By Tari Akono
We read with interest Dr. Olatunji Dare’s comments on the stand of the Bayelsa State government to curb rumour-mongering as a serious social issue in the state. In his March 26 column, he reviewed the recent establishment of a committee by the state government to manage public information in which he expressed reservations about the possibility of curtailing freedom of expression by such development. With a bill soon to be sent to the state House of Assembly for a law punishing rumour-mongers, the columnist went as far as comparing such a law with anti-press laws in draconian colonial and military eras. We disagree with his position.
Essentially, Dare’s treatment of the inter-related issues in the scope and implication of the proposed law vis-à-vis rumour-mongering is fundamentally misplaced in conception, an outright oversimplification, and of course the fear of draconian tendency is not true.
The intention of the state government is to have in place functional structures where information can be easily accessed by members of the public as well as quickly disseminating information on current issues of public concern to the people, detailing what is true or false, thereby nipping in the bud such dangerous information capable of causing disaffection and indeed reducing the incidence of blatant misinformation among the people. The idea is to avoid the bureaucracy in the ministries but have many centres so localized that you can easily find out the truth about anything relating to the government and the public. Here, people can contact or meet officials for quick response to whatever may be their concern or interest on the flow of information, including any rumour that may also affect the interest of an individual or organization in the state. This is important because of the pervasive nature of rumour-mongering among the people with inherent social crisis if not curtailed or addressed so frontally. What Dare failed to note is the peculiar nature of the society where such falsehood is politically motivated to create pure mischief and blackmail which could be dangerous to proper functioning of the government and socio-economic activities in the state.
To this extent, it becomes imperative for a responsible government to find a legal means to deter such misbehavior which in all intents and purposes is inimical not only to individuals but indeed the government saddled with the responsibility of protecting lives and property. Agreed, peace and tranquility and orderly conduct of the society is threatened when there is deliberate peddling of such terrible rumours that border on criminality. Thus government must respond by spelling out what constitutes a decent citizenship and why it is not a right to engage in conscious actions to create social crisis and looking at the strategic position of Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta, then taking legal means to have stability is a legitimate action of any serious government. This is what the state government has done and will continue to impress it on the people to be law abiding as responsible stakeholders in the current mission of restoring Bayelsa State to its deserved glory in leadership and development.
Yet, it has to be understood that we are in a democracy where the rule of law is critical. So the Bayelsa State government does not intend to make the proposed law a draconian one but a law to correct social misbehavior and enhance peace and stability in line with the freedom of Information Act and the consolidation of the law. Enforcing the proposed law will therefore have much to do with recreating our values via education as the people will have a better understanding and appreciation of the power of information and why rumour-mongering is not in the best interest of anyone, least the government. For instance, people will find it unprofitable to wake up one day and begin spreading the rumour that the state government had been sacked by a court in Port Harcourt and in the process causing panic among the people in their numbers lamenting the future of the restoration programme of the Dickson administration. This kind of insensitive jungle behavior has serious implication for the mood and temperament of the people, with consequences if not well managed.
We further draw Dare’s attention to the composition of the State Public Information Management Committee which is largely of eminent journalists chosen for their integrity and credibility not only in their individual and professional lives but also to give credence to the good intentions of the state government. By this gesture, then rail-roading the law for ulterior motive is ruled out. Of course, its implementation will also be guided by such patriotic mind to have enlightened citizenry that are not encumbered by political manipulations but rather conscious of where we are coming from and amends we must make for a prosperous future. Instead of reverting to the locust years of the recent past, we have to move forward. These are the issues we must understand to clear our minds of any distortions. Peculiar circumstances in any political or social formation will invariably demand some clear-headed answers but to the extent that such ameliorating mechanisms conform with the basic ethics of leadership and constitutionalism. We believe we are on track for a saner society that is focused and determined to make a difference.
We draw further corollary to the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) which we have all appreciated as a necessary component in our democracy. Nigerians are already clamouring for greater application of this law among journalists by doing more of investigative reporting and we sincerely believe this is the way forward. But as much as the journalists will have to do their investigations, this has to be within the confines of the law by strictly doing stories based on facts as a canon of the noble journalism profession. Thus anyone who writes falsehood under the guise of FoIA is subject to punishment by the same law because truth had been sacrificed. In similar vein, we can see a variant of this law as applicable to the proposed law in Bayelsa State that will alert an individual or organization to the need to say what is true otherwise you are a problem to the state with serious concern and possible sanction.
The last two points in the column we need to address are Dare’s query on the contents of the rumour or propaganda and his doubts about the efficacy of the proposed law. We can boldly say that not only are the contents of such rumour spurious and ill-informed, they constitute nuisance to the sanity of the society. They are inimical to peace and progress and must be checked forthwith. Importantly, the innuendos contained in the concluding paragraphs have no relationship or semblance in Bayelsa State where accountability is taken seriously and institutions of government strengthened to perform their duties for the greater good of the people of the state. Yet if Dare is contemptuous of the proposed law or its workability, he should at least acknowledge the pace of development in Bayelsa State in the last one year even as we are poised to do much more and indeed make the proposed law work to the dismay of doubting Thomases. We can always make a difference.
• Akono, Chairman Bayelsa State NUJ sent this piece from Yenagoa.