Citizen Journalism has been described in various languages such as "public", "participatory", "democratic", "guerrilla" or "street" journalism." Bowman and Willis define this brand of journalism as "the act of a citizen, or group of citizens, playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information", noting that "the intent of this participation is to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires."1 This kind of journalism has been widely and prominently practiced in Nigeria in recent times - thanks to microblogging sites, like Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Tik-Tok and traditional blogsites. These platforms are used on a daily basis to collect and disseminate news and information to the public either wittingly or unwittingly by a significant number of users.
However, this liberalistic way of practicing journalism by all and sundry in Nigeria does not come without its challenges, prominent of which is the high incidence of frequent churning out of fake and misleading news.
Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow define "Fake News" as "news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers."2 This is often what happens in the midst of unguarded citizen journalism in Nigeria, especially during the build-up to the 2023 General Elections in Nigeria where the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had to debunk a number of fake news relating to its activities by issuing official statements to correct the distorted news spreading in the media.3
In an expository manner, this article explores the nexus between citizen journalism practice and fake news in Nigeria as well as its law perspective.
- The Nexus between Citizen Journalism and Fake News in Nigeria
Whereas citizen journalism allows for a liberal and more democratic reportage of happenings and events around us, it also portends a danger of misinformation of the public – a trend which is now rife and prominent in the new media, especially in the social media space. Every 'tom, dick and harry' now has the liberty of typing a news story or information – verified or not – with his/her smartphone in the name of practicing citizen journalism, then push same online to millions of netizens who are readily available to consume online content either to keep themselves from boredom, idleness or strictly for information purposes. The stage of gatekeeping a news story or information as practiced in the conventional process of journalistic story reporting (which would have ticked all the verification, review, and editorial boxes of ascertaining the trueness, accuracy, objectivity, and fairness of the news story and ultimately prevent churning out fake news) is completely disregarded.
Meanwhile, the sacrosanct essence of gatekeeping a news story before disseminating it to the public for consumption cannot be overemphasized as its failure can expose the disseminator of the news story to serious legal trouble, provoke societal unrest/war or negatively influence the behavioral psyche of the populace that consumed the story. It is on record that the Spanish-American War of 1898 was "...in part enabled by barrage of misleading journalism" where an unconfirmed and unverified information was published as factual and true piece of information for the public's consumption.4
Also, in October 2019, a piece of fake news which originated on social media went viral that President Muhammadu Buhari was set to take a second wife and marry the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Alhaja Sadiya Umar Farouq – a story which many Nigerians initially believed to be true, and some were even waiting in the wings to attend the marriage ceremony. However, to their chagrin, the said story was later debunked by the Special Adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, describing it as "...a deceptive manoeuvre by those who fabricated the news''.5 The Minister in question also denied the purported planned marriage via her personal Twitter handle.
Very recently, in the guise of citizen journalism, a social media report claimed that the only son of the Rivers State Governor, Barr. Nyesom Wike, was shot dead in the United States of America over the Governor's alleged involvement in the just concluded general elections in Nigeria. This turned out to be a fake news as the report was later debunked by the Rivers State Commissioner for Information and Communication, Mr. Chris Finebone, who condemned the report and, in his words, stated, "The public should disregard and throw it into the trash can where it belongs." 6
The above situations point to the following facts:
- that citizens who wittingly or unwittingly collect, analyse and disseminate information to the public in the guise of participatory, citizen or public journalism, aided by the extreme flexibility and simplicity of using social media or blog sites, more often than not churn out unverified or fake news and consequently mislead and misinform consumers of such news;
- that howsoever enlightened or educated a citizen may be, the place of gatekeeping a news story in the process of information/news dissemination to the public cannot be ignored;
- that majority of social media news/information consumers are passive consumers and hardly interrogate the news/information they consume online before believing it completely and even acting based on it.
- The Law Perspective of Citizen Journalism and Fake News in Nigeria
Section 39(1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) provides that: "Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference."7 This provision confers liberty and freedom of expression on citizens to share and disseminate information to the public, thereby allowing citizens to freely practice citizen journalism in Nigeria. However, the combined effects of Sections 59(1), 60 and 375 of the Criminal Code Act also prevent a citizen from churning out falsehood in the guise of practicing citizen journalism. A citizen risks between one to three years imprisonment if he/she runs afoul of any of the above-mentioned sections of the Criminal Code Act in the course of practicing public journalism.8
Furthermore, Section 24(b) of the Cyber Crime (Prohibition, Prevention etc.) Act 2015 prohibits any citizen from knowingly and intentionally disseminating any false message via "computer systems or network" that can elicit from the audience or cause to wit: "annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety" which often arise from the publication of fake news in the guise of practicing citizen journalism on social media platforms. A citizen risks payment of "N7,000,000.00 fine or imprisonment term of not more than three years or both fine and imprisonment" if he/she offends this Act.9
Meanwhile, it is pertinent to state that just like Germany did with the passage of the Network Enforcement Act in 2017,10 there is yet to be a tailor-made or specific enactment of the Nigerian law that takes into consideration the globalisation peculiarity of dissemination of fake news, misleading or inciting information on social media where someone from any part of the world can use a global platform to disseminate fake news, hateful or misleading information to the Nigerian audience without consequence whatsoever. Attempts were made in the past by the Nigerian Senate to regulate social media in order to prevent the spread of fake news; the latest one being the introduction of a bill titled "Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019 (SB.132)" on 5th November 2019 to criminalise the use of the social media in peddling false or malicious information. The Bill, sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa, was able to pass first and second reading in the Senate, but when the details of the Bill were made public, it was widely criticized and strongly opposed by civil society organizations, human rights activists, international rights groups and the majority of Nigerian citizens who unanimously agreed that the Bill was meant to gag freedom of speech which is a universally recognised fundamental human right.11The said Bill was eventually abandoned and could not get to the third reading in the Nigerian Senate.
