News Analysis: X-raying Nigeria’s Hate Speech, Social Media Bills




By  Ibrahim Mohammed

More often than not when the country’s legislative arm of government makes headline news towards the end of year it is largely on controversies over budget issues including padding and ‘’missing’’ budget. But this time around the Senate made a major departure from its comical way of treating budget proceedings by passing the N10.6trillion (10,594,362,364,830) Appropriation Bill presented on October 8 by President Muhammadu Buhari, to a joint session of the National Assembly (upper and lower) legislative chambers into law in record time. Thereby leaving behind the Hate Speech and Social Media Regulation Bills to top the chart!

So, what did the magic that robbed both local and international audiences of the National Assembly some comical relief lawmakers had in the past attached to budget proceedings in the West African nation of over 200 million people according to UN estimates? Maybe the emergence of President Buhari’s ally Senator Ahmad Lawan as President of the Senate gave the Executive arm of government a smooth  sail.

Besides, Newsdiaryonline recalls that after presenting N10.33 trillion budget the lawmakers raised it up to N10.6 trillion with additional N560.47 billion for statutory transfers, a category which covers the National Assembly budget and the presidency did not kick over it until the budget was passed on December 5. Buhari’s disposition this time around to ‘‘cooperate’’ with the Senators many believed saved the face of the country from budget drama.

Be that as it may, the upper legislative chambers is most likely going to end the year with a lot of attention focused on it over the Hate Speech Bill which seeks death penalty for anyone found guilty of hate speech.There is  alsothe  Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019 which seeks to regulate use of social media platforms that have become a vital avenue for public discourse.This is happening as  Nigerians grapples with mirage of challenges including insecurity, sliding standard of living, corruption in judiciary amongst others.

Interestingly, the sponsor of the controversial Hate Speech Bill, Senator Aliyu Abdullahi and Senator Sani Musa are both from Niger State in North-Central Nigeria. The last time a federal lawmaker from the state attracted global attention was when Senator Isa Mohammed slapped a female colleague in the year 2004, he later apologised to Senator Iyabo Anisulowo, her family, all women and other Nigerians offended by the incident.

Although, the Hate Speech Bill is not a physical slap but judging from the barrage of reactions it is generating since it was reintroduced on the floor of the Senate the bill has carved a niche for itself as one that touches the raw nerves of the people.

The proposed death penalty for anybody found guilty of hate speech and the regulation of social media platforms is seen by most Nigerians as a toxic mix that must be resisted. But whether those opposed to the death penalty component of the bill have the war chest to confront sponsors and supporters of the bill into dropping it remains to be seen.

However, the proposed legislation which first surfaced last year before it was reintroduced this year and its co-traveller, the social media regulation bill (first considered in 2015 on the floor of the Senate) according to pundits have the trappings of laws that will grossly limit freedom of expression in the country.

Even without such a law some Nigerians have been arrested and detained for their views on social. For instance, The Department of State Services (DSS) the country’s secret police in June this year embarked on nationwide crackdown of social media users allegedly caught posting inciting materials on the Internet. This, in itself is being used as a reference point by those opposed to the passage of the bills which they view as a matter that could infringe on the potency of free speech safeguards as enshrined in Nigeria’s constitution.

DSS spokesperson, Peter Afunanya, in a statement after the arrests said that some “unpatriotic” Nigerians have been using social media platforms to make “unguarded public statements and/or use the social media platforms to instil fear in the minds of citizens.”

The statement also quoted Afunanya, as saying that “these are reflected in the misleading statements and articles being circulated among unsuspecting members of the public. Such inciting materials oftentimes are designed to make or convey false accusations by one group against the other.’’

According to him such persons “also resort to skewing historical narratives to suit their objective of masterminding ethnic violence in the nation. So far, some of the culprits have been arrested.”

In this vein, the service expressed its determination “to ensure that the tribal chauvinists and mischief makers do not continue to exploit socio-political differences and Internet platforms to threaten the peace and stability of the country.”

The DSS then vowed to “sustain the apprehension and prosecution of defaulters,” to prevent crimes and keep Nigeria as an indivisible entity.

Many are of the view that the secret police position clearly indicated that use of social media platforms have become of great concerns to the Nigerian government, as such the powers that be may be giving tacit support to the bill which is currently before the senate.

A pointer to the aforementioned is the recent declaration by Nigeria’s First Lady Hajiya Aisha Buhari, that “if China can control over 1.3 billion people on social media, I see no reason why Nigeria cannot attempt controlling only 180m people.”

The President’s wife who was speaking at Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs General Assembly and National Executive Council meeting at the National Mosque, Abuja, added that “on this issue of social media, you cannot just sit in the comfort of your house and tweet that the Vice President has resigned. It is a serious issue.’’

There are no shortage of people speaking in favour of the bill which many fears will adversely affect freedom of speech with a multiplier effect of reversing Nigeria’s democratic progression.

