From the beginning, it was clear that it would be a no win situation in dealing with the major problem of hate speech spreading like wild fire. In the past four years, Nigeria seemed to have been overwhelmed by the invasion of fake news and hate speech. No holds could be barred. At least, so self-assured were manufacturers and spreaders of the twin-monster that their actions could not be controlled nor halted. Government, on its part, seemed helpless, for which there were no thanks from concerned Nigerians.
On the other hand, eventually, effort was made in the form of a legislative bill to curb the lawlessness and gradual slide into anarchy. Expectedly, punitive measures proposed in the bill alarmed both anarchists with much to lose and well-intentioned critics. There may therefore be the need for proper digest of, and caution over the final sanctions for purveyors of fake news and hate speech. What is unacceptable are the blackmail, unnecessary alarm, ignorance and ignorance, all on display as if nothing happened to warrant government action to restrain the misuse of the much vaunted freedom of expression under the Nigerian constitution. Is it really the case that even a deliberate claim that Tuesday is Sunday or Lagos is the capital of Kaduna carries the risk of the culprit being sent to the gallows? Or do the fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution necessarily allows the citizen the right to endanger or take the lives of other citizens and indeed the society through hate speeches? In the past four years, journalism and freedom of expression have been so bastardised to create constant tension in the country.
The situation was worsened by looted public funds enabling wrong hands, in some cases, through proxies to invest (if that is the word) in media industry without the least knowledge or even bother about the rules, regulations and limits guiding the profession or responsibility to society. Their main concern is their political war. When therefore, consequences of their handicap confront or descend on them, they seek refuge in freedom of expression. Examples of their freedom of expression? False and irresponsible pronouncement of the news of the death of a major public figure and the display on the social media, a coffin purportedly containing the corpse. Where in the world does that happen or is tolerated under freedom of expression or freedom of the press? The false news was initially preceded with another fake news that their supposed deceased target was poisoned in his official residence by domestic staff, who ostensibly could be of different ethnic group. Suppose the public figure eventually died from natural causes, would that have saved Nigeria from violent protests and another round of massacre as experienced in 1966, depending on the ethnic origin and/or political leaning of the innocent domestic staff maliciously portrayed to have poisoned a non-existing deceased? Which freedom of expression or of the press confers the right to be predicting the death of fellow Nigerians, public office holders at that? The same man went for medical treatment and returned to duties and yet, the same so-called social media continued to report claims that the public office holder (had) died and only his clone replaced him. Which freedom of expression or press freedom allows such hatred anywhere in the world. The emphasis is on anywhere in the world.
At best, for reasons of pitiable but inexcusable naivety, punitive measures in the proposed anti-hate speech law vary according to the degree of culpability of the culprit. The death penalty is for only those whose hate speech(es) result in the death of fellow citizens. Not in any way, a new law as death penalty applies for murder in Nigeria. Otherwise, the punishment for fake news or hate speech is jail term ranging from five years to life imprisonment or even option of fine, depending on the demeanour of the accused.
As the argument of the critics goes, the proposed anti-fake news/hate speech marks Nigeria’s descent into dictatorship. The counter argument is a democracy where anarchy reigns supreme and renders government inoperative to guarantee security of lives against hate speeches generating deaths in society. It is a difficult choice. What is worse is for government to take no action and allow anarchists to throw Nigeria into potential bloodshed. Through mere fake news or hate speech?
The following are lessons from history. No psychologist is need to diagnose hate speech as an off-shoot of hate feelings, which in 1939, was the final push for the second world war. Hatred induced a crank (like the perpetrators of hate speech in today’s Nigeria)to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand in Belgrade, federal capital of defunct Yugoslovakia. This sparked the second world war which caused the deaths of tens of millions. The tragic impact of that conflict was such, at the end of the war in 1945, world leaders, since then and whatever the provocation, always go out to avoid a repeat.
If that appears far fetched, we must then recall our own history of thirty months civil war. It is always pathetic when ignorant ones and even those who should know, irresponsibly beat drums of war so soon after the last very unpleasant episode in Nigeria. Down south west, you had better not contemplate repeating a family tragedy or you will be admonished get updated on the cause of your father’s death. This exactly is the imperative for Nigerians today to remember or get educated on a major reason for the massacre which partly led to the civil war. Fake news caused hate speeches and the eventual civil war. Repeat. Fake news caused hate speeches and the eventual civil war. This should educate critics of the proposed anti-fake new/hate speech law on the anger ahead if no action is taken.
Following the indefensibly partsanised January 1966 coup and counter coup six months later, tension became so high and easily inflammable that, even if as a temporary measure, the two major ethnic groups affected by the disturbances were directed to return to their respective parts of the country. Whatever irritations experienced by both sides during their journeys were mutually tolerated until a fake news was repeatedly broadcast on Radio Benin (Dahomey Radio at that time) that northern Nigerians in eastern region were being killed in retaliation by their hosts. In revenge, northerners, if only on circumstantial grounds, embarked on uncontrolled massacre of easterners all over the north. The most tragic aspect was that the news on Radio Benin (Dahomey Radio) that northerners in eastern region were being killed was total fake news which engineered hate speeches, massacre and civil war in which up to two million died on both sides
Must the federal government today, remain indifferent or in the name of freedom of expression allow some deranged fellows to once again, throw Nigeria into bloodshed? These are te anarchists who should be bothered about the death penalty in the proposed anti-hate speech law. On the other hand, if the new law deters perpetrators of hate speech from endangering lives of their fellow citizens in various parts of the country, there will be no need to invoke the law. Furthermore, innocent critics of the proposed law must resist the risk of playing into the hands of these anarchists. There is no way Nigeria could continue as if nothing could be done or that or that government is too weak to take on perpetrators of hate speech. Nigerians would not thank and would rather turn round to blame government for the recklessnes on the social media. Neither should the government expect to be praised for the stern measures proposed against hate speech. When the government introduced death penalty for armed robbery after the civil war and for drug trafficking in 1984, there were similar criticisms, which should now be regarded as mere routine of vested interests and naive observers. The unceasing criticisms led to the somewhat dormant state of the two laws in the country today. Hence, drug trafficking and armed robbery still attract barons.
Death penalty for murder is as old as Nigeria as founded by colonialists. Despite criticisms by misguided libertarians, the law remains on the statute and has never been cited against any innocent Nigerian except where and when necessary. Even then, legal loopholes are exploited to get guity ones off the hook. The anti-hate speech law is therefore necessary but not a threat to anybody except potential perpetrators of hate speeches.
There is also the wrong impression that only Nigerian government is bothered by fake news and fake speeches. On the contrary, other nations like Britain, Japan, United States and some European countries are working on anti-hate speech laws.