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Much ado about hate speech bill

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Like in March 2018 when the Hate Speech Bill was first introduced in the Senate but failed to get through to the third reading, as a result of public outcry against it, Nigerians are again up in arms against the bill following its reintroduction on Tuesday, November 12. The bill was reintroduced barely a week after the Senate reintroduced a bill seeking the regulation of the social media in the country. Arguably, both bills are targeted at enforcing decorum on the media space, whether traditional or new media. But Nigerians don’t see them as such. They see an ulterior motive and literarily saturated the media space with expressions of anger and disappointment against especially the Hate Speech bill. They don’t want it to survive. They feel it will infringe on their right to freedom of speech and expression if passed into law. The question majority of the antagonists to the bill are asking is why the hate speech bill when there are laws on slander, libel, defamation and the Cybercrime Act 2015?

Nevertheless, the sponsor of the bill, Senator Aliyu Aliyu Abdullahi, thinks those laws are not enough to address issues bordering on hate speech. Abdullahi, who is the Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, argues that hate speech is the newest threat to peaceful coexistence globally and therefore requires a separate legislation.

The bill he is sponsoring had proposed death by hanging for any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person. But in a statement last Sunday, he said the Senate would most likely do away with that provision to suit the yearnings of Nigerians. “We have followed closely arguments for and against the hate speech bill, and seen the reason why some kicked against it. Given the high respect which we have for Nigerians, we will make an amendment to the death penalty aspect that most Nigerians objected to, so that a bill that meets their expectations is passed into law,” he said.

The bill is also seeking the establishment of an Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches. The proposed commission is expected to enforce hate speech laws in the country and ensure the “elimination” of hate speech. For offences such as harassment on grounds of ethnicity or race, the offender shall be sentenced to “not less than a five-year jail term or a fine of not less than N10 million or both.”What do Nigerians find obnoxious about the bill? What are the real reasons behind Abdullahi’s quest for an anti-hate speech law in the country? What is the perception of his fellow senators about the bill and the reactions it has engendered from the polity? You will find the answers to these posers in the reports below.

Why Nigeria Needs Hate Speech Bill, By Abdullahi 
From John Akubo, Abuja

The sponsor of the controversial hate speech bill, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, has stated that the existing laws on defamation and libel are grossly inadequate to tackle rising cases of hate speech in the country. Abdullahi, who is also the Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, made the claim against the backdrop of growing opposition to the introduction of the Hate Speech Bill by the National Assembly. 

Speaking with The Guardian, he said that parliaments across the world have identified hate speech as a new “threat that dehumanises and targets individuals and groups, and also threatens peace in a diversified society.”The lawmaker stated that a 47-nation member organisation, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in a report identified threats posed by hate speech to include exclusion among minority groups, alienation, marginalisation, emergence of parallel societies and ultimately radicalisation.These, Abdullahi warned, are present features in the socio-dynamics of Nigeria as a nation, which places the country on the brink of implosion from the effect of hate speech.

He stated that given the complex dynamics associated with hate speech, “the provisions of defamation and libel laws in Nigeria clearly lack the grip to tackle the dimensions of hate speech in acts such as victimisation, marginalisation and exclusion.”Abdullahi added that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in its resolutions contained in a publication titled ‘The Role and Responsibilities of Political Leaders in Combating Hate Speech and Intolerance’ endorsed “criminal legislation” to “prohibit and sanction” hate speech.

The publication reads in part: “The Assembly believes that a wide range of measures is necessary to counter hate speech, ranging from self-regulation, particularly by political movements and parties, and in the statutes and rules of procedure of national and local elected bodies to civil, administrative and criminal legislation prohibiting and sanctioning its use.”Citing countries such as Germany and France, Abdullahi stated further that the parliaments of both countries passed landmark laws in 2018 and 2019, respectively to fight online hate speech.

These and many other countries, the lawmaker stressed, have defamation and libel laws but have introduced legislation to tackle hate speech as a specific threat.“Hate Speech bill is about prohibiting incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence,” the lawmaker emphasised. Abdullahi said the new legislation passed by France and Germany compels all social media networks to remove offending contents as well as create buttons to enable users flag cases of abuse.

