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Needless ‘hatred’, fuss over hate speech bill

T

he bill to regulate the use of social media and check the spread of hate speech in Nigeria was recently reintroduced on the floor of the Senate. The bill, which proposes three years imprisonment or an option of N150, 000.00 fine for violators, is sponsored by Senator Aliyu Sabi representing Niger North Senatorial District. The Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019 was one of the 11 bills read at the plenary session of the Senate on Tuesday November 5, 2019. According to the bill, a corporate organisation shall pay a fine of between N5 million to N10 million if it fails to stop the dissemination of false information after it has been alerted by relevant authorities that such information is fake.

It would be recalled that the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, had in October this year told journalists in Abuja that the federal government was working on how to sanitize the social media space, which it said, was getting out of control. He said the social media was constituting a threat to the unity of the country. The minister explained that contrary to insinuations, government had no intention to muzzle the media or stifle free speech, saying the campaign to regulate the social media was against fake news and hate speech.

Minister Lai also said only those engaged in disseminating fake news or hate speech needed to be worried. “We cannot allow fake news and hate speech to become free speech, because these Siamese Twins of Evil are capable of inflicting untold damage on our democracy… They represent a clear and imminent danger to our survival as a nation”, Lai said. During this media interaction with journalists, the NUJ President Chris Isiguzo, observed that social media regulation was long overdue as activities of its actors “have become something else”. Isiguzo said “When we talk about fake news, dissemination of hate speeches, they are so prevalent in the social media”.

But soon after the bill passed first reading, the NUJ President Chris Isiguzo, led other executive members of the Union on a visit to Information Minister. During the visit, Isiguzo said though the union regretted the escalation in fake news and hate speeches and would support any meaningful engagement to curtail the “evils”, it would not “support this bill which, if ultimately passed, could be used to silence the media and perceived political opponents”. This ‘double-speak’ position of the NUJ is a complete contradiction of its previous standpoint which Isiguzo had earlier told Lai Mohammed. That which made the Isiguzo-led NUJ to make a sharp U-Turn in its opinion on the social media bill remains confounding to many well-meaning Nigerians. The question is: Are journalists trying to be part of the problem? Lai Mohammed however responded, saying “When we announced the plan to regulate the social media, we said clearly that the regulation is not an attempt to gag the media or muzzle free speech”.

Speaking to newsmen during an interactive session at the National Assembly on Monday, November 18, 2019, Senate spokesman, Senator Godiya Akwashiki, declared that the ‘Hate Speech bill’ is a private member bill, which solely belongs to Senator Aliyu Sabi; adding that it is not sponsored by the Senate. However, the sponsor of the bill Senator Sabi affirmed that he will pursue the bill to its logical conclusion. He explained that hate speech is posing threat to the country’s corporate existence; a reason he said prompted him to reintroduce the bill.

Sabi noted that the bill, which he earlier sponsored during the 8th Senate but couldn’t push it after its first reading due to political exigencies of the time, is aimed at halting wanton blood-shed that is promoted by hate speech. “The intent of the bill is to provide a platform for dealing with those exploiting the two fault lines in the country (i.e. religion and ethnicity)”, Sabi reiterated. He said available records indicate that the largest percentage of ethno-religious crises between the last 15 to 20 years in the country was caused by hate speech. “This to me as a federal lawmaker should not be allowed to continue and the best way of doing this is to come up with appropriate law to arrest the ugly trend which the Anti-Hate Speech Bill is proposed to address,” Sabi said.

Considering the devastating consequences which many Nigerians have suffered in recent past as a result of religious bigotry and ethnic jingoism, only Nigerians with little sense of history would support the abuse of social media through hate speech and fake news. Innocent lives and property have been lost to hate speech in this country.

But even without Senator Sabi sponsoring this bill, antagonists of the proposed legislation have probably forgotten that hate speech, fake news, character defamation, and rumour mongering have all already been criminalised by the Criminal Code. Section 88A (1)(b) of the Criminal Code (Laws of the Federation, 1990) provides that “Any person who publishes or circulates publications either in the form of newspapers, or leaflets, periodicals, pamphlets or posters, if such publications are likely to provoke or bring into disaffection any section of the country shall be guilty of an offence…”

Therefore, the passage and/or signing of this bill into law does not in any way amount to usurping extant laws on free speech as those against the bill are frantically trying to make the Nigerian public believe. But why should the extant laws or provisions of the proposed bill worry anyone since persons suspected to have committed an offence are cannot be jailed without prosecution? There must be a court process that will determine a person’s innocence or otherwise in a case, whether civil or criminal. One then wonders why so much hatred and fuss over this all-important bill.

The right to freedom of expression as provided in Section 39(1) of the country’s 1999 constitution isn’t absolute. It must be exercised to the extent that other peoples’ rights are not jeopardized. No sophist no matter his/her philosophical advancement or sophistication is ‘wise’ enough to ascribe any virtues to fake news or hate speech. Even in the ‘kingdom’ of common sense, freedom of speech cannot justify fake news or hate speech in the same way that the right to own property does not justify stealing.

Remarkably, majority of Senators were in support of the social media bill when it passed second reading in the Senate on Wednesday November 20, 2019. In order to curb fake news and hate speech on social media platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, patriotic Nigerians stand by Senator Sabi on the hate speech bill. May Allah (SWT) guide our lawmakers to enact laws that shall be in the interest of public safety, public order, and public morality for the overall purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of all Nigerians, amin.

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