Thursday, 4 November 2021

Fake News ,Hate Speech Have No Place In Ebonyi...Uchenna Orji

Hon. Uchenna Orji is the Ebonyi State Commissioner for Information and State Orientation. In this interview, he spoke on the arrest and detention of a former programme presenter in Ebonyi State Broadcasting Corporation (EBBC) Godffery Chikwere by the police and efforts being made by the state government to curtail the spread of fake news and hate speeches in the state. Excerpts: 

*The Ebonyi state government was recently in the news for arresting a journalist who allegedly wrote something about the Nigerian Army. Could you please shed light on what really transpired?*

The  meaning they read and the circulation that we started receiving was borne out of ignorance of the facts of the matter. Ebonyi state government in its determination to stamp the society out of violent clashes, distrust and political dichotomy signed a law on fake news. That law is Law Number 012 called ‘Cyber Crimes Prohibition Law 012 2021. That law’s intention is to ensure that fake news, hate speech, inflammatory statements capable of causing tension in the society are really tackled. It has its punishment ranging from 3 to 7 years and some even without option of fine. The highlight of that law was that it is not an offence that can be tried by the magistrates court. The court of first instance is the High Court. So, the law was passed and the people of the state were consulted. Public hearing was done before it was passed into law. Our duty now is to ensure its implementation. In doing that, we have to carry out aggressive sensitisation through advocacy to let the people know that fake new is nobody’s friend. It is like an instrument of war. Incidentally, the person you are talking about, Godfrey Chikwere became the third person to be arrested for that issue of dishing out fake news. For the records, the said Chikwere is not a Journalist and was not arrested for carrying out any journalistic duty.  One of the contents of his publication is that the army, which is one of the branches of the armed forces is willingly losing its integrity before the public. For us, that is very incisive and capable of discrediting the credibility of the army which is one of the issues that the law says can count for an offence under the Fake News Law. He also said that some politicians do kill and after doing so, they settle the people they sent on errands to kill. So, we wanted to find out from him whether it was the politicians he was supporting that did that so the law will take it course. Our state abhors killing as well as the law of Nigeria. However, the gentleman has understood the gravity of the offence he committed and he has apologized to Ebonyi state government in writing and undertaken that he will never be involved in such a criminal issue again. 

*What is the reaction of the governor after the apology by the offender?*

Our governor, His Excellency, Engr. Dave Umahi being a very gracious father treated him as a first offender even though he is a third offender. He was granted bail and was told to go and sin no more. 

*A lot of Nigerians believe the law is too draconian and done in such a way to prevent people from voicing out what they feel about the government. How will you respond to that?*

This is part of the problem that we are suffering in Nigeria today. Somebody will wake up and say any nonsense and thinks he can get away with it. Wherever your rights stop is where another man’s rights begin. So, the law provides for what is fake news. Fake news is anything that can cause tension or crisis in the society. So, how will such a law be an avenue to muzzle free speech? In democratic societies, hate speeches are not allowed in any form. Free speeches must be in line with the provisions of the law. You must say things that will not infringe on the rights of another person, the security of the nation or on the integrity of the state. Whenever you do such, your free speech will then be accounted for. Human rights under the constitution is inalienable but your human rights does not guarantee you the liberty of infringing on the human rights of another person or the safety or the health or security of the nation.National interest overrides human rights despite its inalienability. If you do that, that will even be against the constitution that guaranteed you the freedom of speech in the first place. 

*Are you not bothered that this action by your government may be seen as an APC agenda because the federal government is also being accused of trying to muzzle free speech?* 

Once a news is false, it goes to the issue of fake. It can be against you. So, what is politics about it? We have a duty as media operators to call a spade a spade no matter whose ox is gored or whose spade is in the garden. A governor can be in position today but tomorrow he is an ordinary person. What is important is that there is a law in place against hate speech and fake news and whoever commits any act of falsehood, will go in for it. It is even contained in the Criminal Code on Sedition and Libelous publication. The essence of the law is not to witch-hunt or muzzle anybody. It is just to reduce the menace of fake speech and fake information in the society. 

*The Ebonyi State Indigenes in the Diaspora in kicking against the law said there was no public hearing at all before the law was passed. How do you respond to that?*

There is nothing like that group so I cannot answer that question. I have mentioned earlier that there was a public hearing before the law was passed. The law of every state undergoes legislative processes. For an executive bill, the conceptualization starts with the executive and it is sent as a bill to the House of Assembly. If it is a matter that has to do with the public as in this case, the first thing to do is to have a public hearing. As a former lawmaker and Chief Whip, I can tell you that there are two categories of public hearing. There is direct public hearing where you will involve all the necessary organisations to come to a particular place and deliberate on the issue. There is also indirect public hearing where the representatives will have the opportunity to go back to the constituency and inform their people what they are about to do. It is an aspect of public hearing. After that, there is what is called First Reading. First reading is not done in the office of the Speaker. It is done in the hallowed chambers of the House of Assembly. Another day will be taken for Second reading. Second reading will be to discuss the propriety of that legislation and the bill that is coming before the House. In all of these things, the media houses will cover the proceedings and it will be reported as news. This is also part of the public hearing. The Third Reading and passage into law will be the needful of the House. It will not be a law at that point. It will be a law at the moment the bill that is passed into law is transmitted to the executive, which is the governor for assent. The governor will now have to append his signature and seal and then it becomes a law that is operational. Until the governor assents to it, it cannot be an operational law. So, all of these stages I mentioned were passed before this law on fake news became operational. As the Ebonyi state Commissioner for Information, I am committed to implementing that law to the letter. I will continue to carry out advocacy in order to sensitise our people. 

*Don’t you think the law will hamper journalists from carrying out objective reporting on developments in the state as they may be arrested for allegedly spreading fake news?*

Fake news has no business with the media. Media deals with genuine news. I want to tell the public that we are not after the clampdown of media houses. We believe that no reasonable media house will operate with fake news. That is why the principle of development journalism entails that when issue happens, before you publish, you must hear from all sides involved. In law, we call it the principle of fair hearing. You must hear from all sides before publishing your report. Most importantly, if you are quoting any authority, you must be sure that truly, the statement is coming from that person. For instance, if someone wakes up and say the army is ‘willingly’ losing its respect from the people, is it the army that says so? If it is not the army, then you have to hear from the army before you publish. When you publish without verifying the authenticity of that information, then it goes to the issue of fake news. By so doing, your intention is not to build or develop the society but to scatter it and cause tension. That is what we as a state feel we have to do everything to curtail.

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