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With less than 50 days to the historic 2019 election, it is important to remind members of the third estate of the realm, especially the online media practitioners under the auspices of Online Media Practitioners Association of Nigeria (OMPAN) and the conventional media in general the enormous duty constitutionally reposed on them as key stakeholders in the election. Apart from being the watchdog of the society, the media serves as the window through which members of the public and the global community can access information, which helps in shaping their opinion, judgement and eventually the quality of their decision.

This duty must therefore be discharged not only with sincerity of purpose, and best global ethics but in all truthfulness and good conscience. This is because it affects the majority of our people now, their future and in a long time to come.

Sadly, sheer partisanship and vested interest has thrown most practitioners off balance in their supposed pursuit to serve our fatherland through objective and unbiased information dissemination to the public. They have rather thrown caution to the winds in an attempt to bend the truth or slant the news in favour of whatever interest they represent. While some practitioners have steadily distinguished themselves as purveyors of falsehood, it is important to state here that our democracy and the future of our people are being put at risk.

Instructively, this has seriously attracted the attention of the government. The Minister of Information Alh. Lai Mohammed has launched an aggressive campaign against fake news and hate speech since the inception of this administration. This is in a bid to save the nation from the catastrophic effect of the menace. While declaring open the 71st General Assembly of the Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria in November last year in Port Harcourt, hear the Minister of Information: “A major social challenge is gradually creeping into our society as some people under the guise of “freedom of speech” or “right of opinion” or for some primordial interests have taken to the gallery.

“They are dishing out unsubstantiated and sometimes outright lies as well as vicious, derogatory and even inciting attacks on individuals and groups. As the political campaign sets in, it is, therefore, very imperative that broadcast organisations and practitioners are reminded of their national duty to ensure that the unity, stability, development and progress of our fatherland are paramount.

“Anything short of this would amount to a criminal abdication of a sacred duty which could spell doom for our collective national life. We have had enough sordid examples to learn from that we ought not to allow a repeat at this critical time of our national development. It is therefore of utmost importance that the media and specifically, broadcast media, do not allow itself to become a purveyor of fake news and hate speeches”.

Also at the 47th Meeting of the National Council on Information held in Kaduna last month, the minister reiterated that fake news and hate speech, if left unchecked could constitute the biggest threat in the 2019 general election. What these suggest is that fake news and hate speech are serious challenges that have the tendency of throwing our nation into chaos if we do not collectively deal with it especially as we gradually approach election period.

Unfortunately, social media platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, Instagram and others have been major benefactors of fake news and propaganda. Some enemies of the country sit at the comfort of their homes and compose hate-laden contents that have the capacity of disintegrating the nation and start sharing via the internet. OMPAN as a responsible professional body must not only resist the temptation of publishing such libelous materials but caution the sources from where they emanated and encourage the public not to share.

As we know, millions of people across the world rely on information they source from online media to take key decisions. This therefore makes online media practice a serious business. Practitioners must move with the speed of time from when internet information dissemination was seen as an activity of shenanigans and charlatans. Those who are still stuck in the past when it was used as an avenue to launch vicious attacks on perceived enemies must wake up from their deep slumber.

Today, people are not restricted by barriers of power supply to watch television and listen to radio. They are not restricted by barriers of late arrival of newspapers to read their favourite dailies. They source news on the go at every moment of the day. With this ample opportunity. we as online media practitioners have, the onus behoves on us to build our brands and gain the confidence of our followers and various stakeholders.

Failure to verify our news and ensuring they are balanced can actually have a devastating effect on an individual whose reputation is being put at stake. Some members without mincing words have made a mockery of whatever professionalism means in online media practice. They see it as an all-comers affair where you can come and discharge your anger against fellow citizens in sheer defiance to standard journalism practice. This must not continue.

Members must abstain from sharing photos and videos purposefully created to confuse and misinform our people. This creates tension, fear and hate among the people. Some go as far as sharing old pictures as new ones. This must be checkmated.

It is heart warming to note that the Association has put in place measures to gate-keep whatever contents members publish on their various platforms for public consumption. This is part of the innovations being put in place under the leadership of our National president James Eme to gain the confidence of the general public. Of course, the punishment and reward system is also in place to encourage members who play by the rule and sanction members who flout our rule of engagement. This includes public warning, imposition of heavy fines and where necessary expulsion from the body. Members of the public who feel defamed by or as a result of the activities of our members can simply approach us for a redress.

Those whose platforms have become notorious for dispensing falsehood and unbalanced stories may not realise the enormity of the disservice they’re doing to themselves. Apart from consistently losing their clients, even when such platforms publish news that may be considered true, the public will not believe them.

We’re all witnesses to how hate speech became a major catalyst of 1994 genocide in Rwanda which left at least 800,000 people dead. When the effect of fake news and hate speech comes, it doesn’t spare the purveyors either.

The activities of OMPAN members suffice to say can make or mar the next month’s election. If we stoke the embers of hate and tension, a voter apathy becomes inevitable. If we create an impression that is not in tandem with reality on ground, our people will have no choice than to flee for their safety. If we also take advantage of the millions of people we engage on daily basis and spread the message of love and peace, educate them on their civic rights, the overwhelming success the election will record will be unprecedented.

As campaigns go on full swing, we must not go beyond presenting the manifesto and agenda of our clients to attacking their opponents. Publishing libelous or slanderous contents against them will amount to crossing the red line. OMPAN members must totally distance themselves from such.

During the elections, we must allow the electoral umpire INEC do its job of announcing results. Haste announcement of results by online practitioners that end up as fake will only erode the confidence of the public. Apart from this, it will generate hate, fear and tension among the people. The concomitant security effects of these can only be imagined.

Those who live in glass house must not be the first to throw stones. If Nigeria is engulfed in flames (God forbid) who will be spared? Fake news and hate speech is a serpent among us. We as Nigerians must collectively fight it to enthrone a more peaceful Nigeria that our children yet unborn will thank us for. Shun fake news. Shun hate speech.

Ifeanyi Okali is the Editor-in-chief Abia Breaking News, Director ABN TV and Editor-in-chief OMPAN

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