The hypothesis which states that words, either written or spoken, are the worst enemy of despots and totalitarian regimes has been tested overtime. Words are lethal, superior to mortars and armaments of war and penetrate deeper than bullets. Words are equally known to eventually precipitate the collapse of despotic regimes. It then stands to reason that dictators must wage war on words.
Merve Buyuksarac found out the above when it was almost too late. Crowned Miss Turkey in 2006, Merve’s brush with the imperial power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan began like a joke. On her Instagram page, assuming that poetic license shawled her from the biting proboscis of imperial power, she poured scum at what she referred to as high level corruption and sleaze in Turkey. Couching this in very inviting poetic lines, Merve located Erdogan as the kingpin and epicenter of the rot. Pronto, as the Americans say, she was arrested and on May 31, given a suspended prison sentence of 14 months. Turkey frowns at such impudence of insulting the imperial office of the president. Such affront could net its violator up to four years imprisonment. More than 1800 people have run afoul of this law.
Like Erdogan, Tunisian President from 1987 to 2011, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, widely known as Ben Ali, was ruthless and diffident of the possibilities of free speech. He was dictatorial, repressive and his 23-year rule of Tunisia was signposted by manacles and barbs. Amnesty International, Freedom House and other international human rights group voted Ali’s regime as terror personified and his regime authoritarian because he muzzled free speech. Under his watch, Tunisia became a police state and ranked 144th out of 173 countries of the world in repression of free speech.
Ben Ali abridged fundamental freedoms in the bid to sustain his authority. He did this by limiting the spread of information and suppressing citizens who wanted to speak out against his government’s multiplicity of violations of human rights. If you dared oppose Ali in the media, you were due for harsh consequences, the least being imprisonment. Apart from arbitrary jailing, he also generously deployed arbitrary disappearance of activists and journalists who had the temerity to speak against his demonic rule. The way he censured and censored free speech was through the control of information that could be channeled past the Tunisian borders. Smuggling books into Tunisia was the only way out for anyone who craved information. But you had to pay the very corrupt Tunisian police heavy bribe. If, for any reason, the police failed to play ball and you were caught, the smuggler was liable to a long jail sentence.
When foreign censure was becoming boring and jangling to him, Ben Ali decided that privatization of the Tunisian media would do the magic for his censorship of free speech. This was unbeknown to the rest of the world. The world then gave him unmerited applauses. The claps had not abated by the time he bared his fangs. He ensured that his daughter, Cyrine Ben-Ali, secured ownership of the only internet provider available in Tunisia. Of course, a welter of critical journalism outfits sprung up to take their destinies in their hands. One of such was Kalima. Kalima was a media group that published an online magazine and also had a radio outfit. In 2009, Ali shut Kalima down for being too critical of his government and family. In Tunisia, not only did journalists face heavy censure, Emperor Ali also foisted a regime of heavy police harassment on news disseminators. The ones unlucky to get arrested by his goons were often mercilessly tortured.
On January 14, 2011 however, Ben Ali’s cup ran over. Like the proverbial offspring of a cobra that ensures its death, the Arab Spring revolution suddenly erupted, with Tunisia as its test case. On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, the later-to-be-famous street vendor, suddenly set himself on fire and his self-immolation became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution, christened Arab Spring, ultimately setting alight the whole of the Arab enclave. It became a vote of no confidence on autocratic leaders. Bouazizi’s wares had been confiscated, as well as being humiliated and harassed by a Tunisian municipal official and her aides. In the midst of this month-long protest, sensing that his time was up, Ali and his wife, Leila and their three children, fled to Saudi Arabia. He subsequently died on September 19, 2019 in exile.
Despots and totalitarian governments all over the world, including those who shawl themselves with veneers of democracy, cannot stand free speech. Their modern day variant dictators are smart enough to know that a war on freedom of speech is a war against their existential survival.