For his part, lawmaker in the 8th National Assembly, Senator Shehu Sani, who represented Kaduna Central Senatorial District said the social media bill was a threat to the fundamental rights of Nigerians.

Sani, currently the Executive Director, African Centre for Peace and Development, in a statement said he was at a loss as to why the Muhammadu Buhari administration, which got to power in 2015 largely due to social media support was now trying to limit its usage.

The bill on the regulation of social media, he noted ‘‘poses a serious threat and danger to freedom of speech and expression. The quest to regulate social media is a grand plan to silence critics and dissenting voices.

“Combating hate speech is a smokescreen to annihilating free speech. Any law aimed at limiting the rights and freedom of citizens to express their views is aimed at building a tower of tyranny.

“It is ironic that a government that came to power on the promise of protecting the fundamental rights of Nigerians is now reneging and sliding towards totalitarianism. Silencing dissents endangers democracy,” he said.

Sani said Buhari, “who was once a victim of abuse of power,” must be conscious of his place in history and legacies on human rights and the rule of law.

He noted that, “Disobedience to court orders demonises a country and criminalises a government.

“Nigeria’s democracy is threatened by the authoritarian tendencies of the people in power.”

Senator Shehu Sani is not the only personality that supported the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to power and now have cause to question the motive behind the Hate Speech and Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bills 2019. Another onetime ardent APC stalwart who is not comfortable with attitude of the government and is making his voice known in this regard is a former commissioner for Information, Culture and Tourism in Niger State, Mr Jonathan Vatsa.

Vatsa, while addressing journalists in Minna, the state capital recently echoed his misgivings on the proposed hate speech bill seeking the death penalty for anyone convicted over hate speech, saying “you cannot stop people from expressing their freedom of speech.”

He wondered why the APC controlled upper legislative chamber would ever contemplate what he described as “unpopular bill.”

In an uncommon frankness among Nigeria politicians as  the former commissioner criticised the APC for riding to power in 2015 on the tempo of widespread hate speech.

According to the erstwhile spokesman of the All Progressive Congress Niger State, “we (APC) brought Hate Speech to Nigerian politics and I

[was]

one of them as a Publicity Secretary of the APC. I know how we used Hate Speech to mobilise Nigerians against the ruling party, and it paid off because Nigerians hated the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).”

The APC chieftain without mincing words recalled that prior to 2015 elections, ‘‘Nigerians did not know anything like hate speech. In fact, since the return of Democracy in 1999, we are just hearing about Hate Speech. APC as a political party brought hate to politics in form of propaganda. 

“The truth must be told, we are the architect of Hate Speech and nobody complained about it, we enjoyed it and it worked for us. 

“If we think we have failed Nigerians in our change promises, we should be bold enough to tell Nigerians that we are sorry, we could not deliver, but to try to cage them by trying to introduce or recycle Decree 4 of 1984 in the name of hate speech is unacceptable,” he stated.

He posited that “corruption and injustice gave birth to what is now called hate speech,” therefore, the Senate should propose the death penalty for corrupt leaders. 

Vatsa, whose condemnation of the bill generated widespread acceptance leading to retransmission on various social media platforms explained that “if there is justice, equity, fairness and respect for rule of law, there will be no Hate Speech. But when people are being marginalised and denied their right, surely there will be hate speech. You cannot stop people from expressing their freedom of speech. 

“If the Senate is proposing death penalty for Hate Speech, then what will they do to Boko Haram, armed bandits, kidnappers, oil bunkers and treasury looters, both politicians and civil servants. All these things are worse than hate speech. 

“There are more pressing issues to Nigerians that the Senate should look into and address instead of wasting their energy on an unpopular bill like this one that will not see the light of the day. 

Vatsa, however, believed that there was more to the proposed Hate Speech Bill, saying that “if the rumour of President Buhari nursing the ambition of a third term is correct, then they need the death penalty for hate speech to silence everybody who will want to oppose him.” Newsdiaryonline reports that Buhari has repeatedly distance himself from a third term plot. 

The former Commissioner added,“But the Senate should know that he who lives in a glass house should not throw stones because they cannot be there forever. When they leave the Senate, the law can catch up with them.

“If the millions of Nigerian youths can have something to do to earn a living, they will not have time for hate speech. If people are allowed to elect their leaders in a free and fair election, there will be no Hate Speech. So, something gave birth to Hate Speech and that is what the Senate should address,” he stressed. 

Mr. Jonathan Vatsa , however, cautioned the Senate that the proposed bill was an invitation to anarchy “which, if care is not taken, might consume all of us.”

Similarly, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), in its reaction to the controversial Hate Speech and Social Media Bills being considered at the National Assembly, stated that the aim was purposely designed to suppress Nigerians from speaking out freely on matters that affect their lives. 

CAN Director of Legal and Public Affairs, Kwamkur Samuel Vondip, said in a statement, recently, that “we have sufficient laws that could be used to check excesses of individuals and organisations that are misusing social media and propagating hate speeches,” citing the country’s Penal Code, Criminal Code, Cyber Crime Act and other legal provisions on crimes that deal with hate speech, defamation, libel, and similar offenses are clear and strong enough.  

