In January, Minister of Information Lai Mohammed gave an interview to the German broadcaster DW where he comprehensively and repeatedly denied all knowledge of the “Protection from Internet Falsehood & Manipulation” bill, also known as the “Social Media” bill. When DW’s Tim Sebastian asked him point blank “Are you in support of this bill or not?” Mr. Mohammed’s answer was “I’m not even aware of that bill.”
Given the year that 2020 has turned out to be, one would be forgiven for forgetting that January 2020 and right now are just 10 months apart - what a difference 10 months can make. Between Mohammed’s DW interview and when you are reading this article, there has been a global pandemic that upended the world. There has also been a series of regulatory attempts to push through different aspects of this “Social Media Bill,” culminating in an NBC Code amendment that successfully sidestepped the legislative process and implemented certain key aspects of the bill.
In this column 3 months ago, I wrote that the 6th NBC Code Amendment - which was publicly championed by a certain Lai Mohammed - would end up being a trojan horse for authoritarianism and muzzling of speech in Nigeria’s media space. Now in October 2020, the metaphorical gloves on Mr Mohammed’s hands have come off entirely. Channels TV, Arise TV and AIT have been fined huge sums of money for covering the #EndSARS protests, and the NBC has publicly issued a North Korea-style edict instructing broadcast stations not to “embarrass the government.”
Whereas 10 months ago, he looked Tim Sebastian in the eye and claimed that he knew nothing about such a bill, he appeared before the House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon singing a completely different song.
What on earth is Mr. Mohammed so scared of?
Speaking to the House, Mohammed claimed among other things, that social media must be regulated and filtered in the manner of the People’s Republic of China. According to him, this is to ensure that young Nigerians are not misled by “Fake News,” and parody content, which he claimed, they are unable to differentiate from credible news. In Mr. Mohammed’s personal opinion - which he wants to base public policy on - a paternalistic authoritarian internet infrastructure must be installed by the state to save us misguided children from ourselves.
I personally find this argument woefully inept, maliciously false and infuriatingly patronising at the same time. In what capacity does Mr. Mohammed imagine that he is some kind of Victorian governess who decides what “children” in their 20s and 30s should and should not have access to, based on his subjective and completely unscientific personal opinion about our ability to parse truth, parody and falsehood? Who told Mr. Mohammed that young Nigerians do not already parse these things at a far higher level than he does?
I will remind Mr. Mohammed for instance, that in my previous career iteration, I was a creative engine behind “The Other News,'' on Channels Television, West Africa’s first primetime political satire TV show. This was a show whose premise was entirely based on understanding the finer points of satire, parody and comedic exaggeration vis-a-vis factual news. It was also one of the most successful shows on Nigerian television with over 2 million weekly viewers chiefly drawn from the under-35 demographic. Who says that young Nigerians need to be spoon fed what is allegedly good for them by a nanny state? Is that a scientifically established fact? Or is that Mr. Mohammed’s unsubstantiated personal opinion like everything else he said before the House on Tuesday?
If Mr. Mohammed simply dislikes the freedom that social media has given young Nigerians to access and share information in real time, which enables them organise massive movements for societal change like the recent #EndSARS protests, he should own it publicly with his metaphorical chest. Lai Mohammed is neither a schoolteacher who gets to decide for us what we should and should not consume, nor is he in any kind of moral position to pontificate about “Fake News” or the potential of social media to amplify dangerous messages.
His antecedents as the Publicity Secretary of the APC prior to the 2015 election are well known. He had no problem leveraging social media to amplify all manner of messaging that was both overtly untrue and genuinely dangerous. Rightly, he was never harassed or prevented in any way from putting out what he put out, because Nigeria is a constitutional democracy with freedom of speech and freedom of association clearly enshrined in the 1999 constitution. His antics in his current position are also known to the world.
How exactly he thinks that running a democracy and giving the state control over information and speech can be married into one harmonious entity is anybody’s guess.
‘Fake News’ is a fictitious problem contrived by Lai Mohammed
Listening to Lai Mohammed constantly go on and on about “Fake News,” one would get the impression that 1) The government he is part of is making serious, well-intentioned, good faith efforts to get citizens well informed by credible sources, and 2) “Fake News” is some sort of existential epidemic threatening the very corporate existence of Nigeria. In actual fact, neither of these ideas is anything remotely close to true.
First of all, the Nigerian government itself is Nigeria’s largest fake news factory. Lai Mohammed himself is the country’s single most vocal and prolific purveyor of the exact sort of falsehood he is supposedly campaigning against. The instances are too many to explore comprehensively in this column, so I will mention just three instances where Mr. Mohammed has put blatant fiction into the news cycle.
During his January interview at DW, when he was asked about the social media bill, he claimed with a straight face that there was no such bill before the Nigerian parliament. This claim in fact, was categorically not true. Fake news, you might call it.
On May 6, 2016, in response to a question about the president’s foreign trips during an appearance at Liberty Radio Kaduna, Mr. Mohammed claimed that Major General Muhammadu Buhari (Rtd) was “being invited by world leaders” because “they have the confidence to discuss with” him “the issue of the looted funds.” In fact, not a single world leader ever expressed a thought remotely close to this, and Gen. Buhari was in fact traveling on Nigeria’s tab. Fake news!
In a Channels TV interview on June 1 2016, when asked about the tomato scarcity crisis at the time, Mohammed claimed that “2 tomato harvests had been lost due to Boko Haram activity,” with the inference that it was a situation beyond the government’s control. In fact, the scarcity was caused by the Tuta Absoluta tomato pest which ravaged Nigeria in 2016. I would call that fake news!
So who is going to hold Lai Mohammed accountable for these and dozens of other falsehoods he has put out over the past 6 years? Who is going to regulate Mr. Mohammed’s internet access with a China-style Golden Shield firewall and block his access to social media so as to stop him from spreading “Fake News?” Who is watching the self-appointed watcher?
Sincerely want to fight fake news? Here’s how
The work done by organisations such as the Centre For Liberty has repeatedly shown using case studies from around the world that fake news is a problem that is best targeted by working toward making populations more informed. It is not a problem to be solved by engaging in an unintelligent game of whack-a-mole. This has been established through the experience of Rodrigo Duterte’s government in the Philippines, our fellow third world state. He publicly stated that any new legislation to police free speech “would violate the right to freedom” which is enshrined in the country’s constitution.
In the UK, Sweden and Finland, the approach to dealing with fake news varied from setting up a Rapid Response Unit to identify and refute it, to public education about how to identify it. In Sweden, the government devised an awareness campaign for journalists and the public led by the Civil Contingency Agency (MSB), which taught them to spot influence peddling by foreign state actors like Russia. In Finland, evaluation of news and fact-checking behavior was introduced to the school curriculum in 2014. Why Must Nigeria’s case always be different?
In case Mr. Mohammed is not aware by the way, his Chinese-style government-vetted internet dream is easily circumvented using a VPN. It might surprise him to know that my Chinese friends from school who are now back home in China still communicate with me on Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp. Us pesky kids will never stop having tricks up our sleeve with which to outsmart troglodyte states that try to enforce North Korean-type information restrictions when we are in the internet age.
So this is a personal callout to Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information.
Stop it already.