Since banning Twitter on June 4, the Muhammadu Buhari administration has scaled up its long-standing ambition to seize control of the media space, traditional and social.
Twitter, after deleting a controversial post of the president, has become inaccessible to Nigerian users, except through the use of Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications to bypass the restriction imposed by the government.
Amid palpable fears among Nigerians about Mr Buhari’s possible resolve to shrink the civic space, free speech advocates and critics have likened the Twitter ban to a rebirth of the crackdown of the military era.
Apart from the Twitter ban, the government is making moves to regulate all social media and determine what Nigerians are allowed to post on social media. The government has also sought to regulate all online media, akin to what it does to the broadcast media where fines are imposed at will and stations are teleguided on what they can broadcast and what they cannot.
Current developments call back to mind the president’s history as a dictator who wielded absolute powers as the military head of state between 1984 and 1985, invoking arbitrary decrees.
Through his draconian Decrees 2 and 4, the then Major General Muhammadu Buhari prohibited journalists from writing articles that were factual but deemed insulting to public officials.
Now leading as the president in a democratic setting, the vestiges of his military traits are rising again.
Faced with growing criticisms over the deteriorating security, economic, and anti-corruption profiles under his watch, Mr Buhari is responding with stringent regulations, policies and legislation to control the traditional and social media space, the free speech channels which citizens also use for the planning and execution of many civic activities.
But beyond being a policy matter for Mr Buhari, there are some top officials whose personal views have helped to amplify the administration’s desperate push to seize control of both traditional and social media space.
These president’s loyalists, many of them from his cabinet and among other appointees, have repeatedly justified the push for a strident legislative backing for the moves widely seen as undercutting citizens’ democratic rights.
PREMIUM TIMES highlights the roles of some of these individuals who are egging the president towards a police state.
Nigeria’s information minister, Lai Mohammed, is among the most ardent advocates of strict regulation of the media, his new position after he and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), rode to power taking full advantage of an uninhibited media space in the build up to the 2015 elections.
Since 2018, Mr Mohammed has publicly drummed support for bills aimed at regulating the media space, often referring to the Chinese government’s success of such control in its one-party communist state, as a model Nigeria should emulate.
The minister who cites the scourge of fake news, hate speech, and disinformation as a reason for his position, has been fact-checked to have churned out false information and data on multiple occasions.
Last year, the minister requested the support of the National Assembly in formulating a national policy on use of social media to control fake news and misinformation.
He made the request in Abuja while defending the 2021 budget proposal of the information sector of his ministry, and inadvertently revealing the extent of the media regulations he wished Nigeria to enforce.
“If you go to China, you cannot get Google, Facebook or Instagram but you can only use your email because they have made sure that it is regulated,” he told the lawmakers.
As the information minister, Mr Mohammed has been the megaphone of the administration announcing the sanctions and threats against media organisations, a role he perfectly plays leaving no one in doubt about his personal views.
For instance, after the Cable News Network (CNN) published its reports on the shootings in the heat of the EndSARS protest, Mr Mohammed threatened the American media organisation.
“Like everyone else, I watched the CNN report. I must tell you that it reinforces the disinformation that is going around, and it is blatantly irresponsible and a poor piece of journalistic work by a reputable international news organisation,” he told reporters at a press conference in Abuja.
“This is very serious and CNN should be sanctioned for that,” he said.
The recent ban on Twitter was also announced by the minister. According to him, the social media website undermined Nigeria’s corporate existence.
The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, is another outspoken backer of President Buhari’s anti-free speech tendencies.
Last year, during the commemoration of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, Mr Malami called for the implementation of the Cybercrime Act, 2015, often used by the administration to suppress critics or dissidents.
“With the implementation of the Cybercrime Act 2015, the incidences of cyber-related crimes would be minimised,” he said through his spokesperson, Umar Gwandu.
The provision of the law has been deployed as a tool to victimise journalists.According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), politicians and businessmen have used Nigeria’s Cybercrime Act as the basis to accuse critics of cyber-stalking; and to harass and press charges against at least five bloggers who criticised them.
Cyber-stalking, which falls under Section 24 of the act, carries a fine of up to N7 million (USD$22,000) and a maximum three-year jail term for anyone convicted of knowingly sending an online message that “he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another.”
Moreover, despite the widespread condemnation of the Nigerian government’s ban on Twitter operations in the country, Mr Malami issued an order for the prosecution of violators.
Asked by PREMIUM TIMES which law he was invoking to prosecute defiant Twitter users, Mr Malami, through his spokesperson, said the alleged offenders would get to know in court.
Nigerian lawyers countered Mr Malami, stating that the threat to prosecute alleged violators of the government’s ban on Twitter lacks any legal basis. The minister would later walk back his statement, saying those to be published were internet service providers that allowed their platforms to be used to access Twitter.
Former NBC DG
The immediate past Director-General of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Armstrong Idachaba, played a significant role in the implementation of controversial anti-media policies and imposition of sanctions against broadcast organisations for critical reporting.