According to reports, members of the lower house of the French Parliament voted 434 to 33 to adopt the law, which is modeled after the German legislation that came into force in 2018. Sixty-nine members of the French Parliament, it was gathered, abstained.Meanwhile, Abdullahi has lauded the statement of the United Nations, which supported the Hate Speech bill but kicked against imposing death penalty on offenders. He said: “I must commend the United Nations for its position on the Hate Speech bill without the death penalty. It goes to show that they understand the gravity of the problems and threats faced by Nigeria as a united entity, and which the National Assembly is taking proactive measures to address with this bill.”

The Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Amina Mohammed, had last Tuesday commended the move to tackle hate speech in the country but warned the UN would not support the death penalty provision. Fielding questions on the hate speech bill from the State House correspondents after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari at the presidential villa, Abuja, Mohammed said: “First, we need to know that globally, we are in a space that hate speech has reached an all-time high and so any checks and balances we can put into the society, into a country, into a region to bring an end to that is welcome. Again, the way the legislation is being followed to try to put that in place, I think is commendable. “We, of course, did not support the death penalty and I am also happy to see yesterday that portion was taken out of the legislation that was being put forward.”

‘Hate Speech Bill Exhumes Decree 4 Of 1984’
From Kelvin Ebiri, Port Harcourt

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Ifedayo Adedipe, has described the Hate Speech and Social media bills as a cynical attempt by some anti-democratic forces in government to curtail the freedom of expression contained in Section 22 of the 1999 constitution as amended.The legal luminary frowned at the bills currently causing a stir in the country, saying the proponents were hell bent on sliding Nigeria towards dictatorship and fascism. He described the two bills as evil legislation, ill motivated, evilly conceived and not in the interest of the country.

Adedipe explained that the importance of democracy is that people can debate, argue, exchange ideas and engage themselves in contest of ideas.“Before this APC government came into office, they utilised to the extreme the so-called social media and hate speech. You only need to go to past records and recall what principal actors in this regime did then. To turn around to say that we cannot talk, that it is hate speech, is preposterous.

“Let’s take for instance the appointment of police commissioners that the Police Service Commission is complaining about. They said 14 came from the Northwest, Southeast had only one, some states in the South had none, while Katsina has four. If you want to comment they will say it is hate speech,” he said.He observed that the whole essence of both bills was to prevent people from commenting on the unpopular and unfair policies of the present federal administration.

“Above all, they still have an ulterior motive. We are beginning to hear uncomfortable story of third term. With people saying they can die for Buhari, you never know what some of these legislators will come up with. For me, it is an ill wind that does nobody any good including those who are proponents of this evil legislation. It is evil,” he said.

Adedipe noted that there are several laws in existence such as the cybercrime law, defamation law, slander and libel law that can conveniently deal with the concerns of proponents of the two obnoxious bills. He noted that for some lawmakers to prepare a special law to deal with social media and hate speech smacks of lack of meaningful things to do.He wondered why the lawmakers are more preoccupied with gagging Nigerians whereas the country is faced with several challenges, ranging from electoral violence, electoral manipulation, inequality of the sexes, crisis in the educational sector, infrastructural decay and healthcare system that is in shambles.

“When you look through this thing, you will be reminded of Decree 4 of 1984, which states that even if what you said is true, if it embarrasses the government, you will go to jail. This is a throw back to that time. I think something is crawling out of the bottle and it is not in our interest. All of us should resist this law. We should condemn it and we should tell our legislators not to support it.“As you are aware, this government has been very intolerant, very militant and very oppressive. So, anything to do to clamp down on our rights is welcomed by them. I think that is my suspicion; they just want to cow all of us. The media should educate Nigerians through informed editorials and get our representatives to be put on notice that we do not support the laws,” he said.

Similarly, the executive director of Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (IHRHL), Anyakwee Nsirimovu, has condemned the bills, saying they are not reasonable, humane, civilised or progressive. “It is unparalleled impunity by what has been generously conceived as a progressive 9th Senate. It is our candid advice to men and women of conscience and responsibility of this Senate, that this inhumanity in thought be ended forthwith. The essence of popular government is not to capriciously use its majority to exercise tyranny,” he said.

Nsirimovu said there was no denying the fact that Nigerians should appreciate the importance of social media as catalysts for development in the society, even as it has edified, instructed, admonished and raised the sensibility of Nigerians and inspired many reforms. He noted that it was a verified fact that without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty. In addition, he said without freedom of speech, there can never be a free government.

