Last week, the Executive of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) hosted members of the Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development (SCDDD) at what is now called The Editors’ House, or precisely as some editors would like to brand it, House 24, on Mojidi Street, Ikeja, Lagos. That is the new and permanent secretariat of the Guild after nearly five decades and a half of existence as the apex umbrella body of all editors in Nigeria cutting across print, electronic and online media. The SCDDD was founded by Professor Ibrahim Gambari , the debonair diplomat and crusader of fine democratic ideals and he was able to cobble a Board of eminent and unblemished Nigerians to run it.
It was this group that the Exco of the Guild hosted. The delegation was led by yet another distinguished Nigerian, Dr. Tom Adaba, erstwhile Direct-General of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and the man who laid the foundation for the flourishing of private broadcasting in the country today. But Dr. Adaba did not come to lecture the editors on the rudiments of broadcasting in a cast-down economy. He and his team came with an advocacy battle-cry: “Hate Speech is Not Free Speech”.
The United Nations, African Union, European Union among other blocs including their constituent nations recognise free speech as the fundamental rights of citizens. The First Amendment of the United States, the 1999 Nigerian Constitution ( as amended) all recognise the right of an individual or group to hold an opinion and to freely express such opinion. The right to free speech is an inalienable fundament upon which the props of democracy are anchored. It is a right that makes humanity who they are: free-born, not slaves or objects of servitude. But every freedom has its limit otherwise it becomes boundless freedom which is a euphemism for lawlessness. This throws up the flip side of free speech: Hate speech. Is hate speech free speech? The jury is still out on this and the debate rages.
Yet, even those who argue that hate speech is free speech often are not able to sustain such argument against evidential monumental damage that hate speech has brought on societies. While free speech respects the bounds of logic and graces the borders of reason, hate speech does not. Hate speech sets itself at unfettered liberty thus disparages without reason and incites without logic. Hate speech sets a person or group of persons against another. The 2016 Presidential election in the United States was a fertile ground for hate speech and up till this day, long after the election was won and lost, the American society remains bifurcated on account of the unprecedented hate speech that attended the election. Today, fear and bigotry serenade the soul of America and the vibes from Washington are causing negative ripples around the world and even within the United States.
Back to Nigeria. Hate speech is thick in the air. First, it was PDP vs APC hate speech campaign of 2015 that birthed the current President Muhammadu Buhari government. Both parties were unrelenting in their wild orgies of hate speech campaigns including profiling of candidates and trying to incite different ethno-religious groups against each party’s candidate. The inevitable terminus of such hate speech-laced campaigns is a nation sharply divided across ethnic and religious lines. The descent to the gutter of hate speech further exposed the fault-lines that define the polity. An extension of the hate speech election is the current stand-off between the ‘hailers’ and the ‘wailers’. The Nigerian polity has become a huge hate-field and it shows in the myriad abuses, threats, curses and tantrums that stalk the social media space. It is evident in the winner-takes-all attitude of the government especially in the area of appointments. The APC government upon assumption of office cleared out all PDP appointees including those whose tenures were not due. It did not matter if the government had to break the law and undermine convention to hit back at the PDP. And do you really blame Buhari? During the 2015 election, candidate Buhari was at the receiving end of the most caustic hate speeches spewed from the feisty fountain of the PDP.
Ayo Fayose, the Governor of Ekiti State, went into overdrive. He called Buhari names and threw mud at the man from Daura including circulating adverts purportedly announcing the obituary of Buhari whom he spared no words to describe his unfitness to run for office of President. As bad as the Fayose adverts were, some newspapers still ran them thus making themselves the catalysts for hate speech. Besides newspaper adverts, there were series of brutally damaging and toxically defamatory documentaries that seized the airwaves for weeks and months. The documentaries targeted at key political figures were brewed with the highest concentrates of hate speech ingredients.
All of this stood the 2015 election out not only as the most expensive election in the nation’s history but by far the most vitriolic and fractious. It was such a moment of shame and all the actors must take shared responsibilities for their actions. Because of hate speech, the nation’s socio-political ecosystem has become tenuous to the extent that some Nigerians are beginning to lose their humanity. Wishing President Buhari death in his moment of frailty in the manner that some Nigerians did in recent days is symptomatic of a people that have lost their benign humanity. It is the height of wickedness and only goes to underscore the damage hate speech of yesterday has done to our psyche today.
Hate speech is not free speech; it is a poisonous asp, a wasp with the sting of death. Hate speech has damaged homes, broken marriages, seared relationship, destroyed kingdoms, set nations at war and turned communities of the living to graveyards of the dead. Adolf Hitler deployed the sting of hate speech to pit his deadly Nazi army against European Jews and others during World War 11 leading to what is today one of the most horrendous massacres of humankind: the Holocaust.
Because of its capacity to cause havoc, some countries have enacted anti-hate speech laws. Canada, Australia, Brazil, Belgium, France, Finland, Denmark et al have legislations that make hate speech anathema; and these countries are the better for it. Nigeria has defamatory and sedition laws including laws that seek to maintain public order but citizens scarcely enforce their rights. Meanwhile, ethnic-induced hate speeches define the people’s daily lives and exertions. The Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Kanuri, Ijaw, Efik, Ibibio and the over 250 ethnic nationalities that make up the entity called Nigeria all have hate tags for one another. We don’t have racial challenge but there is enough of ethno-religious hate speeches to go round. They have become part of us such that we have become inured to them, passed down from one generation to another. But the people are simply not litigious.
This is not enough reason for the nation to walk the path of hate speech again. It serves no good. This is why I commend the restless rally of Professor Gambari’s SCDDD. The crusade against hate speech must be sustained before it consumes us. The media as the watchdog of society and voice of the voiceless must take up the challenge by bringing to the fore the viciously devastating effect of hate speech. Politicians must be told in clear, unmistakable terms that hate speech does not win election; good governance, good manifesto do. Away with hate speech! Away with inciting remarks! Whether from the church, mosque or from the public arena including political soapboxes, hate speech has neither virtue nor grace. It’s just what it is: Evil!