Also, in June 2021 when the Federal Government suspended operations of Twitter in Nigeria over what it claimed as "double standard" on the part of Twitter in taking down hate and offensive speech by its users and the use of the platform to spread misinformation, fake news and activities that were capable of undermining Nigeria's corporate existence. It also made attempts to bring the microblogging site under the purview of Nigerian law by demanding amongst other things that the organisation registers its company under the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) 2020, establish its corporate office in Nigeria and secures a local license from the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to ensure that the social media platform is regulated.12 However, since the 12th of January 2022 when the Federal Government of Nigeria lifted the suspension on Twitter operations in Nigeria having reached an agreement with the social media giant to meet these conditions, it is yet to meet these conditions.
Intriguingly, the Federal Government, through its agency, the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) while relying on its regulatory powers under Section 6 of the National Information Technology Development Agency Act13 issued a code titled "Code of Practice for Interactive Computer Service Platforms/Internet Intermediaries" on the 26th September 2022, re-emphasizing amongst other things the conditions given to Twitter as obligations social media platforms with more than one million Nigerian users must abide by for it to operate in Nigeria.14 This move has been rather considered by some Nigerians – rightly or wrongly – as a back-door means of regulating the social media by the Federal Government and it is trying to usurp the powers of the National Assembly.15
Conclusively, it is not in doubt that we are now in the new media age where myriads of information flow back and forth freely on the internet as a result of the technological advancements in the communication process, which has completely simplified the means and manner of communication not only between individuals but between an individual and a mass heterogeneous audience. The direct implication of this, is that news and information reporting, which used to be the exclusive preserve of a professional journalist, is now being performed by everyone with a mobile device and an internet connection with complete disregard for the conventional rules of gatekeeping in news story reporting. This might be seen as a positive in the eyes of the school of thought in support of democratised journalism, but in the eyes of the victims of fake news, democratised or citizen journalism should be checked with peculiar and relevant regulations both globally and domestically to make the online space, particularly the social media space, safe for everyone.
1 Shayne Bowman & Chris Willis (2003) 'WeMedia – How audiences are shaping the future of news and information' available at http://hypergene.net/wemedia/download/we_media.pdf accessed on 14th February 2023.
2 H. Allcott and M. Gentzkow, "Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election," Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 211–236, May 2017 available at https://web.stanford.edu/~gentzkow/research/fakenews.pdf accessed on 1st March 2023.
3 Premium Times and Agency Report (2022) '2023: INEC denies investigating Tinubu, says circulated statement fake' available at https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/top-news/565041-2023-inec-denies-investigating-tinubu-says-circulated-statement-fake.html accessed on 21st March 2023 and Jesupemi Are (2023) 'FAKE NEWS ALERT: INEC did not extend voting period in 16 states' available at https://www.thecable.ng/fake-news-alert-inec-did-not-extend-voting-period-in-16-states accessed on 21st March 2023.
4 Chris Woolf (2016) 'Back in the 1890s, fake news helped start a war' available at https://theworld.org/stories/2016-12-08/long-and-tawdry-history-yellow-journalism-america accessed on 1st March 2023.
5 Seun Opejobi (2019) 'Presidency speaks on Buhari marrying Sadiya Umar Farouq as second wife' available at https://dailypost.ng/2019/10/11/breaking-presidency-speaks-buhari-marrying-sadiya-umar-farouq-second-wife/ accessed on 2nd March 2023.
6 Yemi Michael (2023) 'FAKE NEWS ALERT: Wike's only son was not shot dead in US' available at https://www.thecable.ng/fake-news-alert-wikes-only-son-was-not-shot-dead-in-the-us accessed on 6th March 2023.
7 Section 39(1), Chapter IV of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended).
8 Sections 59(1) and 60, Chapter 7, Part 2 and Section 375, Chapter 33, Part 5 of the Criminal Code Act, Cap. C38, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.
9 Section 24(b) of the Cyber Crime (Prohibition, Prevention etc) Act 2015.
10 Wikipedia (2018) 'Network Enforcement Act (Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, NetzDG' available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network_Enforcement_Act accessed on 7th March 2023.
11 Wikipedia (2019) 'Anti-social Media Bill (Nigeria)' available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-social_Media_Bill_(Nigeria)#cite_note-1 accessed on 7th March 2023.
12 Wikipedia (2021) 'Ban on Twitter in Nigeria' available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ban_of_Twitter_in_Nigeria accessed on 20th March 2023.
13 Section 6, Part II, National Information Technology Development Agency Act 2007 (as updated in 2010) Cap. N156, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria.
14 NITDA Code of Practice for Interactive Computer Service Platforms/Internet Intermediaries available at https://nitda.gov.ng/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/APPROVED-NITDA-CODE-OF-PRACTIVE-FOR-INTERACTIVE-COMPUTER-SERVICE-PLATFORMS-INTERNET-INTERMEDIARIES-2022-002.pdf accessed on 28th March 2023.
15 Sonny Aragba-Akpore (2022) 'NITDA'S NEW CODE AND ONLINE PRICACY' available at https://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2022/06/22/nitdas-new-code-and-online-privacy/ accessed on 28th March 2023.
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