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Social Media Bill: Democracy, silence and fear

Paradoxically nothing is heating up the polity and causing hate speech more than the reaction to the “copy and paste” Social Media Bill imported from Singapore. Although the motives for importing the bill, which is rushing its way through legislative processes are in dispute, there is no dispute that the social media is being used to spread hatred and lies and that this represents a clear and present danger.

The ease of posting on the social media has meant that warped ideologies and false conspiracy theories, which were once confined to the peripheries, are becoming main stream. History has proved quite tragically that lies spread faster than truth and that those who can make people believe absurdities can also cause them to commit atrocities. The social media is the greatest propaganda tool ever because it has made it easy to amplify even the most fringe ideas and opinions.

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Nowadays, the era of evidential argument is ending because people prefer to read short social media posts on their telephones rather than lengthy newspaper articles. Most people believe what they read even in the absence of supporting facts; to them every statement on the social media seems equally legitimate. The ranting of a lunatic appears to be as credible as the summations of a Nobel Prize winner! Nevertheless, restricting constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech through threat of death penalty isn’t a solution to the problem. What is required is to enlighten the people, and not a show of power.

As Femi Fani-Kayode quite correctly surmised “civilized leaders and enlightened political parties do not seek to kill others for airing their views…”  The whole issue of defining hate speech is in the first place contentious. A Distinguished Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Enyinnaya Abaribe speculated that “if the Hate Speech Bill (together with its death penalty clause) had been in place between 2013 and 2015 the current Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, wouldn’t be alive today”!

The former Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Niger State, claims that his political party is the architect of such speech. According to him, they rode to power in 2015 by using hate speech to mobilize Nigerians against PDP, the then ruling party. Back then, he said nobody complained about it, adding “you cannot stop people from exercising their right to freedom of speech’’. He also said that if the APC thinks that it has failed Nigerians, it should be bold enough to say it is sorry, rather than trying to gag the opposition.

He further said: “If there is justice, equality, fairness and respect for the rule of law there will be no hate speech”.  Other opponents of the Social Media Bill have severally pointed out that the problem with Nigeria isn’t hateful opinions, but rather the causes of such opinions. They believe that the real problem is a history of poor governance, which has failed to create an enabling environment in which the generality of Nigerians can acquire the knowledge and capacity to build, innovate, create or develop better ways of doing things.

Nigeria has been correctly defined as a nation in which Professors profess nothing; schools churn out semi-literates; Doctors lack equipment and standard facilities; Builders raise structures which collapse with monotonous regularity; Lawyers feel no qualms in telling lies; Judges habitually dispense injustice; youths only dream to flee abroad; and political leaders appear incapable of articulating and implementing life changing policies and visions to uplift the generality of the citizens. None of these problems can be solved through social media legislation!  There are indeed, far more pressing issues which legislators’ should be looking into, especially as Section 24 of the Cyber Crimes Act has already addressed the issue of fake news and hate speech. Important landmark bills  such as the proposed Anti-Corruption Bill, Free Education Bill, Welfare Bill, Free Healthcare Bill, Job Seekers Allowance Bill, Free Libraries Bill, and Old Age Pensioners Support Bill are yet to be passed into law.

It is baffling, to say the least, that in this time of national crisis the priority of the National Assembly (NASS) is not to assist the anti-corruption war by introducing a Death Penalty Bill for Treasury Looters, or assist economic recovery by reducing their burden on the treasury, but rather, they are busing purchasing new vehicles and fast-tracking the NASS Estacode Bill!  There is no evidence to believe opposition members who claim that restricting freedom of speech on the social media is an attempt to muzzle future objections to any third term bid by the current president. This point of view simply indicates scepticism and a loss of faith, hope and confidence in the sincerity of Nigerian leaders. Only time will tell.

Legal experts have pointed out two drawbacks with the hate speech bill. Firstly, that when a person is telling the truth he cannot be found guilty of slander, libel or defamation, but he can be guilty of hate speech. Secondly, that any opinion about whosoever is in office at the time, which does not put them in favourable light, can be classified as “hate speech”. Be that as it may objections to the Social Media Bill should not be based upon assumptions of the motives behind it, but rather on the fact that under democracy, a culture of silence and fear is unacceptable.

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