The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, recently announced that the Federal Government has approved the review of the National Broadcasting Code and extant related laws to increase fines from N500,000 to N5,000,000 for breaches relating to hate speech, inciting comments and indecency.
He said that a wilful repeat of infractions on three occasions after an initial levy would attract suspension of broadcast license.
He also said that the government has approved an upgrade of breach of divisive political remarks to “Class A” offence in the Broadcasting Code.
Ordinarily, the latest pronouncement of the government would not have been an issue. It is within its rights to proclaim laws governing the country. It is part of the responsibilities any government is saddled with. But we are concerned because hate speech, indecency and such other attachments to the pronouncement are as ambiguous as the issue of gross misconduct as enshrined in section 188 (1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended.
We are all witnesses to the fact that gross misconduct is as defined by the House. In Enugu State, under former Governor Sullivan Chime for instance, his then deputy, Sunday Onyebuchi was removed from office for gross misconduct. Part of the gross misconduct was that he was rearing chicken in the government house. Although Onyebuchi has gone to court and obtained victory over his removal, the harm was done and he was impeached. Many governors and deputies have paid the price for such ambiguous provisions.
The 1999 Constitution did not make provision for hate speech. That phrase -hate speech – has been the creation of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, towards speeches considered adversarial to it or government officials. There is no known definition of hate speech in Nigeria’s ground norm, known as the constitution.
Second, we are aware that the 1999 Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression to Nigerians. It did not preclude what is now marketed as hate speech by the Federal Government.
Section 37 of the 1999 Constitution states: “The privacy of citizens, their homes, correspondence, telephone conversations and telegraphic communications is hereby guaranteed and protected.”
In section 39. (1), it states: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
It added: “(2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) of this section, every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions.”
That is where it get fuzzy for the Federal Government. We do not understand the push to muzzle the media by unnecessary restrictions and ambiguous laws that are alien to the constitution.
We are worried that such postures adopted by the administration are impacting so much on journalism and journalists in the country. All over the country, journalists are being hounded by different levels of government for reports that ordinarily at worst, should be taken to court for libel or defamation.
Rather than take the civil approach of addressing grievances with journalism, the government is taking criminal approach to address issues with journalists.
In Cross River State, for instance, the image of a journalist, Jalingo Agba, handcuffed like a violent armed robber or kidnapper for a story against the Ben Ayade government evokes serious sadness in a democratic setting.
Agba has been in detention for over three months now, ostensibly because of a ‘hate speech’ against Ayade.
What of Jones Abiri, a Bayelsa based journalist, who was held for over two years by the Department of State Services (DSS)? Even when he was granted bail by the courts, he was rearrested and detained for several months. He was only released on Friday.
In Delta State, the police dragged two journalists, the Managing Editor of BIGPEN Online newspaper, Joe Ogbodu, and another journalist in Delta State, Prince Amour Udemude, to court over a story on former Chief of Defence Staff, General Alexander Ogomudia, and one Sam Ogrih.
Fisayo Soyombo, a journalist, who exposed the rot in the prisons and the police with a three-part series of investigations was at a point in hiding because security agents were after him.
The story is the same all over the country, with journalists being chased about by irate government officials.
Let us state here that we do not support irresponsible journalism or criminality in the form of reporting. But we also know that there are adequate laws in the country to deal with such. Whether it is defamation, libel or now the outdated sedition, there are enough laws that define what they are.
The laws against infringements by journalists do not give room for ego-filled government officials to extract their pound of flesh by any means. They are clearly defined.
We are more miffed that a government that came in on the card of massive propaganda, vitriolic attacks on its predecessors and even disinformation is now sounding tough on hate speech.
One of the core ingredients of a virile democracy is free speech, no matter how hurtful. The president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, is bashed everyday by the media. Other than verbal attacks at such media organisations, he has not resorted to self-help, using state institutions.
We, therefore, believe that the government should leave the media to do its job and stop chasing shadows with unnecessary pronouncements and hounding of journalists. No government anywhere has survived by fighting the media.