The penalty for hate speech in Nigeria has just been jacked up by the Federal Government from N500,000 to N5 million. Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed said while defending the government’s decision to hike the fee: “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.”
What the minister overlooked is that “national interest” was used by infamous government officials in various parts of the world to commit atrocities and human rights abuses against their own people. So, citing “national interest” argument does not really transform a vexatious law into a widely acclaimed legislation. What is national interest? What is public interest? Is national interest objective more important than the pursuit of public interest? Who defines national interest?
The minister said the broadcasting code was not a dormant document. He was right. But inherent in that statement is the view that national interest definition depends on national circumstances, the mood of a government at a particular point in history, the core interests of a government, and the overriding agenda that drives the activities of state officials.
The new fee is not only irritating but also outrageous, mindless, and incomparable to the punishment specified by other countries, including African countries in which such a law exists. The introduction of the hate speech code into the NBC laws has spawned serious questions that require urgent clarifications. What really is hate speech? Who defines what is hate speech? Is it possible that what the government conceives as hate speech could be perceived by citizens as a harmless commentary? What has the hate speech law got to do in a democracy in which freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution and, therefore, regarded as the cornerstone of human communication and interaction?
Hate speech is problematic in its conceptualisation. It lacks a universal definition or understanding. A piece of painting could be viewed as offensive to someone while the same painting could be hailed as a work of genius. Even legal authorities often disagree on what constitutes obscenity. In some cultures, a man or woman who walks on the streets in full nudity could be arrested for indecent exposure while in other societies the man or woman could be admired for exhibiting their natural beauty. This goes to show that what offends people in one cultural setting might appeal to people in another milieu.
Hate speech law directly contravenes the fundamental rights of citizens to free expression, including the right to send, receive, and communicate information and ideas through any channel. This is clearly and vigorously canvassed in Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Government officials pushing the introduction of hate speech law as a way to enfeeble civic deliberation in Nigeria seem to be unaware that we are living in a digital age in which there are diverse channels through which citizens receive news and information.
The sharp increase in the fine for breaching the hate speech law represents the government’s wily way of bringing through the back door a bill the Senate attempted but failed to pass. In that notorious and insensitive bill, the Senate proposed the death penalty as punishment for anyone who violated the hate speech bill. Mercifully, that proposed law was not passed owing to its unpopularity and widespread public discontent. What a paradox. All over the world, senators are elected to make laws for the good of their society. Unfortunately, the first job of our senators was to debate a dreadful bill that recommended death penalty for citizens.
The danger in the hate speech law is that it could become an anvil with which the government could shape or mould the kind of society it wants. If the government has its way, it could use the hate speech law to emasculate news media, constrain press freedom and the freedom of citizens to express themselves, and censor news reports the government does not want published or aired. If all these happened, a democratic country such as Nigeria could, sooner or later, adopt the characteristics of a repressive state.
Many reasons have been adduced to justify the hate speech law. One concern is that, in politically, economically, and religiously breakable African countries, unchecked hate speech has the capacity to disturb the social fabrics that hold society together. It could also unsettle the political process and influence the aftermaths of elections.
Beyond the fears that unimpeded communication of hate speech would promote inter-ethnic and inter-religious hatred, supporters of the law say there is the potential for the media to twist facts, or indeed to push particular news angles or offer misinterpretation of events. Advocates of this view argue that it is not only mainstream media that constitute the major vehicles through which hate speech is disseminated. They suggest that social media outlets are equally guilty and often cultivate or encourage socio-political discord. For these reasons, politicians and government officials who support the hate speech law insist it would help to check the excesses of mainstream and social media. What is disregarded in that kind of reasoning is the baggage that goes with hate speech law, such as the deprivations that citizens suffer.
Regardless of what the government and supporters of the law say, there is really no need for the repugnant hate speech law to be introduced in Nigeria. There are existing laws that take care of the kind of concerns the government is worried about. A democracy is diminished when citizens cannot express themselves freely, when journalists become docile, and when independent media are forced to operate as servants of the state.
A report by the UK House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on disinformation and ‘fake news’ (House of Commons, 2019) concluded that: “In a democracy, we need to experience a plurality of voices and, critically, to have the skills, experience and knowledge to gauge the veracity of those voices.”
Researchers have attributed rising worries over hate speech to the fact that “The means of creating deceptive information has become ‘democratised’, dissemination occurs much faster, and it is possible to filter out attitude-challenging content entirely.” This is unquestionably true. Sadly, social media are now seen as the couriers of offensive material, including hate speech the government believes would spark racial and religious violence, all of which could threaten the peaceful coexistence of people in a multicultural society such as Nigeria.
While global concern for hate speech might be growing, it is not an indication that our world has spun out of control, that the global community is crumbling, or that its existence offers a sound justification for the government to introduce repressive laws to safeguard the country. A law that hinders the freedom of citizens and a free press cannot be in the national interest. This point should be conveyed to Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed.