The plan by the Bayelsa State government to enact a law that will provide stiff penalties for rumour mongering and propaganda is laughable. Governor Seriake Dickson, who spoke of his intention to sponsor a bill for the law to the State House of Assembly, said it will outlaw “dissemination of false information and propaganda, either against the reputation of private individuals, or about government or its officials.”
According to the governor, “we are all aware that the existing laws provide for offences such as criminal defamation of character and so on. But we are going to come up with a legislation to punish “dem say, dem say people.” This proposed law is ridiculous, because it touches on the right of the people to freedom of expression provided for in Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution. It is an absurd plan that can only waste the time of the State House of Assembly.
Since the government in Bayelsa is aware that there are laws against defamation and libel in the nation’s law books to punish those who defame the character of others, we see no need for this strange law. The existing laws on defamation and libel are good enough to prosecute those who disseminate wrong and damaging information on private individuals, governments or their officials.
There is no need for a special law in Bayelsa to gag the people. The governor has explained that the law will not be draconian, and it will be used to correct social misbehaviour and enhance peace and stability in the state in line with the Freedom of Information law.
It will have much to do with recreating values via education as people of the state will have better understanding and appreciation of the power of information and why rumour mongering is not in the best interest of anyone. These explanations notwithstanding, we think the law is uncalled for. Making of laws which provide for “stiff penalties” for the people for exercising their right to freedom of expression is not a good way to orientate them towards desirable values.
Public orientation is best achieved through a variety of communication strategies. The values that the government wants to inculcate in the people are best communicated via these strategies, using specialists in that area of development. It is necessary for all well-meaning Nigerians to take notice of this strange proposal because it is a sad reminder of Decree No 4 of 1984 passed by the military regime of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (rtd).
The decree provided jail terms for publishing of information that is deemed embarrassing to public officials, even when it is true. It also criminalized the publication of official information that has not been formally released by the government. Two journalists were jailed under this law that was designed to muzzle the press. Bayelsa’s proposed anti-rumour law, like Decree 4, has the potential to muzzle the people of Bayelsa and the press.
We advise the government of the state to desist from the planned sponsorship of the bill, and the House of Assembly to throw it in the trashcan if it ever appears in the legislative house. The danger in this proposed law, apart from the fact that it offends the provision of the Constitution on freedom of expression, is that the government cannot determine its interpretation or application.
That will be the responsibility of the law enforcement agencies and the courts, which will apply it as it is. Again, Bayelsa appears to be trying to put the cart before the horse on the matter of this proposed law. The authorities in the state ought to design and implement an enlightenment campaign on the problem of rumour mongering. Coming up with this law is tantamount to trying to gag the people and the press. One way the government in Bayelsa can tackle the menace of rumour mongering is to release official information promptly.
If the people are kept abreast of developments in the state, especially the pronouncements of courts on matters involving the state, there will be little room for mongering of wrong information. Nigerians should not need to monitor foreign broadcast stations to know what is going on in their country, as is the situation now.
Undue secretiveness by government generates rumours, so the government should rev up its information dissemination machinery to keep up with the challenge of keeping the people adequately informed. Let all governments in the country also be forthcoming on provision of information required by interested Nigerians to prevent rumour mongering. This anti-rumour bill is uncalled for. It should be dropped forthwith.