Media Rights Agenda (MRA) yesterday has accused the Federal Government of hopelessly losing its way, and called on it to abandon its fruitless preoccupation with controlling social media content in Nigeria. It urged the Government to retrace its steps by focusing on its primary purpose, which is ensuring the security and welfare of the people.
Citing Section 14(2)(b) of the Constitution, which provides that “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government”, MRA’s Programme Director, Mr. Ayode Longe, said in a statement in Lagos that it was clear that the Federal Government as well as many of its State counterparts had abandoned their primary purpose and were now preoccupied with chasing shadows to the detriment of Nigerians.
MRA’s Statement is in response to that of the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, in Abuja on February 3, 2020 at a meeting with a Finnish Government delegation that his Ministry will this month convene a stakeholders’ meeting as part of its efforts to design a framework for the sanitisation of the social media. The Minister said, while receiving the Finnish Ambassador to Nigeria, Dr. Jyrki Pulkkinen, and the Ambassador of Innovation of the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Finland, Mr. Jarmo Sareva, who were on an advocacy visit to promote the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC), that the move was government’s response to the irresponsible use of the social media to promote fake news and hate speech and that it was working with stakeholders to device a mechanism to sanitise the social media.
Mr. Longe noted that the Minister’s insistence at the meeting that the initiative was not aimed at stifling press freedom or infringing on the rights of individuals was neither believable nor reassuring given the Government’s track record of using every means to suppress the right to freedom of expression, including its ongoing abuse of legislation such as the Cybercrime Act as well as anti-terrorism and treason laws to suppress media freedom and punish citizens who are critical of the Government or government officials.
According to him, the denial by the Minister in an interview with Tim Sebastian of DW’s Conflict Zone, which was posted online on January 31, 2020, of the existence of the social media bills pending at the National Assembly only serves to reinforce his lack of credibility and undermine the credibility of the government that he speaks for, not just on the issue of the government’s efforts to control or regulate social media content and repress freedom of expression, but on virtually all issues.
Mr. Longe said: “A government whose chief spokesperson is notorious, domestically and internationally, for lying about virtually everything can have no credibility when claiming that the Government is concerned about fake news and misinformation, whether online or offline. If the Federal Government was truly concerned about fake news, it should by now have fired the same Information Minister, rather than reappointing him.”
He argued that “With Nigerians facing a level of violent crimes and general insecurity never before experienced in the country, with unemployment at an all-time high and with most citizens experiencing the most horrendous conditions of living, postings on social media should not be the greatest concern of any responsible Government at this time as the Government’s attitude evidences a lack of appreciation of its role and priorities.”
MRA also criticized the arrest on January 31, 2020 of five journalists who were subsequently detained and paraded by the FCT Police Command on February 1, 2020 for allegedly attempting to cause panic in Abuja, saying it was yet another instance of the Government and its law enforcement agents of impeding the work of journalists carrying out their legitimate duties.
The journalists, Ms Pricilla Ajeshola, Mr. Jacob Orji, Mr. Abayomi Adedoyin, Ms Peggy Shande and Mr. David Gold Enemingin, were arrested for reportedly going to Wuse District Hospital in Abuja, where it was alleged that they claimed that one of them had Coronavirus.
Their employer, The Nigerian News Group, speaking through its Media Officer, Mr. Lawrence Audu, said they were illegally arrested while gathering materials for a special report on Lassa fever and Coronavirus and that despite their efforts at an amicable resolution of the issue, the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory refused to yield to pleas as his staff insisted on parading the journalists as criminals.
Mr. Longe said: “We strongly condemn this egregious action by Government authorities as a violation of media freedom and a breach by the Government of Nigeria of international commitments, particularly Article 66(2)(c) of the ECOWAS Treaty which obliges ECOWAS member States ‘to ensure respect for the rights of journalists.”