Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed said yesterday that the federal government’s position on the future of social media in Nigeria is regulation rather than shutting it down.
Mohammed made the clarification during a solidarity visit to Vintage Press Limited, the publishers of The Nation newspapers and Sporting Life, following the October 21, 2020 attack on the organisation’s corporate headquarters by hoodlums who hijacked the #ENDSARS protests.
Expressing sadness over what he described as “extensive damage to the organisation,” the minister said the attack was “clearly premeditated and intended to silence the voice of the nation. This attack is not just on Vintage Press Limited but on free press and democracy.”
He asked The Nation and other media organisations to remain undaunted and to continue to fight for democracy as, according to him, “the government will continue to support responsible journalism.”
He said: “I know some observers may wonder how the minister can describe the attack on The Nation as attack on free press and on democracy, whereas a few days ago, he canvassed for regulation of social media.
“I say to such observers that there is no contradiction in what I said before and what I am saying now. This government has respect for the free press. What we are against is irresponsible use of social media and fake news.
“We did not start this campaign against fake news yesterday. In 2017, we devoted an entire National Council on Information meeting to address the issues of fake news and hate speech.
“I remember I said that day that there is a new epidemic coming to consume the world. That epidemic is fake news. That epidemic will pose great danger to global peace and security.
“In 2018, we followed it up by launching a national campaign against fake news and hate speech. These were because we knew the danger there. We did not, at any time, say we would kill the internet.
“We did not say social media must be closed down, never! Social media is here to stay and it would be antithesis to democracy if one makes an attempt to shut down the social media.
“However, we must regulate social media in a manner that it does not become a purveyor of fake news and hate speech.
“Today, the pattern of choice for purveyors of fake news and hate speech is social media. It travels so fast; it disseminates so fast.
“This is why it is important for any country to look at that platform and ensure it is regulated in a manner that does not bring harm not just to the users but to everybody. No country will fold its hands and watch purveyors of fake news and hate speech destabilise it.
“And it is as if the world is not learning. In 1994, 800,000 lives were lost in Rwanda as a result of hate speech. One radio station in particular was largely responsible for this. The same thing happened in Cambodia, etc.
“So, when we talk about regulating social media, we are simply saying regulate it so as to ensure responsible use of the social media.
“We do not want to be misunderstood. We are also asking for freedom of the press because no democracy can survive without freedom of the press.
“We have tried to reach out to all the major stakeholders, including Google, Facebook, NUJ, Guild of Editors, bloggers, social media influencers, etc; let’s sit down together and fashion out a policy that will make our social media platforms responsible.
“Even the owners of these platforms are talking about regulation now.”
On the opposition of lawmakers to the planned regulation of the social media, Mohammed said: “The executive arm of the government is not limiting its interest in the regulation of social media to just legislation. Our purpose is to get all the stakeholders, including legislators, to see how we can regulate use of social media for the benefit of all.
“From the interaction I had with the legislative arm of the government during budget defence, I think the challenge we have with the lawmakers so far is this slant that any attempt to regulate social media amounts to an attempt to shut down social media. This is not true. This is what I took pains to explain to the lawmakers.
“In fact, it is impossible to shut down social media. Even the most restrictive governments today are only regulating it. So, we must make it safe for everybody.
“Fake news has caused a lot of havoc on social harmony. I think there is really no point of disagreement between me and lawmakers on this.”
On why youths or EndSARS protesters seemed to doubt the Federal Government’s promise of positively responding to their requests, Mohammed said: “It was sad and unfortunate because the government meant well.”
According to him, the Federal Government “responded positively and promptly to the requests of the youths and acted immediately. By the time hoodlums hijacked the protests, some states had started implementation of the resolutions.”
Earlier in his address of welcome, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Vintage Press Limited, Mr. Olawale Edun, narrated how heavily armed men on Wednesday, October 21, 2020 invaded the corporate headquarters of the organisation, shot repeatedly into the premises, carted away some equipment and personal property and set ablaze the premises and some vehicles parked in the compound.
He however expressed thanks to God that in spite of the mayhem, no life was lost.
Pointing out that the attackers “tried to silence this critical voice,” Edun used the opportunity to appreciate the staff and management for their “resilience”, so much so that by Friday of the same week of the Wednesday-attack, the paper was back on the newsstand.
He equally applauded the resilience of the staff and management of TVC, which also was attacked the same day and who also bravely returned on air quickly in spite of the huge damages.
Describing the visit to The Nation as “a tremendous morale booster to the management and staff, Mr. Edun said “the company can now start the process of rebuilding,” pointing out that “right now, we are operating in a skeletal manner because of the damage that was done here.”
He took the guests round the premises to see the extent of damage done.
Mohammed was accompanied by the Directors-General of major government agencies under the Ministry of Information and Culture, including the Acting DG of Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation, Professor Aduku Idachaba; DG of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, Dr. Mansur Liman; Managing Director of News Agency of Nigeria, Mr. Buki Ponle; DG of Nigeria Press Council, Mr. Francis Nwosu; and the Chief Registrar/CEO of the Advertisers Practitioners Council of Nigeria, Olalekan Fadolapo.
The team was received by the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Vintage Press Limited, Mr. Edun; the Managing Director, Mr. Victor Ifijeh; the Executive Director of Finance and Administration, Mr. Sunday Adeleke; the Editor, Daily, Mr. Adeniyi Adesina; the Editor, Weekend, Mr. Festus Eriye and other senior members.