarizing the Singaporean social media regulatory Law. But Sen. Musa said this is a rather strange allegation, as it is not supported by law nor any regulation.
Commendably, in introducing the bill, the distinguished Senator acknowledged that he is borrowing from a Singaporean experience in respect of similar law. It is common practice for nations to model their laws after those of other nations. Historically, Nigerian laws have had the trials of being adopted or modelled after pre-existing laws from other nations.
Many of our laws remain as they were enacted and imported to us by our colonial masters with little or no changes at all made on them. To further demonstrate this it is, important to specifically mention a few of such laws. The Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) which is the ground norm is modelled after the American and Indian Constitutions which practice presidential system.
The penal code of Northern Nigeria, enacted in 1959, was based on the Penal Code of Sudan, enacted in 1899, which in turn was based on the Indian penal code drafted by Lord Macaulay between 1833 and 1837, and brought into force in 1860.
In the same vein, the criminal code applicable in Southern Nigeria is derived from the Australian Queensland Criminal Code of 1899.
Conversely, on many occasions, the United Nation has introduced a model law especially in the areas of arbitration for nations to adapt and adopt. The Nigerian Arbitration and Conciliation Act 2004 is a model replica of the model law. Though legislations are universal and cannot be said to be varied, Senator Musa insists his bill is not a lift of the Singaporean version but one necessitated by the need to preserve truth from lies in his dear.
And lest we forget, Mr. K. Shanmugam, the Singaporean Minister of Law and Home Affairs while calling for the review of existing laws to curtail the spread of fake news, noted that falsehoods was capable of damaging the reputations of businesses and people, if not checked.
Delivering a keynote address at “Keep it Real: Truth and Trust in the Media” on 19 June, 2017, the Minister stated that the Singaporean government would maintain a strong climate of trust to be able to counter the spread of misinformation online saying, “If the distrust becomes deep-rooted, people will have serious doubts about the institutions, about leadership and about governance.”
Victims of the scourge of falsehoods could either be the average man walking the streets in search of his daily bread, the widow left to feed for herself and children at the demise of her spouse or an elected officeholder. Whoever the victim is or would be, falsehood must be stopped from further amplifying the fault lines that have come to define the Nigerian people in the past few decades. This is the crux of the proposed law.