Shehu Sani

Rights activist and former Kaduna Central senator, Shehu Sani has called on legislators who are opposed to the controversial Anti Hate Speech Bill which passed second reading on the floor of the Senate last week, to speak up against it openly as according to him, being silent or choosing to sit on the fence means being complicit or cowardice.

Termed ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019,’ sponsored by Mohammed Musa and introduced in the Senate two weeks ago by Senator Sabi Abdullahi, the bill had prescribed death penalty for anyone convicted of “Hate Speech.”

What constitutes Hate Speech remain largely ambiguous. Many allege it’s an attempt by the President Muhammadu Buhari government to curb freedom of speech.

When it was introduced a fortnight ago, it was greeted with outrage, but despite the opposition by many Nigerians, it passed second reading on Wednesday with only one senator, Chimaroke Nnamani, representing Enugu East Senatorial Zone, speaking against it.

Sani, in a post via his twitter handle, @ShehuSani said other lawmakers opposed to it must speak up now.

“Any legislator opposed to the Anti Social Media bill or hate speech bill should have the courage to stand on the floor in the chamber and make his position unambiguously clear.Silence or ‘fence sitting’ is complicity or coward,” he said.

It would be recalled that a similar anti-social media bill introduced in the Senator Bukola Saraki led eight Senate sparked outrage across Nigeria and was consequently dropped, with the then senate president speaking vehemently against it.

Many who had expected the new bill to suffer similar fate in the Ahmad Lawan led senate were, however, dissapointed as the bill passed second stage after lawmakers debated the details during plenary.

Leading the debate, Mr Musa said the bill does not intend to gag the media but to check the spread of false information on the internet.

“It is rather an opportunity to address the growing threats which if left unchecked, can cause serious damage to our polity and disrupt peaceful existence,” he said.

The lawmaker said while the internet has democratised information, the fact remains that it has also been a weapon – which is why governments across the world are trying to mitigate the risks associated with information transmission via the internet by monitoring abuse and deliberate misconduct.

“One of the disadvantages of the internet is the spread of falsehood and manipulation of unsuspecting users.

“Today, motivated by geopolitical interest and identity politics, state and non- state actors use the internet to discredit government, misinform people and turn one group against the other.

“The hoax about the demise of President Muhammadu Buhari in London and his purported replacement by one Jibril of Sudan, among others, are things that threaten the peace, security and harmony of our people,” he said.

Mr Musa said inauthentic online accounts run by human trolls have been used to rapidly spread falsehood. And for media outlets, publishing a story with false content that attracts users, benefits advertisers.

He also prescribed up to N300,000 fine for an individual if found guilty; and up to N10 million for corporate organisations.

“Penalty for defaulters goes up to N300,000 for individuals and up to N10 million for corporate organisations and imprisonment of up to three years or both.

“It also issues guidelines for internet intermediaries and providers of mass media services and sanctions for offenders,” the lawmaker said.

While senators Ibrahim Gobir, Abba Moro and Elisha Abbo supported the bill, only Nnamani opposed it.

The Enugu East senator said the bill was completely unnecessary given the provisions of the Cyber Crimes Act.

“I not only oppose this bill, I condemn it in its entirety. Based on our constitution, there is freedom of information and freedom of speech.

“There is a Cyber Crime Act that deals with this issue. There are also laws that deal with false information, libel, slander and so on.

“Yes, fake news has done a lot in America and other countries but they have not brought any law to deal with it. I, therefore, oppose this bill,” he said.

The Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, then put the debate to a voice vote. Majority of the senators supported it.

Mr Lawan referred the bill to the Senate Committee on Judiciary. The committee was asked to report back after four weeks.

As part of its work, the committee is expected to conduct a public hearing on the bill.