The senate yesterday reintroduced a bill to set up a commission for the prohibition of hate speech.
Christened the National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill and sponsored by the deputy chief whip, Mr. Aliyu Abdullahi, the proposed legislation seeks to prevent the spreading and broadcasting of falsehood and manipulations using social media platforms via internet broadcasts and transmissions.
Abdullahi had first introduced a similar bill that proposed death by hanging and other deterrents for hate speech defaulters at the 8th Senate where he served as the Senate spokesman in May 2018.
The senator said the former bill which sought the establishment of ‘Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches’ reflects the growing concern over the spate of violence in the nation.
“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,” the bill said.
He said the establishment of the agency shall enforce hate speech laws across the country to curb hate speech.
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.
It notes that “a person 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.
The commission shall discourage persons, institutions, political parties and associations from advocating or promoting discrimination or discriminatory practices through the use of hate speeches but shall promote respect for religious, cultural, linguistic and other forms of diversity, promote equal access by persons of all ethnic communities and racial groups.
Reacting to the proposed legislation, the former vice president and candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the February 23 presidential election, Mr. Atiku Abubakar said the contemplation of such law is itself hate speech.
Mr. Paul Ibe, spokesman for Atiku said in a statement entitled ‘Anti Hate Speech Bill: Stop this folly and focus on issues that matter to Nigerians’ that the idea of a hate Speech Bill is an abuse of the legislative process that will violate Nigerians’ constitutionally guaranteed right to Freedom of Speech.
Atiku urged those behind this Bill to awake to the fact that Nigeria’s democracy has survived its longest incarnation, because those who governed this great nation between 1999 and 2015 never toyed with this most fundamental of freedoms.
“It is prudent to build upon the tolerance inherited from those years and not shrink the democratic space to satisfy personal and group interests.
“Freedom of Speech was not just bestowed to Nigerians by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), it is also a divine right given to all men by their Creator. History is littered with the very negative unintended consequences that result when this God given right is obstructed by those who seek to intimidate the people rather than accommodate them.
“We should be reminded that history does not repeat itself. Rather, men repeat hosiery. And often, to disastrous consequences.
“Nigeria presently has too many pressing concerns. We are now the world headquarters for extreme poverty as well as the global epicentre of out of school children. Our economy is smaller than it was in 2015, while our population is one of the world’s fastest growing. We have retrogressed in the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International, from the position we held four years ago, and our Human Development Indexes are abysmally low.
“It therefore begs the question: should we not rather make laws to tackle these pressing domestic challenges, instead of this Bill, which many citizens consider obnoxious,” said Atiku.
He cautioned that “we must prioritise our challenges ahead of the whims and caprices of those who do not like to hear the inconvenient truth. Stop this folly and focus on issues that matter to Nigerians.”
Also reacting, the African Democratic Party (ADP) said the bill is “anti-democratic” and could plunge Nigeria into despotism if it scales through.
The party said the government should have nothing to fear from the social media space “if the government officials are clean and have nothing to hide.
“It is even more absurd, that a senator, who was voted in by the people, can stand up on the floor of the Senate to propose death by hanging for citizens for expressing themselves, which the government sees as hate speeches,” the ADP said in the statement signed by its spokesman, Mr. Adelaja Adeoye.
Making reference to Chapter two, section 13-24 of the Nigerian Constitution, Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy and chapter four, section 38, ADP said every person is entitled to “freedom of thought and conscience” which includes “freedom of speech and how people express themselves on social media.
“In as much as we don’t want social media platforms to be regulated, we also urge our citizens to verify the kinds of information they will be putting out, to ensure that they are not injurious, libelous or can cause a threat to the life of another person.
“ADP urges the federal government to face the business of governance, which is the main reason they were elected.
“The federal government should start the sanitation from its members of aides, who deliberately put out fake information, in their bid to hoodwink citizens. There are occasions where aides deliberately put out pictures and videos of non-existed projects in order to promote their principals, this is also a negative use of social media,” ADP stated.
The party asked the lawmakers to drop the bill “because it will expose citizens to incessant attack, arrest and undue detention by the power mongers, who will abuse the process.”
For his part, human rights lawyer, Mr. Mike Ozekhome, described the bill as ill-intentioned, ill-conceived, and ill-digested to breed dictatorship and absolutism.
He called on Nigerians to oppose the bill and ensure it does not see the light of day.
He wondered when making a speech which is guaranteed as freedom of expression under Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution, became punishable by death.
“An obnoxious law such as this will further drive underground and into hiding, the opposition and genuine social critics, who speak truth to power and criticise serial opaque, anti-people, corrupt and high-handed policies of government,” he added.
Another lawyer, Mr. Dayo Akinlaja described the move as “weird and absurd at this age.”
He argued that inasmuch hate speech in the country should not be tolerated there was need for caution to ensure that innocent people do not suffer.
“As much as one would not want to condone anything like hate speech the reality is that one would have to be extra careful to avoid the possibility of an abuse.
“If the punishment is that capital, then what happens if somebody is wrongly accused? That is rather absurd and preposterous at this age and I pray that such a thing does not come through,” he said.
Another legal practitioner, Mr. Ahmed Raji called for a probe of what constitutes hate speech in the proposed law.
“I think we should start by probing into what constitutes hate speech under the proposed legislation. Notwithstanding what may constitute hate speech, the world is moving away from death penalty,” he said.
In his reaction, the executive director of tor of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Dr. Nnimo Bassey said it was outrageous and shameful for the senate to contemplate a bill of that nature.
He said: “Death penalty for so called hate speech; who decides what constitutes hate speech? Our political leaders? If social media statements that have landed some Nigerians in the Gulag approximate what the drafters of this bill have in mind, then there is real threat of a dark cloud over Nigeria. The idea smacks of total insensitivity and is not expected of even the most autocratic. It is a bill with murderous intent. The National Assembly should spend its time on bills that deepen rather than constrict the democratic space. This bill should be withdrawn!”