Rethinking the proposed law on ‘hate speech’

With hammer and tongs, the Federal Government is about to criminalise “hate speech.” A new bill to this effect is receiving the attention of the National Assembly. Already, the executive and legislature have closed ranks, with a target to pass the law that will cauterise speech deemed incendiary, in a record time. However, it seems the government has not thought things through. Therefore, the bill, which appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to the separatist agitations that have spiked in the past few months, needs to be properly considered before it becomes another oppressive tool.

The Minister of Interior, Abdulrahman Dambazau, says his ministry has submitted the draft to the Ministry of Justice. He argued that it would stem the drift towards anarchy by prosecuting and punishing offenders. The Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, and the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, soon boarded that caravan. While Saraki promised to accelerate the passage of the bill, Osinbajo said, “The Federal Government has drawn a line (in the sand) on hate speech. Hate speech is a species of terrorism; it will be taken as an act of terrorism ….” However, associating talks about restructuring, self-determination, secession and criticism of government with terrorism, which is what the law appears to be targeting, is stretching the argument a bit too far. But the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, has already invoked this. Without offering a proper articulation, he has ordered the National Broadcasting Commission to sanction TV and radio stations over “hate speech.”

The concept of hate speech is delicate and jealously monitored in free societies, including the United Kingdom. There are sound arguments to justify a prohibition on inciting hatred against vulnerable minorities who have a history of suffering persecution and prejudice. It is deemed to be a method of protecting them and creating a social atmosphere where they have redress against their tormentors. It is argued that laws against inciting hatred are ethically justified and have practical benefits. Though there are laws in the UK that ban incitement to hatred and violence, including on account of religion or belief, as well as harassment, victimisation and discrimination by organisations against individuals on those same grounds, these laws strike the right balance in protecting freedom of speech and expression, and work to defend them.

America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation defines hate crime as a traditional offence like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offence against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties. And the UK Communications Act 2003 defines illegal communication as “using public electronic communications network in order to cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety.” Breaking the law carries a six-month prison term or fine of up to £5,000. Even at that, the European Union ensures free speech is protected at all times.

There is always a livid and often confused discussion about free speech versus hate speech. That is why most free societies, as it is in Canada, ensure that no person is convicted of an offence under hate speech laws if the statements communicated are true; if they are in good faith to establish an argument or an opinion and if they are relevant to any subject of public interest. Andrus Ansip, an EU commissioner, said, “The concept of free speech protects not only what we agree with but also that of which we are critical and disturbing. We need to address the spread of fake news by improving media literacy and critical thinking.” So, the European Court of Justice often overturns hate speech convictions by its member states on their citizens. These are countries with strong and well developed justice systems.

Certainly, this is far-fetched from what the Buhari government is making out of it here. Officials of this government, including Osinbajo, describe hate speech as a species of terrorism. President Muhammadu Buhari has also directed the security agencies to go after those threatening the nation’s unity through hate speech. In line with the President’s directive, the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, says offenders will be prosecuted under the Terrorism Prevention Act. Not wanting to be left out in government’s panicky response, the military says it is monitoring “troubling activities and misinformation capable of jeopardising the unity of the country” on the social media. This is clearly wrong-headed and dangerous.

There are questions to be answered: Will all this not infringe on the freedom of speech? Who decides what constitutes hatred? Will the police show restraint in enforcing the law impartially? While existing relevant laws should be enforced, the Buhari administration must not label those campaigning for restructuring as enemies of the state or equate them with blood-thirsty terrorists. The government should therefore stop denying there are inherent contradictions in our polity. This is the real cause of tension. As long as it does not provide the platform for this to be resolved through dialogue, the agitations will not stop. True federalism guarantees peaceful coexistence of disparate ethnic nationalities. Rather than precipitately crucify those agitating for federalism, the All Progressives Congress-led government should address the underlying factors promoting such legitimate demands.

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