Lagos (AFP) - Nigeria has announced it will tighten regulations on social media in a bid to fight the "cancer" of fake news and disinformation, but the proposal has triggered an outcry over a potential crackdown on freedom of expression.
Information Minister Lai Mohammed says the measure to strengthen the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the state agency overseeing media regulation, is a way to tackle hate speech and fake news that represent a "clear and imminent danger" to the country.
The new media code, established in July and now approved by President Muhammadu Buhari, increases fines for indecency, inciting violence or hate speech to 5 million nairas (nearly $14,000) from 500,000 nairas ($1,400).
The NBC this week published the key parts of the new code, including details on police and security forces helping the NBC enforce the closure of media stations when a licence has been revoked.
"Hate speech and fake news represent a clear and imminent danger to the unity of Nigeria especially given the multi-value, multi-ethnic and religious nature of Nigeria," the minister said.
"The danger is in the social media, unless we address that area too, our fight against fake news will not be complete."
The minister said Nigeria was looking at how other countries have handled social media regulation, including Singapore.
Singapore's government has introduced a tough new law to combat fake news allowing officials to crackdown on social media sites deemed to be spreading falsehoods that sow division in society.
Critics say the Singapore law stifles online discussion and media companies and Nigeria analysts worry their government's new code will have the same impact.
Nigeria ranks 120 out of 180 in the press freedom index for Reporters Without Borders media rights watchdog.
"It's very easy for the (Singapore) government to interpret news, what is fake or not," Samuel Ejiwunmi, a Nigerian researcher specialising in fake news for the University of Lagos.
"There is no way it will not affect journalism as a whole as well."
- Arrests, tough laws -
The minister's tough speech has worried press freedom activists, especially with the arrest a few hours after the declarations of two journalists in western state of Kwara over an article published in May 2018.
Gidado Shuaib, chief editor of the news website News Digest, and employee Adebowale Adekoya, were arrested at home by security agents in civilian clothes for questioning over an article entitled: "Inside a Kwara factory where Indian hemp smoking is legalized".
They were released a few hours later.
The story was about a factory owned by a former Nigerian central bank governor, according to local press reports.
The local rights group CISLAC said "investigative journalists are patriots who should be celebrated, not arrested on fabricated charges and physically abused".
Amnesty International, which has denounced attacks against press freedom in Nigeria, said it was monitoring how the new media code would be applied.
"We are monitoring the process. In many countries it has been used as a tool of repression for freedom of speech," said Amnesty Nigeria representative Isa Sanusi. "We are witnessing an escalation of preventive measures to muscle journalists and even Nigerians in general.. It is unacceptable."