“We remind the Senate and the Minister of Information of the Federal Republic that Nigeria is an open society where a different atmosphere and environment must be fostered. By opening its institutions, it seeks to encourage in each man and woman with a sense of participation, a feeling of security in that participation, and responsibility for the achievements and failings of his society.”

Nsirimovu said democracy feeds and thrives upon the thought and action of its citizens. He stressed that for people to act upon their thought in a democracy implies bringing those thoughts to the attention of the government, which can be effectively done only in combination with other citizens. To this end, he said to stifle this is to cut off the feed line, adding that it is nothing short of a path towards totalitarianism.

“The concept of freedom of speech and expression without any shadow of doubt, underlies all thought and writings on the effective functioning of participatory government. It dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, and is currently expressed in the constitution of every modern civilised nation globally. It was the subject of John Milton’s classic writing, the Areopagitica, in which he stated, ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to the conscience, above all liberties.’” he said.

‘Senate Should Jettison Hate Speech Bill’
From Lawrence Njoku, Enugu

President of the Solidarity for Peace and Human Rights Initiative, Comrade Osmond Ugwu, has asked Nigerians to rise up and reject the hate speech bill the way they fought against the third term moves of former president Olusegun Obasanjo.He told The Guardian in Enugu that it was sad that the country could propose such bill in a democracy, stressing that caging free speech meant the death of any democratic process.

Ugwu stated that the passage of the bill would spell more doom on the country than even Obasanjo’s attempt to get a third term in office. Ugwu said: “It is unfortunate that at this level of our civilisation in Nigeria, all we are thinking about is how to stop people from showing indifference to policies of government. It is a primordial way of doing things. The issue of hate speech bill is something that cannot survive in Nigeria.

“I have always asked what determines a hate speech in a country that practices democracy? I have not summed this matter up than a move to introduce death penalty in the society on persons who oppose the government. The issue of hate is going to contravene the basic provisions of section 34 of the Constitution. It also restricts certain covenants of the people like African Charter and United Nations Charter. All these charters provided free expression and when the law comes to force, it will limit Nigerians from expressing themselves on issues bothering on them.

“This bill, when passed into law, will be against the people and that is why I call on Nigerians to rise against it the way they did to third term. This law will take us backwards. I call on the Senate to disregard and jettison it.“The people in power today may be beneficiaries of it but how about when they leave office? We have laws that have taken care of these issues and all they need to do is to go to court and prove it. There is law of libel and sedition and they are made to address issues of this nature. So, it is unfair on the system should efforts that could have gone into other productive goals be spent on things that will not benefit the country.”

Don’t Worry, Hate Speech Bill May Not Survive, Boroffice Tells Nigerians
From John Akubo, Abuja

Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Ajayi Boroffice, who had earlier expressed his reservations for the controversial hate speech bill has said Nigerians should not get themselves worked up over the bill, as it may not survive.He, however, lamented that the bill was giving bad image to the Senate.Speaking with The Guardian, he explained the processes that a bill passes through before getting the final nod of the Senate, saying the Hate Speech bill might die along the line.

His words: “A bill will come and it will be read. Whatever the bill is, the standing rule is that it would be read by title the first time. Then they will bring it the second time. During the second reading, it would be repeated and well debated in the Senate; it may die there and then. “If it dies by voting, that is the end of it. Peradventure it goes through second reading, it would go through public hearing. They will call on you journalists to come. They will say this is the Hate Speech bill, what do you feel about it? It is what the public feels about it that will go into the bill. That is if it has scaled through the second reading. It is your bill not our bill. “We don’t make laws for ourselves; we make laws for Nigerians. If the people say they don’t want it there is nothing we can do about it,” Boroffice added.

On the allegation in some quarters that the bill was meant to advance the third term agenda of President Buhari, he added: “Look, the man has said that he is not interested in third term. The executive did not sponsor this bill. It is not an executive bill, it is a private persons bill.“Buhari has said it over and over again that he is not interested in third term; it is unconstitutional. If he were interested, he would have started the constitutional amendment by now because it would take time. If it is approved by the Senate here, it would go through the 36 state Houses of Assembly for approval and you must get two third of it before it can be an amendment. “He has not started anything of such so why do you think he wants to do third term? It is not possible. The man is a patriot. He is committed to this country. He wants a united country; he wants a progressive country; he wants a country with economic buoyancy that generations yet unborn would feel comfortable. 

