The Nigerian journalist and publisher of TheCable says that while Twitter and Facebook may help professional media organizations in their distribution, they also create the biggest spaces for mobs to congregate.
It is not only in the U.S. that protests can result in violence against media representatives. What is the situation like in Nigeria?
In October 2020, during the protests against police brutality in Nigeria, journalists and media organizations were targeted by mobsters who alleged that the media had been ‘bought’ by the Nigerian government. After the arson attacks on a TV station and a newspaper in Lagos, our organization, TheCable, also got threats on Twitter. The mobsters were unhappy that we did not take a cue from them on what to report.
You recently warned that "mob censorship" is threatening media freedom in Nigeria. What can be done against it?
Social media can be used as a force for good and bad. While the big platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, have greatly helped with the distribution and amplification of reports by the professional media, they have also provided the biggest space for mobs to congregate and pontificate.
Mob sentiments are not usually based on logic or facts. They are usually emotions. And because of the nature of the mob, they can harm you. When a mob seizes control of public discourse, if you don’t read the room and fall in line with them, you will become a subject of attack, which could be physical. You now have to choose between practicing journalism as it should be or pandering to the mob. You may opt for safety first. That is the ‘mob censorship’ I have been warning about. It is very real in Nigeria.
We are currently experiencing ethnic tensions following the insecurity that affects every ethnic group in the country. If you try to report the events fairly and without ethnic sentiments, you will be marked for attacks by those who think you should take sides. What can be done? I have no idea. A mob is a mob. They do not have rules or regulations. The media should continue to be guided by professionalism and common sense.
Conversely, how great is the danger for journalists and the media to only serve majorities in opinion bubbles - for the sake of ratings?
That danger is real. I think as individuals, journalists harbor biases and prejudices. That’s human. We are expected to rise above these limitations in order to be professional. But there is also the economic aspect: most media houses are businesses and need to make profit. Good ratings bring in good money.
There is a third aspect – media organisations are owned by people who also have interests. All these are dangers that a media organisation has to navigate if it is to serve the cause of truth, justice and development. It must, therefore, be conscious of, and deal with, such bubbles.
The blocking of Donald Trump's Twitter account triggered a debate worldwide about freedom of expression and the regulation of social networks. How dangerous is it for societies to rely on private companies when it comes to freedom of expression?
I support what Twitter did. They did not make the rules for Trump alone. The rules were there before they blocked him for persistent infractions. I believe Twitter and other companies have the responsibility to help society fight incitement, hate and falsehood. Freedom of expression should not include setting society on fire.
At TheCable, we moderate comments. You can’t just type a comment and expect it on the site automatically. Why? We do not want our platform to be used for incitement, hate and falsehood. Freedom of expression does not include raising false fire alarm at the cinema. There has to be some order.
The EU Commission recently presented a package (the "Digital Markets Act") to address the issue of market monopolies in the media. Does the press sector in general need regulatory support? How is this EU initiative perceived in Nigeria?
We’re still a developing market with heavy reliance on Big Tech, so a Digital Markets Act is not something we are taking as priority in Nigeria. But anything that will crack the monopoly situation is welcome. The world needs digital diversification – it will benefit many of us in the developing countries.
There's ever-growing division around the world. Many societies around the globe are drifting apart. TheCOVID-19 pandemic has intensified this notion, according to a recent study conducted by Oxfam. Constructive dialogue, meanwhile, is sorelz lacking. What role can the media play to alleviate this?
A basic role of the media is to set the agenda. We are policy influencers in our own way. The Oxfam report should be dissected by the media and action points should be developed. It is a responsibility we should not underplay or ignore.
Independence is an essential aspect for the media. But how do you define it? And why should state-funded media organizations not be able to assume a watchdog function?
We tend to see independent media as those not funded by government, but private media may also not be independent because of proprietorial interests. Ironically, state-funded media should be independent because their ultimate accountability is to the people.
After all, the funds that go into state-funded media belong to the people. I would define media independence collectively, not individually: that is, there needs to be a plurality of media with a plurality of interests and a plurality voices. What one news outfit fails to do, the other will pick up. This diversity can promote independence.
In Africa, the price of data is still steep high in many countries. What innovations do you think are needed to make it easier for people to gain access to information online?
I once overhead a journalist say that free Wi-Fi should be treated as a fundamental human right by the UN. We are getting there. In Nigeria, there are several free Wi-Fi zones, while Facebook allows users some basic free browsing. The Globacom network offers very cheap data to students in Nigeria. The innovations are there already. Nigeria has the advantage of numbers, but other African countries will have to overcome the cost constraint to make internet access as cheap as it can be.
Simon Kolawole is a Nigerian journalist and media entrepreneur. He is founder and chief executive officer of Cable Newspaper Limited and publisher of TheCable. In 2012, the World Economic Forum named him one of the Young Global Leaders in recognition of his record of professional accomplishments and commitment to society.
This interview was conducted by Martina Bertram.