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How Not To Fight Fake News In Nigeria

By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema
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Fake news is evil, no matter the purpose. Not even the most liberal democracy worth its salt will shut its eyes to fake news because it can undermine the very basis of democratic freedoms. Given the complexities of Nigeria, fake news is a great source of danger. But our governments are scoring own goals in combating the menace.

Our governments, including President Buhari’s, are unwilling or unready to be transparent with Nigerians. Information dissemination is not spin or propaganda. It is not blatant lies or denials about glaring facts or realities. Nigerians are not stupid. If our leaders are upfront with us, admitting their faults, showing empathy, we will listen to them. But just like in other realms of national life, the government’s information management systems send out these impressions:

They versus us. They are the ones dictating; we just swallow what they put out.

Second, any hint of skepticism or questions about government’s perspective means the questioner is stupid, subversive, anti-government or all of the above.

Third, the government must always control the narrative.

Given the close to minus zero credibility level of government in the eyes of the average Nigerian, this mindset of its information distillers is laughable. The tragedy is that it gives great opportunity to those who dish out fake information.

Legislative fiat will not check fake news in Nigeria, including efforts to clamp down on the social media. Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed’s recent declarations on his pet project to forge the social media in government’s image and likeness convey the following impressions about the powers that be: first, they have things to hide; two, they abhor criticism and dissent; they are unready for alternative opinions on Nigeria’s problems; they are the sole purveyors of wisdom on the concepts of national unity and stability. Embarrassing the government, to paraphrase the National Broadcasting Commission’s fiat against AIT, Channels, and Arise TV stations, is a personal mantra for what any oga in power dislikes. As if democracy is all about deodorizing the holders of the people’s mandate.

Take these End SARS protests and their aftermath. A smart government from day one would have honestly engaged the young protesters, and then taken to the social and traditional media with robust engagements on the subjects of the protesters’ agitations, and government’s responses to them. Where was (is) Mr. Tolu Ogunlesi, the young and brilliant writer who, if I am correct, is Buhari’s special assistant on digital and new media? I stand to be corrected; but if he is still in charge of his portfolio, his impact has not been felt on government’s responses to the new media-driven End SARS movement.

Worse is a clearly systematic official effort to ‘control’ the narrative on the Lekki shooting and its outcome. Maybe DJ Switch got her numbers wrong; clearly there were exaggerations and inaccuracies emanating from people who witnessed the killings on 20 October. But demonizing them, and in the case of DJ Switch, tacitly backing the foreign-based but clearly Nigerian, pro-government group threatening her with the International Court of Justice is not the way to go. Why is the government not being forthcoming about what happened at Lekki? Why deny those who lost loved ones there of opportunity for closure? Why were Professor Pat Utomi and his group prevented from laying wreaths there?

This kind of government mindset is fertile soil for the flourishing of fake news. With the high-tech available to anyone, guerrilla journalism can and will boom if Lai Mohammed’s pet project goes forward. Threatened elite who before the anti-SARS protests spoke out against social media and hate speech bills by government may now let them pass in our legislative chambers. Forget the initial ‘gragra’; the protests frightened the living Lucifer out of them. In their reasoning, gagging the social media will prevent the next and possibly more dangerous outburst. But it is in their interest to let the information space be. Because when a democracy begins to display dictatorial inclinations, the legislature is usually the first organ of government to end up six feet below. Remember when the democratic president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, sent in army tanks to crush the Russian parliament, the Duma, when the members opposed his plans? It was in 1993. This comparison is not farfetched or unrelated to developments in contemporary Nigeria. Imagine if the executive-gagging fiat works and some proposals from them attract legislative opposition, what happens if some populist lawmakers decide to take matters to the people’s court?

I submit that the best way to combat the fake news menace is by government information transparency, subject to legitimate national security concerns (classified information exists even in the most advanced democracies); credible government actions; respect for the citizenry; constant engagement with the people; knowledge of contemporary information systems; and utilization of existing laws to deal with purveyors of fake news.

Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema is a Lagos-based author and historian. His first novel is titled ‘In Love and In War.’ Email: [email protected]

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