Thursday, 7th December 2023

Hate speech, social media bills fail to get support of Nigerians at town hall meeting

By John Akubo, Abuja
05 February 2020   |   4:16 am
It is no longer news that Nigerians have been grappling with many challenges ranging from economic hardship, insecurity to electoral violence and a compromised judiciary.

Dokpesi left; Lawan; Akiotu, and Amarere at Town Hall Meeting on Hate Speech/Social Media Bills organised by DAAR Communications Plc on Monday… in Abuja

It is no longer news that Nigerians have been grappling with many challenges ranging from economic hardship, insecurity to electoral violence and a compromised judiciary. The least the Nigerian electorate expects from their representatives is not any repackaged law that would further emasculate them from freely venting their misgivings about the government they elected to serve them, but which is failing in its duty.

Nigerians had been hopeful, at the inauguration of the 9th National Assembly, that the members would responsively tackle the myriad of challenges facing the country by enacting laws that would checkmate insecurity, reform the electoral system for freer and fairer elections and ease the prevailing biting economic hardship.

However, what they have been blessed with, in reverse form in the early life of the assembly, is the struggle by two senators from Niger State that is currently ravaged by banditry and cattle rustling to put in place two obnoxious bills as the Internet Falsehood Manipulation Bill and Establishment of National Commission for Prohibition of Hate Speeches Bill. That was why the Town Hall Meeting held on Monday to deliberate on the Bills in Abuja provided a veritable ground for Nigerians to express their overwhelming opposition to the two bills, with a call on the Senate to strike them out.

Firstly, participants were disappointed with the government over its hate actions and fake promises that have left them more impoverished and insecure in the last five years under President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration. Secondly, Niger as home state of the two sponsors of the bills – Senators Sani Musa (APC Niger East) and Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi (APC Niger North), like many other parts of the country, has been overrun by bandits’ attacks with no remedy in sight. Participants’ expectation was for the two senators to sponsor bills that would take care of the menace of bandits or bills that would make life meaningful for the people of Niger State and Nigerians as a whole.

However, at the Town Hall Meeting, the absence of the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, became an issue for intense scrutiny, especially as he did not even bother to send a representative. His presence, they argued, would have been beneficial to the position of government especially as he denied the existence of any such bills, when he spoke to a foreign news outlet. The organizers of the event had hoped that Mohammed would shed light on his claims. Despite the abundance of proofs about the existence of the bill, Nigeria’s minister of information had said the country was not trying to pass any such law that seeks to gag the electorate that elected his government into office.

The fear in many quarters has been that if the bills were passed, they would give sweeping powers to the government to clamp down on critics and also shut down the Internet at will.

To set the tone for the town hall meeting, Chairman DAAR Communication Plc, Mr. Raymond Dokpesi Jr, said, “Notwithstanding, many Nigerians will have seen within the last few days a Deutsche Welle (Germany’s TV) interview with the Honorable Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, in which the Honourable Minister denied any knowledge of the Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill, colloquially known as the Fake News bill.
He said the Honourable Minister was right to deny any knowledge of the bill despite what anybody will say.

“I believe this because to have admitted knowledge of the bill will have exposed him to questions about the punitive measures contained within the bill – which in turn, from a neo-liberal European perspective – will have exposed this government and indeed this country to international condemnation and ridicule.

“For not washing our dirty laundry abroad I thank the Honourable Minister, but here at home, his absence from this event and silence of the Ministry of Information on the position of government supporting or opposing these bills is deafening!”

According to him, on 5 November 2019 the Fake News and Internet Manipulation Bill was introduced to the Senate.

“It was a private member bill and so given as the Minister has disowned the bill, it is futile so suggest otherwise,” with Dokpesi (Jr) explaining that the town hall represented a useful and important tool in furthering the activities of not only media regulatory bodies and the legislature, but within the discourse of wider societal stakeholders.

“So, why are we really here today? We are here to challenge both supporters and critics of the bill to justify their positions and to share with them our perspectives, recommendations and concerns.”

However, he said the town hall meeting, which would have “afforded the government and everyone the privilege of getting it straight and putting an end to any form of rumours, speculation and innuendos about the position of government regarding two critical issues that are paramount to any discussion of regulating against fake news and hate speech was turned down by the ministry.

“These are the right to freedom of expression versus the right to protection of personality. The right to freedom of expression is one of the most valuable human rights, guaranteed by various international conventions of human rights and by our own constitution.

“Such a right encompasses not only the right of everyone to disseminate different information and ideas (factual statements and value judgments), but also everyone’s right to receive information which others want to communicate to them (the so-called ‘right of the public to know’).”

The chairman indicated that the right of expression of thought is today an unavoidable political principle, which is not theoretically questionable any more.