Contrastingly, former federal lawmaker who represented Taraba South at the upper legislative chambers, Senator Joel Ikenya, backed the hate speech bill saying freedom of expression as a fundamental right to citizens is being abused by many Nigerians.

Ikenya, while fielding questions from journalists said that many people were miss using such a right to blackmail others especially on social media.

Meanwhile, Political Officer of the Embassy of the United States of America, Jerry Howard, came up with what may be seen as a game changer when he described the Hate Speech Bill before the National Assembly as an “impressive” piece of legislation needed to address issues of discrimination, hostility and violence in Nigeria.

Howard stated this in Abuja during a meeting with the Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate and sponsor of the bill, Senator Aliyu Abdullahi, at the National Assembly, to seek an understanding into the proposed legislation under consideration by the Senate.

Following explanations by Senator Abdullahi on the bill, Mr. Howard described the response of the media as “misleading” and “hysterical.”  “We want Nigeria to succeed and we think a prerequisite for Nigeria’s success is successful democracy.

“For democracy to succeed, the people must have a house, the people must have a place where their representatives can argue and complain, come up with new ideas and come up with solutions to guide the executive branch and lead the country forward,” Howard said.

 “I am very impressed with the research you’ve done on the bill. The media has had a field day with this, really.

“You’ve thought it through. I was depending on the media for my education, and it was very misleading. You’ve done your research and it is very interesting.

“But you have a difficult job selling this to the NGOs, CSOs. You need to talk to them. You’ll need to talk to Civil Society Organizations, you need to educate them. You’ve educated me,” Howard stated.

Speaking on the rationale for the bill Abdullahi said “part of the reasons why violence takes place is attributable to discriminatory practices.

“It is discrimination that creates the socio-political imbalance that you see leading to a group feeling shortchanged and marginalised.

“Discrimination is also another very serious matter why I sponsored the bill. This bill basically is about preventing discrimination, and prohibiting people who incite violence.”

He pointed out that the bill’s introduction by the National Assembly has the backing of Section 45 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended.

The Section states: “Nothing in Sections 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society; in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom or other persons.”

In this vein, Senator Abdullahi explained that “an Independent Commission shall be constituted and whose membership will be restricted to persons without any history of promoting ethnic or religious causes, or anyone with political affiliations.”

Nigeria’s constitution, as well as international human rights law, protects the right to freedom of expression and provides that any restriction to such rights must be justifiable.

United Nations (UN) deputy secretary-general, Hajiya Amina Mohammed, a Nigerian agreed while in the country recently that while laws can be made against hate speech, the death penalty should be frowned at. 

However, as the beat goes, on one of Nigeria’s trading partners,  the European Union (EU),  has  taken  a stand as the leading institutional actor and largest donor in the fight against death penalty worldwide.

The EU holds a strong and principled position against the death penalty in all circumstances and for all cases, in accordance with the EU Strategic Framework and its related Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy. The universal abolition of the death penalty is one of the key priorities of its Human Rights external policy, and such commitment is outlined in the EU Guidelines on Death Penalty which were the first human rights guidelines ever adopted by the Council of the European Union in 1998, subsequently updated in 2001, 2008 and 2013.

The EU considers Capital punishment as inhumane, degrading and unnecessary. As a matter of fact, there is no valid scientific evidence to support that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments. Furthermore, any miscarriage of justice, which is a possibility in any judiciary no matter how advanced it is, could lead to the intentional killing of an innocent person by state authorities.

Meanwhile, due to spiralling opposition to the death penalty, sponsor of the controversial Hate Speech Bill, Senator Sabi Abdullahi, bowed to pressure from Nigerians when he declared recently that his proposed legislation would be amended to remove death by hanging as the maximum punishment for offenders when the bill is subjected to legislative input by the National Assembly. 

Besides, Abdullahi said that the bill would undergo some fine-tuning to ensure that its provisions to be passed into law, reflect the views of Nigerians.

Newsdiaryonline has been a regarded as a major source of concern of late especially ahead of elections.Nigeria’s Minister of Information Lai Mohammed has  been vehemently campaigning against hate speech.The National Broadcasting Commnission,NBC has also been taking measures towards curbing hate speech.

Civil Society organisations, CSOs like CITAD have been keeping close watch on the rising incidence of hate speech.

The point however is that many Nigerians disagree with death penalty as a punishment for hate speech.Former Director of Army Public Relations, Brigadier General SK Usman(rtd) while delivering the 2019 Tozali TV Lecture in Abuja recently rejected  death penalty for hate speech.

As the local and international reactions keep pouring in over the controversial bills, several Nigerians are not  at ease with proposed legislations. How it will ultimately end remains to be seen.

Newsdiaryonline recalls that in 2015 the Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention Etc) Act was enacted. It criminalizes a wide range of online interactions.