The Federal Government has, in its recent review of the Nigerian Broadcasting Code, increased the hate speech fine from N500,000 to N5million. In justifying the government’s action, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said: “We remain unperturbed, because we are acting in the national interest. The broadcasting code is not a static document. As we often say, broadcasting is dynamic. Therefore, even the sixth edition of the code shall be reviewed at the appropriate time.”
The minister also explained that the amendments were necessitated by a presidential directive, in the wake of the 2019 general election, for an inquiry into the regulatory role of the National Broadcasting Commission to reposition the regulator for optimum performance, especially in political broadcasting, local content,coverage of emergencies, advertising and others.
According to the minister, the anti-trust provision in the code would boost local content and local industry as well as encourage open access to premium content. Mohammed equally warned that broadcast stations that rebroadcast foreign news materials that endanger national security or national interest would be penalised.
However, the increase of the hate speech fine is generating ripples across the country and many Nigerians have condemned the exercise. Most of the critics of the action believe that it is a subtle attempt by the government to muzzle the broadcast media and stifle their rights to freedom of information and expression. It is generally seen as another way to deny Nigerians the freedom of expression guaranteed by the constitution.
It will be recalled that the government’s review of the broadcast code came on the heels of an earlier attempt by the Senate to pass the hate speech bill, which imposed death penalty for offenders. Good enough, Nigerians resisted that bill and others aimed at muzzling free speech. The latest move by the government is seen by many Nigerians as a fresh attempt to censor the broadcast organisations. They have also condemned the upward review of the hate speech fine and described it as draconian and undemocratic.
It is good that the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and some human rights activists have condemned the fine hike and urged the government to rescind its decision forthwith. For instance, the NBA sees the government’s action as an unconstitutional attempt to gag the press and hamper its constitutional role as the watchdog of the society in the midst of increasing impunity by some government officials.
We commend Nigerians for condemning the unfriendly policy. It is unfortunate that the government is coming up with such an anti-democratic action when the clamour all over the world is on widening the frontiers of free speech and information dissemination. Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the 1999 Constitution, African Charter on Human Rights and other International Conventions that Nigeria is a party to. Specifically, Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) states clearly that “the press, radio and television and other agencies of the mass media…shall uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.” Therefore, any law that hampers the freedom of the press, as the reviewed code is intended to do, is condemnable and should be discarded.
There are fears that the government may use the law as an excuse to shut down critical broadcast stations. It can also be exploited by overzealous security agents to arrest and detain some journalists. We recall the detention for two years of a blogger, Jones Abiri of Bayelsa State by the security agencies. An online journalist, Samuel Ogundipe, was also arrested and detained by the police for carrying out his professional duty. Similarly, Agba Jalingo, a blogger in Calabar, was arrested and incarcerated for criticising the governor of his state.
We urge the Federal Government to abolish the hate speech fine because there are laws that can adequately take care of hate speech and defamation. Moreover, the definition of hate speech is subjective and can be open to abuse. It is worth pointing out that stifling the freedom of speech through this avenue is a threat to our democracy. It will create room for autocracy.
The review of the broadcast code should not be used to witch-hunt the media and Nigerians. The N5million fine for hate speech is unnecessary. There are other things that should engage the attention of the government now such as the poor state of the economy, rising insecurity and endemic corruption.