The NBC, under Mr Idachaba, imposed N3 million sanction each on AIT, Channels and Arise News television stations for alleged violation of broadcasting code in reporting the #EndSARS protests.
Mr Idachaba said the sanction would serve as a deterrent to broadcasters who did not verify news stories before they broadcast.
Media Rights Agenda (MRA) later filed a lawsuit at the Federal High Court in Ibadan, Oyo State, challenging the powers of the commission to impose fines on broadcasting stations.
The organisation, which insists that the NBC is not a judicial body, is asking the court to set aside the fines of N3 million each imposed by NBC on three television stations on October 23 as unlawfully imposed and therefore null and void.
In a similar development, Mr Idachaba directed Channels TV and Inspiration FM Lagos to pay a fine of N5 million each for airing an interview with a representative of the secessionist group, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
Mr Idachaba, a professor, said both organisations are culpable and liable for infractions of the NBC Code in respect to their broadcast.
In the wake of the suspension of Twitter by the Nigerian government, Mr Idachaba ordered all broadcasting stations to suspend the use of the popular microblogging platform.
He said television and radio stations are advised to de-install their Twitter handles and “desist from using Twitter as a source (UGC) of information gathering for News and programmes Presentation especially Phone-in.”
As a follow-up to Mr Mohammed’s directive, the former NBC DG announced the commencement of a registration process mandatory for all social media platforms.
“The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) hereby directs every Online Broadcast Service provider and Social Media Platforms operating within the Nigerian State to apply and obtain broadcast licence for their service(s),” the advertorial read.
The story of the Buhari administration’s social media restrictions will not be complete without the contributions of Festus Keyamo, the current Minister of State for Labour and Employment.
The vocal lawyer, who rose to become a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) in 2017, served as a director of the president’s campaign in 2019.
As a SAN actively practising law before joining Mr Buhari’s cabinet in 2019, his legal opinions which he generously expresses openly, can therefore not be ruled out as part of the in-house views that shape the administration’s policies on legal and civil rights matters.
An unapologetic advocate of social media restriction, Mr Keyamo recently tackled the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) over its interim ruling against Twitter ban in Nigeria.
The West African court has restrained the Nigerian government from “unlawfully” prosecuting people from using Twitter, while it is considering a legal action launched by activists and journalists seeking to reverse the ban on the social media giant.
Mr Keyamo, who recently spoke on Channels Television’s Politics Today, said efforts are merely made to “blackmail the federal government” despite Nigerians using social media platforms to promote content that are capable of “setting the country ablaze”.
“I have not seen anywhere where they said the ECOWAS court is the moral thermometer or barometer to decide whether Nigeria’s image is bad or not,” the minister said.
Before adding politics to his flourishing legal career, Mr Keyamo was known to be a fierce defender of human rights having trained under the civic rights giant, the late Gani Fawehinmi.
Some other aides to the president have publicly backed Mr Buhari’s anti-free speech moves, particularly as they pertain to social media regulations.
A Senior Special Assistant to Mr Buhari on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, once called for the regulation of social media, saying doing otherwise could lead to “more lawlessness, violence and deaths.”
He said the modern media platform has played a strong role in promoting information sharing, strengthening democracy, and building networks of relationships, but without supervision or control, the nation risks “more havoc.”
A Senate bill proposing social media regulation has been rejected by many Nigerians who accuse the government of attempts to stifle free speech.
Mr Shehu’s remark supports calls by other officials of the Buhari administration for the control of social media space, which the government claims has contributed to hate speech and violence.
Another presidential aide openly canvassing for a gag of social media is Lauretta Onochie, the Personal Assistant to Mr Buhari on Social Media.
She said that the challenge in the country was that the laws were not being enforced by the appropriate authorities, adding that the country had the necessary laws to guide what was being published and spoken online.
“Our laws are not being enforced; we must plead with the law enforcement agencies to look into this to help the president and the nation to stay together.
“Many of our youths are raised by mothers and fathers who rebuke them when they ask questions.
“Now that they are on social media, they can air their opinions, but I must counsel them that whatsoever they say today they should make sure it is the truth.
“If you are lying in order to bring bloodshed to our nation, the blood would be on you and your generation,’’ she said.
Mrs Onochie, who advised young people to always double-check before making posts on social media, has been called out several times for spreading fake news on social media.
Also known for his unapologetic support for his sweeping control of the social media space, is the President’s Personal Assistant on New Media, Bashir Ahmad.
On the day the federal government announced the suspension on Twitter, Mr Ahmad celebrated the ban with a cryptic triumphant tweet, “Twitter Nigeria!”.
The next day, June 5, in a veiled reference to Nigeria’s community of Twitter users, Mr Ahmad posted on his verified Facebook page, “This is exactly the language they understand, clearly”.
Mr Ahmad, after the Twitter ban, became more active on Facebook also advocating the use of the Indian Koo as an alternative to Twitter.
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