“You should be able to analyse the situation that the way the bill is, it would not fly. We all know it cannot fly but we cannot stop our colleague from sponsoring a bill. You would be infringing on his fundamental human right. You would be infringing on his right as a member of the National Assembly. He doesn’t even have to be the author of the bill. If you as media want to push a bill on media you can bring it and I will sponsor it for you in my name but it is your bill. So, there is no ulterior motive behind it.”

Boroffice further lamented that the bill has been giving the Senate a bad image since it was introduced.“There is hate speech bill and there is social media bill. We cannot merge the two; they are different. This hate speech bill, I have made a statement that I am opposed to it. We don’t even want the bad image that it is giving the Senate. Somebody can bring any bill but it is left for Nigerians to ensure they kill or sustain it. “Please, I want you to know that we love this country and we would do everything to promote the interest of every Nigerian. All these fears you are carrying about are unfounded. You will see when it (the bill) is listed for second reading; you will see the fireworks.”

Bill May Gag Nigerian Women, Says NWTF President
By Tobi Awodipe

PRESIDENT of the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund (NWTF), Mufuliat Fijabi, on her part, insisted that the bill might likely prevent Nigerians from expressing their thoughts. “If the bill sees the light of day, it would most likely affect women whose voices are barely even heard to disappear completely. The bill itself is not a bad idea but must be fair and consider the human rights of Nigerians,” she said. She added that the fear most people have expressed is that it would become a tool to oppress dissenting voices that any government of the day isn’t happy with.

“The law shouldn’t be biased so that it can transcend any government. When you say hate speech, there should be a context in place and must be well defined. Our fear is that it can be quoted out of context. What is not hate speech can become quickly categorised as such by any crafty politician and can lead to witch hunting anyone that has fallen out of favour or is not aligned with the government in power,” she said. Also speaking in the same vein, Austin Aigbe, the senior program officer, Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), argued that the bill was unnecessary, adding that the promoters of the bill don’t know what they are promoting.

His words: “Those who dig a hole for others today would end up falling into the hole they dug tomorrow when they are no longer in positions of power. They are not looking at tomorrow. Why do you want to stifle people’s voices in a democracy? Anytime they are looking for what to suit their agenda, they refer to the USA; when it doesn’t suit them, they refer to other African countries.

“Another organisation has done a fact check on the bill and discovered that it was borrowed verbatim from Singapore; it’s not even the sponsor’s original idea. The environment, context or issues are different and they didn’t even consider all that. They claim that China doesn’t allow social media, are we China? How can you wake up one morning and say you want to control speeches and social media? We can define and deal with hate speech but it’s not government’s work to regulate it. We have seen government officials come on TV and radio, promoting lies and dishing out false information. What do we do to these individuals?”

He went on to add that it is not the government’s business to determine who is practicing hate speech or not. “If they claim that the bulk of false news and information stems from social media, why can’t they meet up with Facebook, Twitter and the likes to filter certain words and take down accounts that are found wanting or spreading hate speech? Even government officials and lapdogs that spread lies on the Internet must face the consequences. You cannot want to punish citizens and exclude government officials at any level. Look at that senator that beat up a nursing mother in Abuja, he’s very happy, jumping up and down to ensure this bill is passed. We know he’s doing this because social media exposed and shamed him. This is the purpose of the social media, giving voices to Nigerians. We are well aware that disinformation and fake news can be dangerous because we have a classical example of someone that sat in his house in U.K and was spreading fake news and hate in Plateau through his Facebook account and there was a reprisal attack the next day.

“I put it to these politicians, if an American or U.K politician says something negative or puts this country in bad light on social media, what are they going to do about it? If someone in Ghana, Afghanistan or Uganda says something bad or spreads fake news on social media, are they going to repatriate them here to Nigeria? These lawmakers who are chief lawbreakers need to sit down and ask themselves why people are spreading fake news on social media and if they are honest they will know it is because government is no longer delivering what it ought to deliver.

“People have become divided along ethnic, religious and tribal lines; poverty has become the order of the day. If all these are dealt with, fake news will stop. Lawmakers should deal with governance, provide infrastructure and jobs. If people are gainfully employed, they wont have time to be tweeting fake news on the Internet. In the last elections in Kogi, the major political party employed social media boys a.k.a data boys or shepe boys, placed them on salary to simply attack the opposition and insult their paymaster’s opponents. These young people are ‘employed’ to spread fake news, hate speech and promote selfish interests.”


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