Lawyers raise debate over legislation on hate speech
To say that there is growing trend of hate-speeches among Nigerians depends on which side of the divide you belong. If you belong to the establishment, it is most likely that you would acknowledge the trend and seek to curb it.
But, if you are among the oppressed or those discontented with the present political arrangement, you may not bother or bat an eyelid in defending the supposed hate-speeches when they occur.
However, not minding what one thinks about the development, it is a sign that we are living in strange times. The hate speech rhetoric could be traceable to the era of populist and nationalistic movements when agitation for independence and self-rule was imperative.
Hate speeches are usually associated with politics, electioneering campaigns, religious organisations and ethnicity movements and groups, but the advent of social media have worsened the situation.
It is on record that the electioneering campaigns that ushered in various civilian administrations including that of President Muhammadu Buhari had a huge dose of hate and discriminatory speeches.
All those are manifestations of deep-seated animosity and divisiveness in the country and some of these incendiary statements by some politicians have led to the killing of innocent Nigerians.
This worrying phenomenon can also be conveyed through various media such as radio, television, during mass protests as well as Internet-based social media portals. As a result, concerned stakeholders are beginning to moot the idea of legislative intervention in order to confront the malaise. Already, the idea is raising debate among the lawyers.
At the recent ‘First West Africa Regional Round of the Price Media Law Moot Court Competition’, organised by University of Lagos with collaboration of University of Oxford, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who chaired one of the sessions of the three day program, lamented the adverse effect this growing trend may have on our existence as a country and called for the need for a legislation to checkmate it.
His words: “Hate-speech is becoming increasingly prevalent in all areas of our national endeavour, including religious, social, political and communal life. Experts, therefore, alerted that the level, trend and occurrence of hate-speech constitute a threat to the peace, unity and security of the country and the need for Nigeria to formally confront the phenomenon.
“Nigeria as we all know is endowed with over 180 million inhabitants and 250 ethnic groups that are diverse in terms of ethnic orientations, cultural practices, religious beliefs and language. Even the physical appearances of ethnic groups are very different such that members of these groups are easily identified by their physical attributes. These differences have been a source of tension beginning
from the colonial era under British rule.
“Hate speech is becoming increasingly prevalent in all areas of our national endeavour, including religious, social, political and communal life. Experts, therefore, alerted that the level, trend and occurrence of hate-speech constitute a threat to the peace, unity and security of the country, arguing the need for Nigeria to formally confront the hate-speech phenomenon. The phenomenon, if left unchecked, could grow to become a hydra-headed monster, which latently and silently creates a Rwandan-type experience.”
He stated further that even government functionaries are not immuned or exonerated from the misuse of social media by some misguided citizens in the country.
“Today, some ordinary citizens also seem to have succumbed to the inciting rhetoric of some religious, ethnic and political leaders, as they have now resorted to sending incredible hate-speeches to government officials in particular. Daily, unprintable hate messages are sent via SMS to me and some of my colleagues. The messages are laced with religious and ethnic epithets that you won’t wish for your worst enemies,” he stated.
He believes that if it is not checked, with time, it may disintegrate the nation’s coexistence and democracy. “In order for Nigeria to achieve a just and egalitarian society bereft of hate and prejudice, appropriate legislation should be enacted and emplaced, with a view to checking the growing prevalence of hate-speeches”, the minister declared.
Buttressing the need for a legislation against hate speech, Mohammed said: “Since the 1960s, many liberal democracies have instituted laws that penalise hate-speech and hate crimes in ways that limit the freedom for racists to express themselves. From the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they have been enshrined and extended in constitutional and international laws against racial incitement.
“Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, on May 31, 2016, jointly agreed to a European Union (EU) code of conduct obligating them to also review notifications on their platforms and remove illegal hate-speeches posted on their services within 24 hours.
“A number of nations have statutes that exceed the traditional incitement provisions outlined above. For example, Belgian law penalises public announcements of intention to discriminate, hate or perpetrate violence against persons on grounds of race, colour, origin, descent or nationality”.
Also speaking on the effect of hate-speech, Lagos State Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice, Mr Adeniji Kazeem said Nigerian constitution recognises the right to dignity of individuals and right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as guaranteed under section 34 and 38 of the 1999 constitution.
“However, these rights are enjoyable subject to rights of other citizens not to be subjected to discrimination under section 42 of the constitution. In this regard, no freedom of expression can accommodate hatred and hate-speech aimed at other citizens to deprive them of exercising their constitutional rights and incite violence against them,”Kazeem said.
The AG, like the minister of Information and Culture, added that the trend has the propensity to cause public disorder, violence and more dangerously genocide as the experience in Rwanda had shown.
He therefore called on the need to condemn and punish all forms of hate-speech, saying: “It is not an exercise in freedom of expression or freedom to worship, it is bigotry and has the tendency to cause violence and break down of law and order in the society”.
But a senior advocate of Nigeria and former General Secretary of Nigerian Bar Association, Dele Adesina, said one needs to be careful in commenting on the call for legislation against ‘hate-speech’.
According to him, the constitution is very clear on the fundamental rights of the citizens in Section 39 (1), which specifies that every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinion and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.
“The constitution is the barometer of government decisions and actions. And right now, I don’t know what is the difference between hate or friendly speech. All I know is that we have the laws of libel and slander and anybody whose rights has been breached based on that can go to court.
“The point I am trying to make here is: wont such legislation amount to a restriction on what the constitution has provided? I think we will understand better when such legislation are put in place,” he stated.
In the same vein, another senior advocate, Olu Daramola, is of the opinion that such legislation are not necessary since the constitution has taken care of all that may pertain to hate-speeches.
“There is no need for any legislation on hate speech since the constitution has taken care of that. That is why we have the law on libel, slander and anybody could be tried in the law court if found wanting,” he said.
Daramola also said it has always been impossible to regulate the social media, citing instances of recent posting on the internet that the current President is dead. It is difficult, he said, to track the originator because there are some sites that one may not be able to trace. He concluded that the existing laws should be able to take care of any infractions rather than looking for a new legislations.
Also, a Lagos based lawyer, Emmanuel Etiuzalle, said he did not support such call for legislation. To him, anybody can make any speech out of annoyance and resentment, which is natural.
He noted that not everybody can control emotions. “Parents even use hate-speeches against their children, employers use it against their employees and so on. Will you now legislate against them,” Etiuzalle queried, adding that there are more serious issues that needs attention of all Nigerians and not talking about hate-speech.