By Sunday Onyemaechi Eze

THE social media no doubt is the buzz of the moment. Currently, it is one formidable societal force to reckon with all over the world. The social media has substantially taken over the fundamental role of traditional media platforms.

Global communication with the overall media practice in terms of education, entertainment, sensitisation and information dissemination has been revolutionalised by the social media. The media is undoubtedly a powerful tool for societal change and rejuvenation, influence, decision making and opinion moulding.

People from all walks of life have leveraged on the potency of the social media to promote issues of vital interest. Products, services, people and politics are objects of promotion on social media. Friendships are nurtured and large followership drawn with the help of the social media.

Those in power have relied heavily on twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Whatsapp to reach out to their people and further their goals. They increasingly utilise these platforms to pass information and promote their policies and programmes. They clearly understood the power of the media and often take advantage of it.

Unlike the traditional media channels such as radio, television, newspapers and magazines, the social media requires only a smart phone and data to function from anywhere in the world. It is fast, handy, easy and affordable. The level of penetration and reach is in millions and the impact unimaginably tremendous.

The social media has done more good than harm.  Unfortunately, for holding government to account, revealing the truth, for being an uninhibited channel of mirroring the society and feeding the public with information on topical national issues, the social media is currently in the bad book of the government.

To them, it breeds fake news which they claim is worse than corruption. Consequently, there has been this insistence or outright desperation to censor the social media by the government. The ploy to strangulate the social media is increasingly worrisome. In fact, it must be tamed at all cost.

The social media has been instrumental to entrenching democracy and creating some desired societal changes in the world polity. The overall success of the Arab spring in 2010 was credited to the social media. In Nigeria, the social media was instrumental to the regime change in 2015. It was freely deployed to inform, educate, sensitise and flag the lapses of the previous governments by those in opposition then.

The recent #ENDSARS Protest in Nigeria was largely successful with the support of the social media. Most of the truth and facts would not have been easily placed at the public domain without the social media. On or before 2015, the social media was an instrument meant to amplify free speech and freedom of information. It is surprising how those in position of authority now – who are beneficiaries of the social media could turn new enemies.

They are agitated and have been driving efforts aimed at stifling the social media with a policy, act or law. One will not be mistaken to say that the social media is now seen as the current enemy of the state. The unwanted gad-fly of those in position of authority.

Before now, the media especially the social media has been fingered as posing a threat to national security and spreading fake news until its potency for driving change manifested fully during the recent #ENDSARS Protest. It must be conceded that some people use the social media platform to peddle unsubstantiated rumours and promote fake news. But in all honesty, it is never the problem with Nigeria.

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Still, a concerted effort by the government of the day to ensure that the social media is censored is in top gear. In March, a bill for Protection from Internet Falsehood, Manipulation and Other Related Matters sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa (APC Niger East) suffered a debilitating blow at the Senate public hearing. Among the provisions of the bill is that which provides for a fine of N5 million against an offender who fails to comply with an order of police to correct false statement.

Another Hate Speech Bill, otherwise called the National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches sponsored by Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi (APC Nigeria North) is another effort at muzzling the social media. This bill states that anyone found guilty of hate speech is liable to life imprisonment and if it leads to the death of another, the guilty party should be sentenced to death by hanging.

It is laughable to impose life imprisonment and or death penalty for disseminating fake news while no stringent legislation is contemplated for corruption. The bill was rejected by majority of the stakeholders who saw it as an infringement on human right and a ploy to take away peoples’ freedom of expression.

The National Assembly seem to have succumbed to the wishes of Nigerians but utterances of those in the executive arm points to the contrary. The enormous energy invested by those in position of authority to ensure that the media is boxed into a corner has doubled considerably in recent times. Three television stations namely: AIT, Channels and Arise were fined three million naira each by the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission for airing offensive content during the #ENDSARS protest.

Now, the traditional media platforms are already gagged and living in absolute fear. Psychologically, most media houses have been defeated. They now avoid any content or conversation which could earn them interdiction from government regulators. Their disclaimer of opinions and views of participants before and after interactive programmes and most especially ways and manners moderators control callers on certain topics is a pointer to the callous state of fear of government and frustration within the media industry.

At every forum, the minister of Information and culture Lai Mohammed has never failed to tell his audience the dangers social media which he branded the harbingers of fake news poses to the nation and why it has to be censored. In his recent outing; he made it clear that the nation has no national policy on social media. Therefore, one is expedient now.

He saw China as a model for media control and censorship but failed to inform us that the same China beheads any office holder found to be corrupt. There is this disconnect and distrust between the government and the governed. Citizens see whatever piece of legislation or national policy the government plans to introduce again on social media as anti-people.

The #ENDSARS Protest has opened the eyes of Nigerians to the enormous power at their disposal in waking government to its responsibilities. Going forward, citizens will continue to leverage on that momentum in ensuring that government is held to account. Therefore, those bent on serving us a new imposed menu of social media law should have a rethink. One does not think Nigerians of today will condone any policy aimed at silencing their voices?

Good governance, provision of security to citizens and poverty reduction are ideal panacea for eliminating fake news. We have no reason to leave our educational and health systems in their current sorry state. There should be jobs for the unemployed. Transparency and accountability in running government should be a norm. Effort of government should be geared towards rebuilding lost trust and confidence.

Most importantly, food should be available at affordable rates. There are two sides to a coin. Those who push for obnoxious laws to protect their positions should be aware that power is transient. They cannot permanently remain in their current positions. Therefore, leaders should evolve polices meant to enrich our democratic space and those also beneficial to citizens.

The idea of censoring the media revolves largely in the realm of emotions and political motivation. The Cyber Crime Act 2015 has dealt with the excesses of the social media on misinformation or disinformation and other ranges of online interactions. The best government should do is to honourably back down on this project. It does not sit well with people.

Eze, a Media and Communication Specialist, publisher: thenewinsightng.blogspot.com., wrote via sunnyeze02 @yahoo.com

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