Nigerians are on the cross road of history as the the national assembly is legislating on a new bill that proposes death by hanging for hate speech offenders.
Despite the massive public outcry against the proposed legislation aimed at addressing social media concerns, such as hate Speech, sponsors of the bills, senators Sani Musa and Sabi Abdullahi has reiterated that the has come to stay.
The Nigerian senate passed the first reading of the bill, which will ultimately translate to death sentence for anyone found guilty,after it has been signed into law.
The bill is also contemplating new media laws that will curtail free speech.
According to aggrieved nigerians, the Senate slid further into impropriety last week when it ushered a monstrous anti-hate speech bill through its first reading.
Draconian and nebulous, it prescribes harsh punishment, ranging from five years’ imprisonment to execution, for alleged hate speech offences, and leaves room for state officials to abridge constitutionally-guaranteed fundamental freedoms. The immediate push-back by horrified citizens should intensify and all stakeholders should challenge this gratuitous assault on rights to freedom of thought and expression.
The National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech (Establishment) Bill 2019 was introduced by Senate Deputy Chief Whip, Sabi Abdullahi, but some suspect the unmistakable fingerprints of the increasingly intolerant Muhammadu Buhari administration. Apart from its nebulous definition of hate speech, the bill specifies penalties that include life imprisonment, death by hanging, 10 years’ imprisonment and fines of up to N10 million.
None of the draconian decrees churned out under the military era came up even close with such ghoulish weapon against free speech.
While hate speech on social media is a problem affecting the world, not many countries resort to such extreme measures as are in the offing in Nigeria. Ignoring strong criticism, the nation’s highest lawmaking body, the Senate, is preparing a law which will make it possible to sentence to death by hanging anybody convicted of spreading hate speech.
The bill is going through two readings in just two weeks.
It is a very extensive piece of legislation, which covers a slew of possible wrongdoings, including the publication or presentation of material deemed to stir up ethnic hatred. It also takes aim at written or visual acts seen as threatening, abusive, insulting or offensive.
Death by hanging or a life sentence
The proposed law says that any person who commits an offence of the kind described could be jailed for life. If the actions are found to have caused loss of life, the punishment can be death by hanging. However, there are indications that the part of the bill dealing with the death sentence could be removed, according to recent comments made by Senator Abdullahi, in which he recognized strong resistance.
The government also aims to implement more stringent laws regulating the media. Information and Tourism Minister Lai Mohammed recently said that the laws passed 27 years ago needed to be re-evaluated. He added that the new bill ”will address the existing lacunae in the areas of the regulation of the Internet,” among others.
Under the new laws, fines for erring broadcast media organizations will be moved upward from 500,000 Nigerian Naira (N) (€1,252) to N5 million for hate speech and related offences.
The planned laws, which came in the wake of announcements to the effect by President Muhammadu Buhari two months ago, are arousing some controversy.
Buhari promised ”firm and decisive action” against anyone found spreading hate speech. But the bills have come under heavy attacks by civil society organizations, who believe the planned laws are targeted at government critics.
”Our view, and very much that of civil society organizations in Nigeria, is that the government does not have any patriotic or nationalistic reason for amending the existing broadcasting laws. In fact, the government is planning to target independent media. The primary target is the African Independent Television.
Everybody knows that the federal government is not comfortable with the liberal approach that most of these independently-owned and operated electronic media houses,” Emmanuel Onwubiko, coordinator for Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria, told
Uba Gaya, a public affairs analyst and former deputy president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, an umbrella organization of Nigerian editors, described the bill by the lawmakers as illegal. He also advised the government to avoid actions that could scare away foreign investors.
”My view is that the government should tread with serious caution, so that it is not perceived negatively by the international community. Every step we take is being watched.
There are international groups that monitor the media globally. They are watching every move, every step the federal government takes,” Gaya told the media.
Gaya called attention to the ”speedy pace” the hate speech bill is going through the National Assembly. He added that he considers the changes to be illegal. ”The social media bill being considered by the National Assembly contravenes Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution of the Nigerian Federation of Nigeria, which guarantees freedom of expression, opinion,” and information.
Social media’s responsibility
Gaya suggested that the Nigerian government ”engage the founders of Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks, to get them to filter information that could endanger public interest.”
However, a source within the NBC, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, noted that ”the commission is only doing what’s expected of it as a regulatory body. We can’t sit back and watch the broadcast space being messed up with all manner of offensive content. There wouldn’t have been a better time than now.”
In an interview with Punch, All Progressives Congress (APC) lawmakers from Niger State says the bills are meant to serve the the overall interest of Nigerians.
According to Abdullahi, the Deputy Chief Whip noted that:
“I will not drop the bill. In the first instance, I sponsored this bill of my own volition. Nobody asked me to do so. I did all the research and I have my strong reasons for coming up with this.
“There is a stage in our development as a country that we have reached where we have to have caution. I’m not doing this out of ignorance. We need this law at this stage of our development.
“The bill on its own did not create any outrage. The bill is suffering from hate speech already because people have misinterpreted it. Simply because you read ‘death by hanging’ without reading the context, you have started making comments. Is it possible to just hang a human being?”
On his part, Musa vows to go ahead with his Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019, despite opposition against the bill.
My bill can also tackle hate speech because if you know that you are going to say something that is not true, you will think of the consequences.
“The aim and objective of my bill are to prevent the transmission of false statements, or a declaration of facts, knowing full well that those facts are not true in Nigeria.
Shehu Sani, former Senator representing Kaduna Central has commended Nigerians for protesting at the National Assembly over the controversial Hate Speech Bill.
The protesters demanded the withdrawal of the bills on hate speech and internet manipulations.
Deji Adeyanju, a civil activist, who led the protesters to the National Assembly gate, described the bills as “obnoxious”.
The protesters carried placards bearing various inscriptions aimed at rejecting the bills.
According to Adeyanju, the bills have no place in a democratic regime.