It is why despots’ first priority in government is to impose restrictions on freedom of speech. This was what the Russian Bolsheviks did in 1917. The very day after the coup d’etat that ushered the regime into power, its first assignment was limiting freedom of speech by proclaiming the “Decree on the Press,” through which newspapers considered to be “sowing discord by libelous distortion of facts” were shut down. It was same way that, a few months after its entry into power in 1933, the German National Socialist Government began attacks on books and acquisition of knowledge. It burnt books in their millions, followed by an introduction of knee-jerk censorship by its Ministry of Propaganda. If you check the ratings of press freedom by international organizations as Freedom House, communist states like Vietnam, Cuba, China, North Korea and harsh despotic governments like those of Syria, Iran, Belarus, Sudan and Turkmenistan lead from the rear. To ensure their survival, totalitarian states pad themselves up with very strong propaganda machine with which they shore up an obvious dearth of free speech and credible information, all geared towards the manipulation of the people’s minds.
Asked what his disposition would be to free speech when he forcefully took over power from Shehu Shagari at the twilight of 1983, a dour General Muhammadu Buhari unapologetically proclaimed, like a tiger about to tear flesh off an animal’s bones, that he would, with his bloodthirsty military Decree incisors, peel off the flesh of free speech. He said this in an interview with the trio of Dele Giwa, Yakubu Mohammed and Ray Ekpu on February 6, 1984. For Nigerians to now expect a man who had such untainted disdain for free speech in 1984 to have purged himself of his self-constitutive baying for blood of press freedom would be expecting a tiger to morph out of its bone-crushing tigritude.
Military despots like General Buhari knew that the Nigerian press has a very rich history, indeed, that the Nigerian press is older than and predates the Nigerian state. With the installation of the first printing press in 1846 by the Presbyterian Church in Calabar and the founding, eight years after, precisely in 1854, of the Iwe Irohin by the Reverend Henry Townsend of the Church Missionary Society, (CSM) the Nigeria which came out of the 1914 amalgamation was younger in historical antecedents than what is today the Nigerian press.
Since 1846, the press has been a formidable influence in the growth of Nigeria. Nnamdi Azikiwe, one of the patrons of the Nigerian press, who published the ubiquitous West African Pilot newspaper, while eulogizing the history of pioneers of Nigerian press, said their activities were “identical with the intellectual and material developments of Nigeria”, while also submitting that Nigeria produced a “galaxy of immortal journalists!” who played a unique part “in this corner of the earth in the great crusade for human freedom.”
Thereafter, for 35 years, the Nigerian press moved with Nigeria in its travails under the emergent military rule. Since 1999 when full-blown democracy returned to Nigeria, the press has had a wider horizon. There are more modern equipment and even multiplicity of platforms for mass communication. The radio is no longer strictly controlled by the Federal Government as the Radio Nigeria, a federally owned organization, nor is television strictly owned by government. Social media has widened the space and made information dissemination available on the web of the wide world. The radio has today grown to become a very powerful octopus of the Nigerian media, with the multiplicity of radio ownership.
As said earlier, to run a regime which unpretentiously simulates the totalitarian government in China or Turkmenistan, in a 21st century world that has total aversion for despots, Buhari needed a character like Lai Mohammed. Adolf Hitler also needed Lai’s professional ancestor, German Nazi politician and Gauleiter of Berlin, Paul Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels had turned the spleen of the world in his official assignment as chief propagandist for the Nazi Party, as well as Reich Minister of Propaganda from 1933 to 1934. To be able to clone Goebbels effectively, Lai must have mopped up all essays on this unexampled propaganda warlord. Buhari must have been fascinated by Lai’s very mercurial showing as ACN and APC propaganda terror machine. Today, Lai has had an exemplary mastery of the game of divisiveness, crass governmental lies and artful manipulations.
The first thing Lai did upon being announced minister of information was to do a generational circum-guessing of what Goebbels would do if he were to be nominated by an Adolf in a 21st century Nigeria. Unlike Europe or Germany of the 1930s, the print media has lost its savour massively. The hugely pillaged Nigerian economy and the unfavourable global economic climate have largely affected the purchasing power of readers. Newsprint has risen to somewhere close to the stratosphere where only a few hands could reach. While the Nigerian print press recorded over a century of pervasive influence, respect and contributions to communication, there is no doubting the fact that its influence is waning. Some extremist views even submit that newspaper press is nearing its extinction.
