Hate Speech on Hangman’s Noose?

Hate Speech on Hangman’s Noose?

The report by The Guardian on a new bill by the Senate, which prescribes that offenders of “hate speech” will die by hanging, must have sent the chill down many spines in a country where the government led by President Muhammadu Buhari has been stridently trying to convince the restive populace that it means well.

The report by The Guardian on a new bill by the Senate, which prescribes that offenders of “hate speech” will die by hanging, must have sent the chill down many spines in a country where the government led by President Muhammadu Buhari has been stridently trying to convince the restive populace that it means well.

Some fear this may be the guise by a government that is increasingly becoming edgy on growing criticism on what’s generally perceived as its “poor performance”, to abridge and asphyxiate the freedom of expression and thought including that to impart information, as provided in sections 38 and 39 of the 1999 Constitution.

No doubt, this bill is likely to attract the ire of Amnesty International and other international and local human rights organisations which are already worried by the rising rights violations by the Buhari government particularly on the conduct of its military offensive in the northeast against the Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram and the high handedness that attended the Operation Python Dance deployed in the southeast to quell the agitation for self determination by the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB).

The Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) says “it is pertinent to caution against prescribing capital punishment for hate speech, principally because this could be used indiscriminately against perceived political opponents by unscrupulous members of the political elite”, noting that “people have a right to be biased, even offensive in their speech”.

The International Press Centre (IPC) says “what the country needs today is engagement by multiple stakeholders to determine what actually constitutes hate speech and agree on effective measures for dealing with such. A draconian law that hallmarks dictatorship, cannot be the solution to hate speech in a democratic society”. Mr Lanre Arogundade, the IPC Director stressed in a statement.

He also said that should such a bill become a law, it would certainly pose “a major threat to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and safety of journalists.”
“Much as we do not welcome hate speech, we do not also welcome a law that would gag citizens and deny the public the right to know”, Arogundade added.

Titled “Hate speech offenders to die by hanging in Senate’s new bill”, The Guardian report published on Thursday, March 1st, 2018, says the bill sponsored by Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, provides that “Any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person shall die by hanging upon conviction”.
It also seeks the establishment of an ‘Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches’, which shall enforce hate speech laws across the country, ensure the elimination of the menace and advise the Federal Government.

Apart from the fact that what constitutes “hate speech” is still fluxy and subject to varying bogus and contentious interpretations, that the bill leaves this to be determined by the National Commission for Hate Speeches may create room to rope in the opposition or some ardent critics of its rule.

For offences such as harassment on the grounds of ethnicity or racial contempt, a culprit shall be sentenced to “not less than a five-year jail term or a fine of not less than N10 million or both”, which is considered a bit too severe.

The bill in what is seen as an attempt to clip the country’s boisterous mainstream and social media and render it prostrate, says that “A 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 or behaviour, commits an offence, if such person intends thereby to stir up ethnic hatred, or having regard to all the circumstances, ethnic hatred is likely to be stirred up against any person or person from such an ethnic group in Nigeria.”

This may just be an ingenious way of pulling the rug from the country’s vociferous media which has for many years been the bulwark against military and civilian dictatorship. It may also erode the gains of the Freedom of Information Act.

It notes that “a person who subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity for the purposes of this section where, on ethnic grounds, he unjustifiably engages in a conduct which has the purpose or effect of (a) violating that other person’s dignity or (b) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person subjected to the harassment.

This “Conduct shall be regarded as having the effect specified in subsection (1) (a) or (b) of this section if, having regard to all the circumstances, including in particular the perception of that other person, it should reasonably be considered as having that effect.

”The National Commission for Hate Speeches shall be headed by an executive chairperson who would be appointed by the president on recommendation of the National Council of State, subject to the confirmation of at least two-third majority of the National Assembly”. But the representation of civil society in this hangman commission is not too clear.

The commission shall discourage persons, institutions, political parties and associations from advocating or promoting discrimination or discriminatory practices through the use of hate speeches; promote tolerance, understanding and acceptance of diversity in all aspects of national life and encourage full participation by all ethnic communities in the social, economic, cultural and political life of other communities.

“It shall also plan, supervise, coordinate and promote educational and training programmes to create public awareness, support and advancement of peace and harmony among ethnic communities and racial groups.It shall furthermore promote respect for religious, cultural, linguistic and other forms of diversity in a plural society; promote equal access by persons of all ethnic communities and racial groups to public or other services and facilities provided by the government.”

But many see the National Commission for Hate Speeches not only as another drain pipe agency but also a duplication of the functions of the Federal Character Commission (FCC) which has been largely impotent in the face of wanton violations of the law requiring that appointments by government at the centre should reflect the federal character. They contend that has been largely observed more in the breach.

While the NUJ has called on the Senate to act with caution, It would be really interesting to watch how this largely draconian bill will make it through the furnace of law process at the National Assembly.

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