Fake News And Media Ethics, Regulation Nexus


“AS we are seeing in the case of (President Donald) Trump (of the United States), powerful political actors may attempt to mislead the public by labeling any story they disagree with as hate speech or fake news. Conservative social groups and forces of the status quo have always orchestrated moral panics over issues they disagree with or challenge their worldview or hegemony. On the other hand, to leave things as they are is to court crisis and disaster. We must balance freedom with responsibility.”

Those were the parting words of President of Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals of Nigeria (ACSPN), Prof. Lai Oso, when communication experts from the academia and news organisations gathered in Asaba, Delta State capital, last week for their fifth conference. They had one of the most troubling national issues on their agenda – fake news and hate speech. In fact, the theme for the conference was most telling in mediating current realities in Nigeria’s political landscape: ‘Media Narratives: Hate Speech, Fake News and the Political Stability of Africa.’

Between Nigeria’s government and the media, there is a cat and mouse relationship on the recurring issue of fake news or disinformation. The government strongly believes that a section of the media is on a mission to de-market President Muhammadu Buhari before the 2019 general elections. However, the counter argument is that what the media offers is a fair scorecard narrative of Buhari’s government’s low performance. Recently in China, Buhari accused the media of bias in conflict reporting. Also, Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed said the Nigerian media is being used as a weapon to spread fake news against “a performing government.”

According to him, “Fake news has taken another dimension. Now, it is not uncommon for otherwise respectable media organisations to accuse the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria without backing up their accusation with an iota of evidence. The latest of such was when a newspaper (not The Guardian) wrote an editorial in which it resorted to the use of uncouth language to link the president to the farmers-herders clashes.

“In their eagerness to de-market the President, they forget that the President is the symbol of Nigeria and that by denigrating him, they are denigrating the country.”However, some of the media professionals disagreed with Mohammed on the issue of “a performing government.” In fact, the view was that if anything, Buhari’s government has left much to be desired in the area of “delivering good governance marked by adhering to social justice, equity, accountability, political, cultural and economic inclusion and the tenets of democracy,” noting that this was why government is unable “to eliminate the incidence of fake news” as citizens’ response to government’s failure to deliver on its electoral promises.

And to be fair to Mohammed and Buhari, the major source of its fake news headache, conference participants submitted, is in the domain of disruptive and borderless social media, where breaking the rules of journalistic engagement seems the norm rather than the exception, as unregulated citizen’s journalism thrives unhindered in that sphere.

Specifically, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed was advised to desist from insisting that Nigerian journalists are preoccupied with disseminating fake news or disinformation, noting that there was no basis for such argument. Rather, it was canvassed that the spectre of fake news should be traced, not to the legacy or traditional media, but to the pervasive and technologically-inspired social media that does not have gate-keepers and has no knowledge of the ethics of journalism or how to apply them.

According to the publisher of online newspaper, Premium Times, Mr. Dapo Olorunyomi, “The Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, for instance, seems to be convinced that fake news, or better put, disinformation, is the preoccupation of the media and of journalists. For those who have keenly followed the way the current administration has also fashioned its responses, it is evident that it thinks the Nigerian journalism has a fake news problem and if you deal with the profession and its members with any combination of tools -from incarceration to daily homilies -the problem will probably go away.

“I wish to propose for our conversation today that there are no elemental and instrumental bases in journalism to accept an argument erected on this type of thinking as valid. In addressing the problem, however, I accept that what we have is a crisis of truth in the country to which we need all hands on the deck to resolve it for the progress of our community.”

Apart from social media menace, the traditional media was not altogether exonerated from blame, especially in its drive for survival in a largely shrinking economic space that actually endangers its existence, with government’s efforts at managing the economy not yielding any positive results. Prominent communication scholar, Oso, also expanded on this thesis, when he said the media is facing a critical moment as a result of waning public trust, excessive commercialization and commoditization of the media. He, however, pointed at the borderless technology of social media that has made journalism an unsecure environment.

