Hate Speech Bill: Implications for free speech
Nigeria’s Senate, last week, repackaged and reintroduced the Hate Speech Bill seeking to penalise persons found guilty of stirring up violence or spreading falsehood that leads to the death of others.
Sponsor by the bill, Senator Aliyu Abdullahi, said past cases of religious and ethnic violence experienced in the country informed his decision to sponsor the bill.
The Hate Speech Bill which has since passed the First Reading in the upper legislative chamber also proposes the establishment of the National Commission for the Prohibition Hate Speeches, among various ‘mechanisms’ to prevent cases of death emanating from hate speech(es).
A similar bill was introduced to the Senate in March 2018 but did not make it to Third Reading.
The bill which was also sponsored by Sen. Abdullahi prescribed death by hanging for any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person.
Though the bill did not make it through to Third Reading, the lawmakers seem to have repackaged it barely a week after the Senate reintroduced a bill that will regulate the use of social media.
Recall that President Muhammadu Buhari had in his 59th Independence Day address in October 2019, cautioned against hate speech, with a promise to take a “firm and decisive action” against promoters of hate speech and other divisive materials on the Internet.
The reintroduction of the bill has continued to generate controversy amongst Nigerians, with many kicking against the bill because of its ambiguous definition of what constitutes hate speech.
While some Nigerians find the bill contradicting the provisions of the Nigerian constitution that allows for freedom of expression and association, others say the bill is merely a duplication of previous laws.
Sections 59-60, 373-381 of the Criminal Code (applicable to the Southern states) and sections 391-40, 417-418 of the Penal Code (applicable in the Northern states) and the Cyber Crime (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act, 2015 enacted by the National Assembly deals with the use of social media to promote bigotry and hatred in society.
Senator Shehu Sani, who represented Kaduna Central Senatorial District in the 8th National Assembly, said the social media bill was a threat to the fundamental rights of Nigerians.
Sani in a statement questioned why the Muhammadu Buhari administration, which got to power in 2015 largely due to social media support, was now trying to gag their activities.
“The bill on the regulation of social media poses a serious threat and danger to freedom of speech and expression. The quest to regulate social media is a grand plan to silence critics and dissenting voices.
“Combating hate speech is a smokescreen to annihilating free speech. Any law aimed at limiting the rights and freedom of citizens to express their views is aimed at building a tower of tyranny.
“It is ironic that a government that came to power on the promise of protecting the fundamental rights of Nigerians is now reneging and sliding towards totalitarianism. Silencing dissents endangers democracy.”
Opposition lawmakers in the upper chamber led by Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe have however assured the public that the bill will not become law if the intention was to further infringe on the rights of Nigerians.
Abaribe told a coalition of civil society groups who were in the red chamber to protest the introduction of the bills that, “Democracy implies freedom. If you are a democrat, you should allow others to hold their views. Where you regiment everybody to one single line of thought, is not a democracy, it is an authoritarian rule.
"We cannot pass through the years of military rule and 20 years of democracy and somebody will come and circumvent our rights at this stage.
“If the hate speech bill which advocates death by hanging was in place between 2012 and 2015 when Lai Mohammed was making certain statements against the Goodluck Jonathan administration, he would probably not be alive today.
“We have more than enough laws to take care of issues of hate speech, defamation of character or slander. There is the criminal code that identifies such offences and the punishment, there is the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria Act, the Cybercrime Act and other legislation that are already in place. Why should we bring a much more draconian act?”
But in spite the public outcry, sponsor of the controversial bill has vowed not to withdraw it as he insists that the bill was intended to create a society that would serve the overall interest of Nigerians.
Sen. Abdullahi wondered why Nigerians who had yet to read the content of the bill were condemning it.
The Deputy Chief Whip said, “There is a stage in our development as a country that we have reached where we have to have caution. I’m not doing this out of ignorance. We need this law at this stage of our development.
“The bill on its own did not create any outrage. The bill is suffering from hate speech already because people have misinterpreted it. Simply because you read ‘death by hanging’ without reading the context, you have started making comments. Is it possible to just hang a human being?”
It is the view of this newspaper that the president need to prevail on the National assembly to ditch the proposed bill.
President Buhari cannot afford to have any semblance of the infamous Decree 4 traced to his reign as a democratically elected leader.
It is obvious that the hate speech bill will restrict free speech of Nigerians, as it is a bill based on viewpoint seeing that there was no clear cut definition of what constitutes hate speech.
The lawmakers therefore have the responsibility of clearly defining what would be considered as hate speech or they completely abandon the controversial bill that can have us all getting killed for saying what can be perceived as hate speech by one person.
The benevolence of freedom of speech is not only entrusted to senators or politicians alone.
They should know that they also stand risk of falling victim of the hate speech law seeing that Nigerian campaigns are characterised by verbal attacks against opponents.
The campaign to enact a law on hate speech is a deflection from serious national issues that cry for urgent solutions.
The lawmakers must realise that they were elected to make laws that will ensure job creation, security, healthcare, infrastructure, housing, criminal justice.
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