The advent of the social media and internet usage has relegated hardcopy news to a secondary role, prompting a navigation of the print press online and de-emphasis of printing. The internet then became breeding ground for billions of citizens of the world and a borderless ground of opportunity to share opinions freely without let. It also became a floor for exchange of personal and group communication. Like the biblical account of the devil that is roaring, seeking who to devour, despots also moved with citizens to the internet. It became a hunting ground for tyrants whose disdain for freedom of expression is as rotund as a bed bug that has amply sucked its victim’s blood.
All dictators needed to do was to transit from their old tactics of silencing dissidents and journalists into a new tactic of muzzling authors of tweets and posts that affront their quest to continue to luster in their imperial fiefdom. The road to repression by totalitarians today is paved with bile and hatred for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram aficionados. However, the pestilence of dwindling believability of news received from the internet, through the orgy of fake news, has cast a huge pall on cyber information. For totalitarians and despots, the only alternative left is for them to activate their terror on the broadcast media of radio and television.
Broadcasting is unique and is growing in leaps and bounds as means of mass communication. While its effect is instantaneous and possesses tremendous power to penetrate a multiplicity of locales in a matter of minutes, this power is rivaled only by social media as means of communication. The power of the broadcast media is also in that, voices, videos and pictures can be transmitted to a large number of listeners and viewers who reside in thousands of kilometers distance.
Broadcast media’s pervasive influence is a threat to despots and budding Haitian Papa and Baby Doc regimes like Buhari’s. So when, towards the twilight of last week, through its puppet, the National Broadcasting Commission, (NBC) the Buhari government revoked the licenses of 52 broadcast media houses, it merely thought out of its despotic box. It was same thing Tunisian Ben Ali did by appointing his daughter as sole licensee of internet broadcast.
Like all modern day despots who fashion novel methods of abridging free speech, Buhari chose an innocuous, economic weapon to deal with press freedom and free speech. This tactic falls in line with what the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar did to poet Maung Saungkha in Burma. Writing on his Facebook post that he had a tattoo of Myint Swe, Acting President of Myabnmar, on his penis, Saungkha was arrested, tried and found guilty for defamation. He was then sentenced to a six-month jail term. It later turned out that the poet lied – he actually possessed no such tattoo! To the Swe puppet and the puppeteers however, the mere fact that Saungkha made reference to such “heinous” issue in an off-color poem courted the imperial wrath of the state.
NBC’s ostensible grouse with the broadcast outfits was that “they failed to renew their licenses as required by law.” Saddled with the role of regulating the broadcast industry, NBC has acted more as a cudgel in the hands of Buhari’s Goebbels in its arbitrary imposition of fines on TV and radio stations over programmes that questioned the legitimacy of the Buhari government. After paying a huge sum for licence, the NBC again arbitrarily demands a 2.5% to be paid by these broadcast houses for every year of their operation. This is in an era where electricity supply is near zero and where diesel is sold for about N850 a litre. Nigerians have also queried the quixotic addition of the line, “in view of this development, the continued operation of the debtor stations is illegal and constitutes a threat to national security,” to reasons why the NBC had to revoke the licences of the outfits.
Unknown to it, by shrinking the space against credible sources of information as represented by the 52 broadcast outfits which operated under the radar of the NBC, the Buhari government gave vent to a goblin it had repelled from mutating in the Nigerian space – multiplicity of fake news. As opposed to its manual of operation as broadcast regulator in its advisory capacity to the federal government, the NBC has become the Rottweiler of the Buhari government. It is neither autonomous, independent nor does it shun interference. The over-politicization of the commission and how the so-called regulator has morphed into Lai Mohammed’s attack dog is a miserable mutation. By hacking those 52 broadcast media with its sledgehammer, Buhari has rendered many Nigerians jobless.
When you look at the Nigerian governmental firmament to find out where the repressive weapon of the Buhari government against free speech is hung, look no further: It is in NBC! The government does not want to hound individuals into prison as it did with Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, via draconian Decree 4 of 1983 in its first coming. This has the tendency of attracting unnecessary attention and international odium. Its target now is institutional repression. That is why Nigerians must not take this arbitrary despotism cloaked in the shawl of economic generation for the Federal Government lying low. Our ultimate must be to see the end of NBC.
Festus Adedayo is an Ibadan-based journalist.