Social Media Regulation in Nigeria: Democracy on Horseback?
By Ebuka Onyekwelu
The recent debate over the propriety of regulating the social media in Nigeria has again raised some very fundamental questions in regards to freedom and democracy. Though not exactly one and the same, but the duo of freedom and democracy share a seamless borderline, much so that freedom is interpreted as democracy while democracy is measured by the extent to which people enjoy freedom. In fairness, no doubt, Nigeria is not a standard for democratic governance. Nonetheless, social media regulation most definitely will hinder freedom of expression. But then again, freedom of expression is not only an essential democratic culture, but also a fundamental human right. So in many ways, argument against social media regulation in Nigeria is not necessarily about the country’s democracy, but more so about how the people of Nigeria are allowed by their government to exercise their human right. Therefore, it is not exactly about if the Nigerian democracy is mature enough to contain the level of freedom of expression enabled by social media, but about the general fitness of the Nigerian system to accord Nigerians some decency in the manner the state relates with her citizens. It is as if the government is saying that Nigerians cannot manage freedom. This is especially so considering that freedom of expression includes the liberty to lie against someone, even as the consequence of this liberty to lie against someone is independent of that freedom. And before now, Nigeria has enough laws to deal with issues of slander, character assassination, libel, arising from extreme expressions of freedom against decency and commonsense.
On the other hand, a critical question comes to mind; is there any freedom that is absolute? Yet another closely related inquiry would be; is there any freedom without responsibility? Frankly, no freedom is absolute and no freedom comes without responsibility. Hence and rightly so, the Nigeria Penal Code and the Nigerian Criminal Code has provided sufficient remedy to issues of this nature. Most certainly, the motive driving Nigeria’s government obsession with social media regulation would not be providing remedy for something that has been remedied.
Before social media, the government is the primary and virtually only source of information. But with social media, it is increasing difficult to run government without carrying the people along. It would appear, without equivocation, that the will and determination of Nigerian government to continue to treat the people with ignominy has been challenged by social media and the gatekeepers of the Nigerian system fear that this, if allowed to go on, eventually, may wrestle power from them and give it to the people that rightly owns it. But the government is posing that it is determined to uproot purveyors of fake news. Meanwhile, is the Nigerian government a bystander, or maybe a victim of fake news? To buttress, can a government that is still changing and inventing different narratives as to what exactly transpired on Lekki Tollgate over a month ago, be an innocent victim of fake news? Can it be said that the same government is by any strand genuinely concerned about the depth of the impact of fake news? A case in point, during the time President Buhari was ill, the government did not consider Nigerians worthy to be informed about the health condition of their president. The President’s handlers insisted he was okay until the President returned and said he was very sick. Today, many people are also wondering why the President is no longer going to the United Kingdom for frequent medical attention. This kind of situation created by no other than the government leaves large room for wide range of assumptions, conspiracy and lies, thereby forcing the government to be merely reactionary. Very convincingly, the defective communication of the government and the attitude of the same government as if it is not accountable to the people, is what is fueling reactions by citizens on social media who are demanding to know what they ought to know, to be treated the way they ought to be treated and be provided with what they ought to be provided with. When government communicates honestly and openly, leaving no room for speculations and unhealthy assumptions, there is usually not a single space left for doubt and so there is no need to find fault with the government, as such would be baseless. It is therefore easy to see that attempt to regulate social media is just but an attempt to keep evading accountability and scrutiny by the citizenry.
Generally, it is extremely difficult to regulate social media without limiting freedom of expression. Social media in the first instance is designed to self-regulate. With quick dissemination of information that goes without restrictions, there is opportunity for verification by other users; this means that everybody is policing everybody. The implication is that certain claims made by people on social media necessarily have to have collaborators or at least leaves the receiver with a choice to verify. Information is not imposed on people on social media; this disruptive gain of the social media is often interpreted as its undoing because information keeps pouring in. However, people have options and there is always the opportunity to ascertain the accuracy of any piece of information, with ease. For instance, if a Twitter user claims that something has happened at so and so place, maybe to create panic, he or she is not the only one living around there. Put differently, many others who are as empowered using the same smart phone and internet, can collaborate the story, dismiss it or provide another credible perspective to the same story. This was completely lacking when the traditional media held sway and that made Nigeria’s democracy a lot easier because what goes to public domain is under strict control of the state. But the times have changed. And though Nigeria is a democracy, the state is becoming increasingly impatient with the people’s freedom of expression ably aided by social media and determined to stifle it under the guise of fight against fake news. Nigeria’s leadership class is understandably going through panic of social change, that is being driven by social media.
Plans to regulate social media should be construed as a step forward for Nigeria becoming a police state. It is an attempt to democratize tyranny or give tyranny semblance of democracy. In the final analysis, whatever is making the government of Nigeria consider regulating social media is a pointer that the government is unsettled and anything unsettling the government in this manner is in the interest of the people of Nigeria and the people must be resolute in holding their government accountable, as expected in a democracy. The government of Nigeria should accord Nigerians some honour of respect for their right to freedom of expression, even as it is expected that the freedom the people have is enjoyed with utmost sense of responsibility and duty.
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