“It is one of the fundamental freedoms of man and citizens whose protection is ensured by international conventions and national legislations.

“Being an inherent and inalienable human right, it is a direct expression of human personality in a society and therefore it does not depend on the approval of state. At the same time, it is one of the fundamental rights of citizens, as there is no democracy without it.”

He pointed out that ensuring the confrontation of opinions and presentation of different argumentation pave the way for fruitful synthesis, which is a step forward on the way to social progress, noting, “Freedom of expression constitutes democracy, and where it stops, democracy does as well.
Therefore, it is the basis of survival of each democratic society.”

At the event, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami and some civil society organizations (CSOs) disagreed on the desirability or otherwise of the Hate Speech and Social Media Bills pending before the Senate. While Malami threw his weight behind the introduction and passage of the Hate Speech and Social Media Bills, the CSOs, including Amnesty International, Connected Development (CODE), Professor Chidi Odinkalu and others called for the immediate withdrawal of the Bills from the parliament by their sponsors.

In his speech during the opening session of the town hall meeting, Malami, who was represented by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Dr. Umar Gwandu, noted that the media played a very prominent role and in the attainment of independence and the advancement of democracy and good governance in the country, “through the fight against corruption and upholding the rule of law in line with section 22 of the 1999 Constitution.”

He, however, insisted that there must be adequate legal mechanisms to curb the excesses of those he described as “purveyors of fake news,” saying, “Nigeria operates a constitutional democracy that guarantees freedom of expression thereby providing conducive atmosphere and veritable platforms that enable Nigerians their inalienable fundamental rights to unhindered ventilation of opinions.

“No doubt, recent developments where Nigerians freely articulate varied viewpoints on numerous national issues are clear testimonies to the commitment of the Federal Government with the doctrine of freedom of expression. The legal framework for the Nigerian media practice emanated from various sectors including international conventions, charters and the constitution of Nigeria.

“With the absence of gatekeeping processes of the conventional media, individuals with neither the skills of information verification, nor the use of what the reality is, take it upon themselves to be the purveyors of fake news, hatred and animosity.

“As a government that is responsive and responsible in its considerations of the yearnings and aspirations of the people, I am assuring you that the office of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice awaits the recommendations of this town hall meeting in order to key into factors brought forward in enhancing vertical and horizontal integration in the process of making people-oriented legislations in the country.”

The Bills also suffered major setback at the round table session after presentations by their sponsors as only one out of eight panelists was in their support. The other panelists, who were the former Executive Secretary of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Odinkalu, Chief Executive Officer, Connected Development (CODE), Mr. Hamzat Lawal, kicked against the two bills for being tailored towards stifling the freedom of press and speech as enshrined in section 39 of the 1999 Constitution.

Odinkalu and one of the sponsors of the bills, Senator Sabi Abdullahi, had a row which created a scene at the outset when the ground norms for the panelists were announced with five minutes allocated to each panel member. But senator Abdullahi objected, saying five minutes would not be enough for him to explain the reason he was sponsoring the bill, that he needed 20 minutes but Odinkalu interjected. He made it clear that it was not in Abdullahi’s power to dictate the norms for the session. However, the senator flared up, saying he took exception to such antagonism, but Odinkalu told him, “Nigeria belongs to everyone” before the situation was later brought under control.

Again, Professor Odinkalu, while making his presentation, requested to know why they were discussing the issue for which Lai Muhammed was absent, noting, “I thought that AIT was going to postpone the town hall meeting after the minister said the country is not trying to pass any such law.”

In his opposition against the bills, Odinkalu said neither the anti-social media bill nor the Hate Speech bill would address the pervasive poverty and increasing wave of insecurity in the land. According to him, “It is ironic that the sponsors of the bills are from Niger State, where innocent lives are being lost on a daily basis to uncontrolled and uncheckmated attacks from armed bandits without any bill in that direction,” noting that two sponsors of the bills represent Niger State in the Senate.

He described Niger State as a “terrific state with wonderful people,” with 76,378 square kilometres, which represents 9.3per cent of the entire landmass of Nigeria, added: “With 23 local governments areas, Niger State is ungovernable. The reason Niger State is ungovernable is because the place has too much landmass.

“It is also experiencing terrible killings at the moment from bandits and two-thirds of the Senators in Niger State think that the biggest problem we’ve got is Hate Speech. That tells you what problems we have got. That the problem is not to secure Niger State, which is next door to the FCT. It does not bother them. It does not give them sleepless night.

“What gives them sleepless night is to guillotine Nigerians, because we have exercised the right to speak. That is the problem we have got. Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, who sponsored the Hate Speech bill, spent 20 minutes on presentation without mentioning a provision while Senator Mohammed Sani Musa laboured to convince us that the anti-social bill is not meant to stifle freedom of speech, which by all intents and purposes is the case.

