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Dissecting the Hate Speech Bill

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Senate House (NASS)

Against the backdrop of the furore that greeted the reintroduction of the National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill by the Senate last Tuesday, ONYEDIKA AGBEDO examines the relevance of the bill vis-à-vis existing laws.

The Senate has been soaking punches from various stakeholders in the country since last Tuesday for reintroducing the National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill. The bill, sponsored by the Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, Abdullahi Aliu Sabi, (APC, Niger State) was first introduced in March 2018, but the overwhelming public outrage against it forced the lawmakers to abandon it. Its reintroduction clearly signposts that the sponsor of the bill is still desirous of seeing it become part of Nigerian laws. But what would be the relevance of the bill if passed?

According to Sabi, the bill is aimed at ensuring the elimination of all forms of hate speeches in the country. It defines hate speech as a comment that insults people for their religion, ethnic and linguistic affiliation, among others, and prescribes death penalty for certain offenders.

“Any person who commits an offence under this section shall be liable to life imprisonment and where the act causes any loss of life, the person shall be punished with death by hanging,” the bill stipulates.

It also proposes jail term of not less than five years or a fine of not less than N10 million or both for offences like harassment on the basis of ethnicity and racial contempt.

“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 a 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,” the bill further provides.

It also seeks the establishment of a National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech that would be saddled with the responsibility of discouraging persons, institutions, political parties and associations from advocating or promoting discrimination or discriminatory practices through the use of hate speeches; promoting tolerance, understanding and acceptance of diversity in all aspects of national life and encouraging full participation by all ethnic communities in social, economic, cultural and political life of other communities.

Those opposed to the bill argue that it would infringe on the freedom of expression as enshrined in the 1999 constitution if passed into law. They also believe that the laws of defamation and libel can effectively deal with the issues articulated in the bill, adding that the bill could be a ploy to gag the opposition.

“Our law of libel and defamation of character is very clear. So why would they want to fund an agency and even go ahead executing people. The law is enough under the dispensation of the rule of law and liberal development. Our laws guarantee freedom of expression. The Senate cannot make any law outside the constitution. We are not under a military regime, we are in a federal republic,” said a Second Republic politician and chieftain of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Guy Ikokwu.

Section 375 of the Criminal Code criminalises defamation. It provides: “Subject to the provisions of this chapter, any person who publishes any defamatory matter is guilty of a misdemeanor and is liable to imprisonment for one year and any person who publishes any defamatory matter knowing it to be false is liable to imprisonment for two years.

Section 373 of the Criminal Code defines a defamatory matter as one which is likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt or ridicule or likely to damage any person in his profession or trade by an injury to his reputation.”

Speaking after last Wednesday’s Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting, the Minister of State for Transportation, Senator Gbemisola Saraki, faulted the bill, stating that certain provisions of the Cybercrime Act 2015 have also taken care of hate speech.

Section 26 of the Act stipulates: “Any person who with intent – (a) distributes or otherwise makes available, any racist or xenophobic material to the public through a computer system or network; (b) threatens through a computer system or network – (i) persons for the reason that they belong to a group distinguished by race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, as well as, religion, if used as a pretext for any of these factors; or (ii) a group of persons which is distinguished by any of these characteristics; (c) insults publicly through a computer system or network– (i) persons for the reason that they belong to a group distinguished by race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, as well as religion, if used as a pretext for any of these factors; or (ii) a group of persons which is distinguished by any of these characteristics; or (d) distributes or otherwise makes available, through a computer system or network, to the public, material which denies or approves or justifies acts constituting genocide or crimes against humanity, commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of not more than five years or to a fine of not more than N10 million or both such fine and imprisonment.”

The section defines crime against humanity as “any of the following acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack: murders, extermination, enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer of population, imprisonment, torture, rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilisation or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity, persecution against an identifiable group on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious or gender grounds, enforced disappearance of persons, the crime of apartheid, other inhumane acts of similar character intentionally causing great suffering or serious bodily or mental injury.” It also defines genocide as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group such as killing members of the group and deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, among others.

It, therefore, appears that the Hate Speech Bill might duplicate sections of existing laws in the country if passed, even as it would lay an additional financial burden on the country with the establishment of a commission.

Nevertheless, Former Minister of Information and Culture, Prince Tony Momoh, told The Guardian in a telephone interview that the coming of the social media makes the bill imperative. He, however, noted that the proposal of the death penalty for offenders was extreme.

His words: “There is a limitation to the freedom of expression. That is, your right ends where my nose begins. In other words, you cannot because there is freedom of expression to start punching everybody. So, in any polity where you exercise any freedom, your freedom ends where the expression of other freedoms begin and is regulated by law.

“What you say is regulated and that is why we speak of slander. What you write is regulated by the law of defamation and libel. But the fact is your writing is only libelous or defamatory where it is published and publication means that you will send it to people other than those it is addressed to. So, if you write a love letter to your girlfriend, it is not actionable to your girlfriend unless you send copies to other people. The media falls under the group of publications. The laws are such that in the media, the guiding rule is if in doubt leave out. In other words, unless you verify any allegation, which is verifiable, the story is not fit to be published.

“But with the proliferation of the social media, everybody is a publisher now. The trend is when you receive your share. And what you received that you have not even verified that you are sharing may harm or affect the rights of others.”

Momoh noted that hate speech was dominating the whole world, saying it was causing a lot of killings globally and needed to be regulated in Nigeria.

“But it depends on what you want. If it is not strong enough in the Criminal Code or Penal Code, then you strengthen it through punishment. But one thing lots of people are worried about is when you say that those who publish what they call hate speech should be hanged. I think the area of punishment is what causes concern not that there should be punishment.

“Hate speech is not necessarily libel or slander. You can’t libel a whole people. If you say Nigerians are 419ers, you have not libeled anybody. But it may affect a section of Nigerians and constitute hate speech. So, that is the difference. The Senate is in order by looking into the exercise of the freedom of expression but they will be overdoing it if they say the punishment for offenders is hanging,” he added.

To Niger Delta activist and Coordinator of Ijaw Monitoring Group (IMG), Comrade Joseph Evah, the lawmakers are on a voyage to self-destruction.

“Recently, there were two different statements from the Presidency over the sack of some aides to the Vice President. A media aide to the vice president was saying that nobody was sacked but the president’s media aide said that actually people were sacked because the number of people employed in the office of the vice president was too much. That confusion constitutes hate speech because it can create problems. Who among the Presidency officials were telling a lie? So, if you are telling lie, it is hate speech. So, we have to start from there.

“The first culprits, if the law is passed, will come from the National Assembly because many of them talk like drunkards. They will be the first to go to jail,” Evah said.

With the various concerns so far raised by Nigerians about the bill, it remains to be seen what the Senate would make of it this time around.


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