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FRANK TALK: This is not the news!

By Steve Nwosu

CAVEAT EMPTOR: Let me begin with a not-too-empirical definition of Fake News, as I suspect the government of the day defines it: ‘Any news item, which is either unfavourable to the government or is not the ‘truth’ that government wants published, is fake news’.

Now, if you take that definition to the bank, worse still, to your exam hall, you’re completely on your own.

On a more serious note, however, but for the fact that Alan George Heywood Melly, the late British jazz singer, writer, lecturer and television critic, once noted that “We all re-write our pasts to improve our present view of ourselves”, I would have said that neither Lai Mohammed, nor the current APC government in Nigeria has any moral right to talk about, let alone condemn fake news. For, without a little fake news and a dose of generously sexed-up reports, APC would probably never have happened on Aso Rock. Maybe not in 2019 but, definitely, in 2015.

But all is fair in war. And I’ll, therefore, not begrudge the ruling party savouring its victory, a victory recently re-endorsed by the Supreme Court. What I’m unhappy about, however, is this seeming tendency to make it look like the advent of fake news started with ‘Wailers’ and their opposition to the Buhari government.

The propaganda APC spread against the PDP was largely fake news, the candidate it sold to us as a ‘reformed democrat’ was fake news – it is now clear to us that the leopard does not change its spots. Even the manifesto and campaign promises about ‘restructuring’ have also turned out to be fake news. I won’t say anything about insecurity and the promise to stop Boko Haram within three months. Nor the tale about Eldorado economy in which the Naira would be equal to the Dollar.

The only promise, which the party made, and which its government delivered on time, was on corruption: It froze out most of the looters of yesterday, even making many of them to vomit what they have swallowed. Don’t ask me if it replaced the old looters with new looters, or if it has cabalised the otherwise democratised looting.

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I don’t have any proof of that. The only thing I know is that it amounts to ‘Hate Speech’ for Lai Mohammed to condemn fake news. I also know that the biggest purveyors of fake news are not journalists. The real culprits are politicians – both inside and outside of government. That means PDP and APC and everything in-between.

Like all politicians, the minister and key elements in the government he speaks for know the social media criminals. They even have many of them on their payroll. When it suits them, they even mischievously call these criminals journalists. At other times, they call them ‘influencers’, and all the time, they pay them handsomely. But we all know the genuine influencers and bloggers. We also know those, who are there to do hatchet jobs – for a price. And those seeking to be noticed, in order to be added on the payroll.

So, my take on this renewed concern about fake news, social media, and the desperation to tame them, therefore, is simple: APC is getting a taste of its own medicine, and just can’t manage to swallow it.

But, make no mistake about it, fake news really and truly exists. And it is bad, inciting, destructive, unprofessional, unpatriotic, in fact, treasonable, and should be condemned by every right-thinking person. I have been a victim myself.

A few years ago, while I was in the hospital, waiting to be stabilised, before I could be wheeled into the theatre for surgery, to remove the bullet buried in my head by the sons of a gun, somebody went online to publish that the bullet grazed my hair, shattered my car’s side glass, and flew out. That I was treated for shock and was already back home. Thank God, I eventually made it back home!

However, what riles my insides, in what is now playing out, is when the government decides to lump everyone together – professionals and criminals alike. I became even more suspicious when the talk began to pander towards revoking network broadcast licences, breaking monopoly, etc. I could almost tell it was a targeted attempt at one particular broadcast house. It becomes even more laughable when they make so much noise about making NBC more independent and strengthened. Clearly, someone wants to hide under the NBC to do political mischief.

Mr. Minister, sir, our statute book is bursting at its seams with provisions on how to deal with media infractions. Apply the law. Don’t canvass for emergency powers to go after some people, whom, I suspect, have already been identified.

Even if the judiciary has almost been castrated, I’ll still advise affected persons and institutions should approach the courts. Everyone who has a phone today can post and receive stuff on the Internet, but that does not automatically make the person a journalist. Don’t lump us all together. Many of those giving Nigerian governments and businesses sleepless nights in the blogosphere today are Frankenstein monsters created by the same people crying wolf today.