“Nigerians want bills that will facilitate improvement of their wellbeing and the security of their lives and property. Extant laws abound on what the two bills are aiming at. What is the work of the National Orientation Agency (NOA), National Human Rights Commission, etc, that will warrant establishment of National Commission for Prohibition of Hate Speech?”

Lawal of Connected Development (CODE) also objected to the bills and raised two posers on who to decide hate speech or fake news. He said rather than wasting time and tax-payers money on such bills, they should be discarded by the sponsors and if they refused, the Senate should reject them.

“Nigeria is a country without consequences,” he said, “that is why lawmakers elected by the people can introduce bills to gag the people.”

He urged the lawmakers to regulate technical businesses that provide platforms for social media and not the users of social media. He insisted that the regulation of social media would impact negatively on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country.

“For us to move forward, it is time to throw the Bills out of the National Assembly,” Lawal said.

Antagonism against the bills worsened when discussions were extended to the audience in form of questions and answers, as virtually everyone, who contributed rejected the bills outright. Leading the pack in this category was the National President of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Chris Iziguzo, who said the two bills were anti-people, anti-freedom of speech and against the media, which would be prevented from seeing the light of the day.

Others like Deji Adeyanju of Concerned Nigerians Group and a lawyer, Mr. Daniel Makolo also kicked against the bills during the questions and answers session. Makolo even presented a judgment given by the ECOWAS Court in Abuja against the Hate Speech bill in November last year to the panelists. He dusted up a judgment of the Community Court of Justice forbidding any further consideration of the much-criticised bill.

He said the judgment was obtained on Tuesday, 11 December 2018 at the Community Court of Justice of The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja, Nigeria. The judgment bearing Suit NO; ECW/CCJ/APP/10/15; JUDGMENT NO; ECW CCJ JUD 31 18 quashed and forbids the Federal Republic of Nigeria from criminalizing free speech in whatever form, colour or clothing.

According to Lawal, “It also barred her from free speech or press censorship enshrined and guaranteed under Article XIX of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. It stated that all of the above are covenants from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

According to him, “The case was instituted by Festus Oguche and Anor VS. The Federal Republic of Nigeria. He averred that the Hate Speeches Establishment Bill 2019 is contrary to Section 22 and 39 of the 1999 Nigeria Constitution as amended, which guarantees freedom of expression.

“It needs no saying that any law or act that is or are contrary to the ground norm of the constitution is null and void. That the National Assembly under the leadership of our Distinguished Senator Ahmed Lawan has chosen this ignoble road of willfully subjecting and making Nigeria a laughing stock in the comity of nations beats our imagination.

“There is availability of sufficient laws on offensive spoken words and actions with great and effectual remedies in our laws. Hence, he stated that it is wrong to attempt criminalizing freedom of expression for the traumatized citizens of Nigeria.

“It is absurd for Nigeria in the comity of nations on earth to be heard singing these ignoble songs rather than creating the conducive environment for freedom of speech and enterprises for her rapidly growing populations.

“In view of this Judgment, the National Assembly of Nigeria is therefore acting contrary to the core terms of the judgment in terms of the citizens’ rights it protects to embark on the facilitation of the Hate Speeches Establishment Bill 2019.

“This judgment clearly forbids the Federal Republic of Nigeria, sued in this case as the defendant, from further violating Nigerian citizens’ rights to freedom of speech being a matter that was initiated within the public interest advocacy mechanism. It would not be seen that Nigeria as an entity would have her legislature act in defiance of her international obligations freely entered into and in the face of a valid subsisting court judgment.”

He said the freedom of speech being an entrenched fundamental human right provided for in the Nigerian Constitution is fully preserved by the judgment of the regional court aforementioned.

“It is completely out of the way for the Nigerian legislature to attempt to facilitate the enactment of any law that infringes on the rights protected by the said judgment of the regional court. We hereby inform you that the exercise in pursuing this Hate Speeches Establishment Bill 2019 is one in futility and therefore the tax-payers money should not be plunged into it in view of the judgment of the ECOWAS Court.”

He said the judgment has been termed by the global community as a landmark judgment, a trailblazer for the global freedom of expression. He said the Nigeria government through its attorney-general vigorously contested the suit instituted by the plaintiffs from 2015 until judgment on Tuesday, 11 December 2018.

“The Honourable Attorney-General and Minister of Justice is in custody of all the processes and proceedings inclusive of the judgment of the regional court. The Oguche case has been globally cited in court decisions in the U.S., Russia, Central Asia, Africa 81, European Human Rights Courts.