Oso also blamed the peculiar nature of Nigerian politics and society to have “exerted a lot of influence on media practice, content, c0onsumption and interpretation. Here I’m referring to the various divisive and centri-frugal forces operating in our polity – ethnicity, religious, and regional differences, and lack of elite consensus. Fake news thrives in a situation where the people lack trust in their leaders and institutions. When the people suspect the credibility of the official information, fake news at least in the form of rumour fills the vacuum.”

Oso also said there was considerable decline in gate-keeping in the newsroom as a result of crippling economic situation, which has allowed rich and powerful influences to dilute journalistic principle of fact-checking, adding, “It is like anything goes as far as it will bring in money and probably not libelous. The news gate has become more porous than ever. This is where propagandists, merchants of hate speech and fake news crash in.”

The scholar argued that with the advent of technology, there could never be a more “chaotic and anarchical communication environment. Technology and economic context of media and communication have altered the landscape. Old assumptions and norms are being challenged. Established hierarchies and discourse of power of the elite are also being challenged. We are witnessing a new communication order.”

Oso explained that attempts to regulate hate speech and fake news “directly challenges the idea of freedom of expression, a fundamental requirement of democracy. Such an attempt readily offers an opportunity for illiberal regimes and forces of law and order to silence critical oppositional voices and counter discourses.”On its part, Delta State Governor, Mr. Ifeanyi Okowa, who was represented by his Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Charles Aniagwu, traced the origin of hate speech to a lack of patriotic spirit, failure of government’s institutions and government’s agenda that do not always align with the people’s wishes. He tasked the media to be independent-minded and not propagate dubious agenda that imperil its integrity.

Also, former Minister of Information and chairman of the conference, Prof. Sam Oyevbare, noted that fake news was popularised by American president, Mr. Donald Trump. He expressed worry that the new media has put Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Nigerian Press Council (NPC) and Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON) on the back-foot, as they could not regulate or license media any more since everybody is now a journalist. He said technology has stood the old rules on their heads, as it was now impossible to “control the tools of disseminating news these days.

“You can’t control what you consume. Fake news and hate speech have become an industry of their own that are self-sustaining.”Others present at the conference were former Director-General of NBC, Dr. Tom Adaba, former Minister of Information of Sierra Leone, Prof. Cecil Blake, Prof. Stella Akunna and many others.

Former Director-General of NBC, Dr. Tom Adaba, decried the use of hate speech in the 2015 elections that brought Buhari to power, where he said personality attack rather than issues-based campaigns was rampant. In an ironic sense, it would seem that the disinformation tool that brought the Buhari government to power has turned around to haunt it. But Adaba firmly advised political actors in the 2019 elections to turn a new leaf in their campaign engagements and avoid hate speech.

“If nothing is done to discontinue the trend of hate speech in the 2019 elections,” the veteran broadcaster said, “we’d be the worst for it. It’s not for want of rules and regulations by NBC and APCON that hate speech happened in 2015, but flagrant violations of rules. APCON staff were detained for not allowing some advertisements in the media. NBC and APCON were intimidated by the powers that-be. We cannot behave as if there will be no Nigeria tomorrow. Media is supposed to be gate-keepers. Governors behave as if they own the media in their state. They forget they are run by tax-payers’ money.”

Perhaps, it was former Sierra Leonean Minister of Information, Prof. Cecil Blake, who put the thriving issue of fake news in Africa in proper their socio-political context. The emeritus professor of communication lamented that Africa had lagged behind for far too long in development index and that citizens were impatient with the continent’s governments that have repeatedly failed to deliver democratic dividends. He dismissed Buhari’s claim that Nigeria, and indeed all of Africa, will not fall into a debt trap with China, with the way African leaders go cap-in-hand begging China for loans and developments.

In fact, although Blake said he has hope for a resurgent Africa and challenged her youth to rise to the challenge of technology and begin to create, he expressed disillusionment with Africa’s political elites, who he said have continually failed to lift the aspirations of the continent. Blake raised the spectre of the West and China recolonising Africa in the 2060s if current dependence on those world powers does not abate.