Often at odds with each other over issues, the Executive arm and the National Assembly have, however, recently found a common ground in pursuing a draconian legislation on “hate speech.” In this, they clearly intend to surpass the colonial overlords, successive military regimes and the world’s most brutal dictatorships in legal savagery. Nigerians should for once exercise their rights to resist blatant oppression by a degenerate political class.
Critical sections of the society — the mass media, civil society, pressure groups, the academia, writers and creative/performing artistes — that may bear the main brunt of the obnoxious law have been curiously and dangerously indifferent, as only a few voices have raised the alarm. They had better wake up. Eternal vigilance remains the price of liberty.
The Hate Speech Bill, according to its sponsors at the Senate, seeks to “eliminate” hate speech and discourage harassment on the grounds of ethnicity, religion or race among others. It prescribes stiff penalties for offences such as “ethnic hatred.” “Any person who uses, publishes, presents, produces, plays, provides, distributes and/or directs the performance of any material, written and/or visual, which is threatening, abusive or insulting or involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words, commits an offence,” it states.
If this is not scary enough, the penalties are: a jail sentence of not less than five years or a fine of “not less than N10 million” or both for these offences. Capping it all is the prescription of the death penalty where any form of hate speech results in the death of another person.
Purveying or inciting hatred is bad, but viewed from all perspectives, this is a bad law being proposed by persons so unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the practices and nuances of fundamental rights and democracy. Not even in his first incarnation as a military head of state did President Muhammadu Buhari propose such heavy jail terms and fines against the exercise of free speech and media freedom. The infamous anti-media Decree 4 that headlined the military junta he led in 1984-85 came far short of imposing millions of naira in fines or prescribing the death penalty. Neither did the British colonial masters who drafted and enforced a succession of sedition and anti-press laws contemplate silencing free speech with the death penalty.
The bill is the culmination of threats by senior government officials railing against “hate speech” in response to criticism and inter-ethnic tension, especially the deep alienation felt, and recently stridently expressed, by some sections of the country angered by Buhari’s glaring sectionalism in appointments and actions.
Our legislators should pre-occupy themselves with passing urgently needed bills such as the 2018 budget that is stuck in the parliament, the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill and the Railway Act repeal bill that would unshackle the railway system and open it up to foreign direct investment.
This sits at odds with provisions on basic fundamental rights outlined in Chapter IV of the 1999 Constitution, especially Sections 38 and 39 that guarantee the freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and freedom of expression and the press, respectively. The basic law and enabling legislation, also sufficiently prohibit the abuse of such rights and discrimination against persons or groups on account of race, ethnicity or faith.
The proposed law is amorphous and open to abuse: who defines or determines what constitutes hate speech? Unlike Canada, Australia, Belgium, Germany, France and other European Union countries that enacted anti-hate speech laws specifically in response to rising xenophobia against racial and religious minorities, our lawmakers and public office holders reveal by their utterances that it is criticism and public scrutiny that they deplore, not the protection of minorities. Recall that the Senate once accused a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Itse Sagay, of hate speech after his scathing criticism of their poor performance, corruption and greed. Interior Minister, Abdulrahman Dambazau, reacting to public anger at Fulani herdsmen attacks, had also hinted of the impending bill to amend the Anti-Terrorism Act 2011 to punish those who publish hate speech against religious and ethnic groups. To be sure, inciting hatred or mob action against others is to be discouraged; efforts should be made to penalise those who cross the line between free speech and criminality.
There are, however, existing laws that cater for abuse of freedom or harassment of individuals and groups, as pointed out by civil society and mass media groups. Laws setting up the National Broadcasting Commission, Advertising Practitioners Council and the Nigerian Press Code have in-built provisions to stop and penalise violence or incitement against others. Nigerian film and video and the censors board filter out offensive material and pornography among others. If the laws are inadequate, they can be updated; the hate speech bill is a poisoned chalice.
Even without it, overzealous policemen and other security agencies have lately been harassing journalists on spurious grounds, signposting the possible abuse of an already obnoxious law.
Our great challenge today, is lack of strict enforcement of existing laws without fear or favour. We should not descend to the level of failing states like Pakistan and Somalia, where blasphemy laws have seen death sentences and vigilantism. Nigeria should aspire to be a model of liberty and escape its rating as a Flawed Democracy by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s global index on democracy.
The mass media, civil society, lawyers, student and labour unions should take up the gauntlet and resist this evil law.