Nigerians are keen storytellers and we love to listen to a good story. We love our folklore, urban myths and gossip. While 20 to 30 years ago, we could indulge in these guilty pleasures relatively harmlessly (emphasis on relatively), in this digital age, the consequences are of a much higher magnitude. Nigeria is a very divided country, and these divisions, which are often along class, tribal and religious lines, run deep. Fake news reports, particularly those, which stoke the us vs them fires, reinforce these divisions or spark off demonstrations and riots, or, in the extreme, killings and retaliatory attacks. Fake news is definitely a problem, we should be addressing. The issue is how. The problem of fake news seems to be a tough nut to crack, even in countries like America, where they acknowledge it is a problem and are having a conversation on how to tackle the problem.
The publication of fake news, if it is likely to cause fear and alarm to the public or disturb the public peace, is an offence under both our Criminal and Penal Codes, and punishable by a term of 3 years imprisonment. Persons that actively disseminate fake news can be prosecuted. Civil rights groups often express concern about how laws such as these are applied, and rightly so. When the provisions on fake news in our Criminal and Penal Codes came into force in 1916 and 1960 respectively, the legislators did not envisage the use of Whatsapp for example, where ordinary citizens forward on fake news reports without a care to verify whether it is true, or “just in case it’s true”. Under the current law everyone that forwards on a fake news report via Whatsapp, without taking reasonable measures to verify its accuracy, in theory could be prosecuted.
Civil rights groups seem to prefer softer measures, than criminal prosecution, centered around increasing awareness of the issue, whereby those who have the power to control the narrative, most notably the Government, the press and media, put out the facts, not just in reaction to fake news, but also proactively.
What is clear is that a balance must be struck. Our current laws should be updated for the digital age, so that people that generate the most egregious examples of fake news (that cause loss of life or damage to property) or make a business from the generation of fake news can face criminal prosecution. With the 2019 elections coming up, we need to start the conversation now.