Published On: Tue, Apr 3rd, 2018

Hate speech bill: Lawyers, activists, knock senate

 

OBINNA EZUGWU

The Hate Speech Bill debated at the Nigerian senate has continued to attract condemnations by lawyers and civil rights activists who insist the move is draconian and must therefore, not be allowed to see the light of the day.

Although some members of the Senate, especially Senator Sabi Abdullahi, the red chamber’s spokesman who introduced the bill have maintained that the idea was to eliminate “hate speech” and avoid harassment of people on the basis of their religion or ethnicity, the lawyers in their separate interviews with BusinessHallmark, insisted that there were already existing laws to take care of such issues, and that the new bill will only serve as a tool for political victimization and intimidation.

The bill provides in part that “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.”

An offence that can be penalized by “a jail sentence of not less than five years or a fine of “not less than N10 million” or both for these offences. Or “death penalty if such hate speech results in the death of another person.”

Coming under President Muhammadu Buhari who has a history of muscling press freedom, the infamous Decree 4 that defined the military dictatorship he led between 1983 and 1985 having led to jailing of journalists for simply doing their jobs, skepticism could not have been in short supply.

Indeed, many continue to wonder what the definition and constitution of “hate speech” would be and whose job it is to determine same. And given that the country already have laws against defamation, comprising libel and slander as well as the cyber crime act, many say they don’t see any justifiable reason for such “obnoxious” bill.

“That bill is completely undemocratic,” notes Chief Ziggy Azike, lawyer and philanthropist. “The conception is evil. There is no basis for it. It’s as if someone wants to reintroduce Decree 4 in a civilian government.

“There are laws of libel and sedition even though criminal sedition has been abolished. For anyone to conceive s bill for such draconian law, you can tell where the person is coming from. It is a law that is coming from the pit of hell.”

Chief Azike

There can hardly be any standards for determining what constitutes hate speech, and this, to some, is one reason the bill shouldn’t be contemplated.

“How do you determine hate speech?” Asks Mr. Wale Ogunade, Lagos based legal practitioner and activist. “Simple greetings such as good morning can be hate speech depending on the context.

“There are laws of sedition; there are laws on libel. One would have expected that those are the laws they will give strength to. This bill is a general law that they want to use for political purposes. And I can assure you that it will not see the light of the day.”

Ogunade

Barr Okey Ilofulunwa is another Lagos based legal practitioner and former secretary of Aka Ikenga, a think tank group. He also makes the point about the existence of relevant laws to take care of what could ideally constitute hate speeches and insists the proposed bill is unnecessary.

“It is absolutely not necessary. There are other laws that could have taken care of hate speeches,” he said. “You have the laws of sedition and libel, you also have the cyber crime act which has also taken care of some of the issues.”

Okey Ilofulunwa

The APC government rode on the back of social media to power in 2015. The new bill is expected to target social media, and some insist they cannot seek to shut out online critics after partly using same to win power.

“I don’t know why they are pushing for the new law. It is absolutely unnecessary,” says Comrade Alimi Suleiman, founder Centre for Human Rights and Social Justice (CHRSJ).

“I don’t know why a government that came into place riding on the back of social media will turn around and try to stop people from criticizing them on social media.

“For this government to contemplate a law that stipulates death sentence for what they say is hate speech is surprising. Actually, there is nothing called hate speech in a democracy in that sense. But because they are dancing macabre dance as those in power, they are trying to silence critics.”

Suleiman insists that the law would naturally infringe on the fundamental human rights of Nigerians and should therefore not be allowed to fly.

“It is obvious that those pushing the bill are ignorant of the law. The Federal Ministry of Justice should let them know what is contained in section 39 of the 1999 constitution. Same as section 22 which empowers journalists to publish what people say.

“Their idea is to stop critics, and if you do that, there is no way you can hold the government to account and put them on their toes.

“It is because they are aware of the incompetency of their government that they are looking to shut out critics.

“We criticized former President (Goodluck) Jonathan; we criticized (Umaru) Ya’Adua. And most of this criticism came from the mouth of Lai Mohammed, but it is their time to be criticized because they are not performing, they want to ensure that they are not criticized.

“They can’t do that, they cannot deny Nigerians their fundamental human rights as contained in the constitution.”

“The bill should be condemned by all well meaning Nigerians because it is draconian.” He concluded.

Comrade Suleiman

Proponents of the bill have however, argued that hate speech when allowed to thrive, portend danger to the peaceful coexistence of the country.

“Hate speeches are being spewed out daily, with reckless abandon. Most people have forgotten how hate speeches helped to trigger genocide in Rwanda in 1994, killing about 800,000 people,” Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture noted a few months ago.

“When the hate speech phenomenon is added to the growing problem of fake news, disinformation and misinformation, we have a most incendiary mix that could undermine the unity, peace and security of any country.”

In an interview recently, Senator Abdullahi said he initiated the bill because there was a need to correct the failures of existing laws on defamation and public conduct, which according to him, had failed to check hate speech among Nigerians.

He emphasised that the bill was intended to prevent a Rwanda-type genocide in Nigeria, while citing the example of Kenya, which had set up a commission to manage civil crisis.

But Chief Azike maintains that such fears cannot be justified and that people should worry more about criminality and corruption which according to him, have brought poverty and lack of development.

“There is nothing like that. It is all about criminality and corruption which has crippled our nation. Why don’t they pass a law that prescribe death penalty for acts of corruption? There is nothing like hate speech causing genocide.

“There is actually nothing like hate speech in that sense. One person’s purveyor of hate speech is another person’s hero.

“When people like Zik and Nkrumah were fighting for independence and they were asking that their countries be freed, the British colonialists would have accused them of hate speech.

“When there was apartheid in South Africa and people were saying that apartheid is evil, the whites would have seen it as hate speech. The same thing as when there was segregation in America. Those who were oppressing the blacks would have accused the civil rights activists of hate speeches.”

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