However, with the handful of Internet rats and social media terrorists, who the governments (both APC and PDP) have captured and thrown into detention (in some cases, thrown away the keys), one only wonders what else the minister and government have up their sleeves, for which they have been wetting the ground for these past few weeks. Or are we also taking the restriction of press freedom to the Next Level?

A word of advice for the minister, however: As a trained journalist-turned media-preneur, I go to bed everyday thinking of what can be done to gatecrashers into my profession, who have literally redefined the profession, stood ethics on its head, thrown professionalism out of the window, and are smiling to the bank – largely courtesy of government (and corporate Nigeria) patronage.

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I have even taken crash courses on how to join them if I can’t beat them. Yes o! Because the same governments and blue-chip companies that fund these charlatans have deliberately starved genuine journalists and properly constituted, duly registered, and tax-paying media outfits of patronage, largely because it’s cheaper, in the short term, to patronise the gatecrashers. Incidentally, when they ultimately get their fingers burnt, they turn round to put the blame on ‘journalists’.

Yes, we can get rid of fake news and hate speech. But we can’t do it by clamping down on individual freedoms – to get and disseminate information. Remember, even our Freedom of Information (FOI) Act makes provision for freedom with responsibility.

However, if we go about this new move against the social media the blind way the authorities are pushing for it, we would not be able to stop the minister and his government when the abuses begin to creep in. And even if this government is sincere and handles it well, what happens when a new sheriff comes to town? A Pharaoh who does not know Joseph must surely happen on the scene someday.

But even before we get to that bridge, I see this current desperation to gag the press, under the guise of arresting fake news, as a fait accompli. How do I mean? Whenever the minister addresses a press conference to that effect, he either reads a prepared statement and vanishes or finds a way to escape being subjected to thorough interrogation on the matter. There is definitely something we are not seeing yet.


….And, talking about the things we are not seeing; have the Army, the Minister, the NIMC, or whoever, agreed on the suitable lie to feed us gullible Plebians on their curious Operation Positive Identification (OPI)?  But while they are still cooking up the lie, let me remind them that it is a big national disgrace that in a country where virtually every agency collects our biodata – from the Immigration service (international passport), to the NIMC (national ID card), to the population commission (census), to INEC (voters card), to the banks (BVN), to the hospitals (birth and death registries), all the way down to the almighty national bureau of statistics, and many others, we still cannot identify ourselves. Tragic!

Even in the civil service, where applicants are compelled to submit as many as 10 – 15 copies of every application and documents (in this ICT age, when every year’s budget is padded with huge sums for computers, computerisation, and computer accessories), files still vanish without a trace.

But, jokes apart, I think the attraction for the proponents of this OPI idea is the N5,000 they’ll extort from us to collect a national ID card we haven’t collected due to no fault of ours. Like the voter’s card, I also do not have a national ID card. After my colleagues and I were registered at the office by NIMC officials assigned to Amuwo-Odofin, in Lagos, on the day of collection, we got to the FESTAC headquarters of the council to see thousands (if not millions) of ID cards poured on the floor in a large hall. We were then asked to look for ours in the pile and then sign a paper to indicate we’d collected. The bedlam is better imagined than experienced. Only a few of us found theirs.

After three unsuccessful visits to the FESTAC, the story suddenly changed. We were told that our company is actually under Oriade Local Government, and not Amuwo-Odofin. Our explanations that we were registered by officials assigned to Amuwo, and that some of my colleagues had already seen their cards in Amuwo, fell on deaf ears. We began to visit Oriade council headquarters. Of course, there were no IDs there for us. I have since started a fresh process of getting a new card, using the old number given me at the original point of registration. Not all Nigerians have this privilege. They would have to pay N5,000 each. That is the exact amount the Buhari government promised to pay to our poorest of the poor monthly, to survive. How many people have they managed to pay?  How much was Vice President Yemi Osinbajo gloating about as TradeMoni?  The people in government just don’t seem to understand the enormity of the poverty on this side of the divide!