By Lai Mohammed
Your Excellency, Honorable Commissioners, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, this is undoubtedly one of the most important National Council on Information meeting that we have ever held. Why? Because it touches on an issue that has a direct impact on the peace and unity of our dear country, on our democracy and indeed on our very survival as a nation. That is why I consider the theme: “Tackling Fake News and Hate Speech to Enhance Peace and National Unity” – very fitting and most timely.
3. I said most timely because with the 2019 general elections just a little over 60 days away, there is no issue that is more relevant to the election than the issue of fake news and hate speech. This issue transcends political party lines, religion, ethnicity, and even nationality. Left unchecked, fake news and hate speech constitute the biggest threat to the forthcoming elections. We are not just saying it
now, we said so as far back as 2017.
4. Fake news has the capacity to alter the course of an election and trigger legitimacy problem for the winner. A recent study by researchers at the Ohio State University in the United States concluded that Russian interference and the fake news it promoted probably played a significant role in depressing Hilary Clinton’s support on the day of the country’s 2016 presidential elections. Among the fake news circulated ahead of the election were: 1) Clinton is in poor health due to a serious disease. 2) Pope Francis endorsed candidate Trump, and 3) Clinton approved weapons sales to Islamic Jihadists. Even the winner of that election, President Donald Trump, is still reeling from the impact of the alleged Russian intervention.
5. Fake news has the capacity to trigger violence. In India, about a dozen people lost their lives earlier this year because of fake news or hoax messages. The victims were lynched after they were falsely
accused of child abduction based on fake messages circulated via the social media platform, WhatsApp! Right here in Nigeria, you are all aware of a recent report by the BBC, that fake news circulating in the social media is fuelling the farmers-herders crisis in Nigeria.
Disturbing pictures from other lands are circulated freely via Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, purportedly being from the killings in Jos or Benue. Also, In 2017, a fake report circulated on the social
media claimed that five students of the College of Education, Gidan Waya, were ambushed and killed by Fulani herdsmen in southern Kaduna.
That report turned out to be false. No student was killed. Imagine the reprisal killings that this piece of fake news could have triggered!
6. Now, what about hate speech? I am sure many of us here remember the role that hate speech played in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which left at least 800,000 people dead. Hate speech was a major catalyst of that genocide. Anti-Tutsi articles and cartoons in the Kangura newspaper, as well as hate speech and incitement to violence on the radio station called RTLMC – Radio-Television Libres des Mille Collines – helped to set the stage for that genocide. The station was set up by hard-line Hutu extremists, and received the backing of many rich and prominent people in that country. Those who saw the danger posed by the station called for it to be shut down, but against the backdrop of freedom of speech, such calls fell on deaf ears, until it was too late.
WHAT CONSTITUTE FAKE NEWS AND HATE SPEECH?
7. I have no doubt in my mind that we all know what fake news and hate speech are about. However, for the record, fake news, according to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, is deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. In other words, that which is willfully false. On the other hand, hate speech is defined by the same Wikipedia as that speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation, etc
WHAT WE HAVE DONE AS A GOVERNMENT TO CHECK FAKE NEWS AND HATE SPEECH
8. Your Excellency, Honorable Commissioners, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, as I said earlier, we have been calling national attention to the dangers of fake news and hate speech since 2017. In fact, we organized an extraordinary session of the National Council on Information on fake news and hate speech in Jos, Plateau State, on July 21st 2017. In the wake of the meeting, we used every available
platform to highlight the dangers of fake news and hate speech. We then followed up with a National Campaign against Fake News and Hate Speech – which we launched on July 11th, 2018. Let me quote a paragraph from my speech at that launch: ‘There is an epidemic sweeping the world. If left unchecked, it could be worse than all the plagues that the world has recorded put together. It is a clear and present danger to global peace and security. It is a threat to democracy. It is the epidemic of Fake News. Mixed with hate speech, it is a disaster waiting to happen’ End of quote. Since then, we have
visited many media houses in furtherance of the campaign. These efforts have brought the issue of fake news and hate speech to the front burner of national discourse, which I consider a positive
9. At this juncture, please permit me to commend the media, some agencies of government and even civil society organizations which have organized workshops and conferences to sensitize the nation on this topical issue. The Nigeria Union of Journalists, the umbrella body for journalists in this country, devoted its 2018 National Conference to the issue of hate speech. Also, the Vanguard newspaper organized what it called the Vanguard Conference Hall on Hate Speech on Sept. 12th 2017. And on Feb. 22nd, 2018, the Nigeria Press Council and the World Image Limited organized a workshop on ‘HATE COMMUNICATION IN NIGERIA: IDENTIFYING ITS ROOTS AND REMEDIES’ in Abuja. These are all commendable efforts.
HOW TO CHECKMATE FAKE NEWS AND HATE SPEECH
10. Since launching our National Campaign against Fake News and Hate Speech, we have been inundated with pieces of advice on how to stem the tide of this trend. Some have called for a legislative action.
Others have said only punitive actions will serve as a deterrent. We do not claim a monopoly on the way out. But we have consistently said we do not intend to resort to coercion or censorship. Rather, we have been appealing to the sense of responsibility of all Nigerians. We have also been urging the media to take the lead in this campaign. For the media, any story that fails the basic test of 5Ws and How cannot be real: Who was involved? What happened? Where did it happen? When did it take place? Why did it happen? and How did it happen? For ordinary Nigerians, the test is even simpler: Before sharing that information on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or WhatsApp, do two things: 1) Ask how credible the source is, and 2) Don’t share any information you can’t vouch for.
11. Three more quick points before I go. 1). The campaign against fake news and hate speech is not just a responsibility of the Federal Government. It is for all tiers of government. Therefore, I expect
that the Honorable Commissioners who are here, and those who are not, will launch the campaign in their various states. 2). The media will bear the brunt, if the people lose confidence in them because of fake news. This is why the media most lead this campaign. And 3). I have always said that hate speech is not free speech. While the Nigerian constitution guarantees freedom of speech, it does not guarantee
freedom of hate speech.
12. Finally, this meeting provides a veritable platform for us to brain storm and evolve policies that would comprehensively address the menace of fake news and hate speech. I urge you all to bring your
wealth of experience to bear in the course of this Council Meeting.
13. Once again, I welcome you all, and I thank our wonderful host for their hospitality. Please take time out of your busy schedule to visit places of interest in order to enrich your knowledge of the state.
Being the Keynote Address by the Honourable Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, at the 47th meeting of the National Council on Information held in Kaduna, Kaduna State, from December 12th, 2018.