Amid the controversy over the proposed anti-hate speech law, the sponsor of the bill on Friday gave reasons for proposing he bill. He said his intention was not to muzzle the media or curtail free speech in Nigeria.
Sabi Abdullahi (APC, Niger North) said the law, if passed, would promote national integration and ensure Nigerians were more responsive to the sensibilities of others by avoiding utterances capable of inciting violence and needless killings.
The senator gave the clarification as a panellist in the discussion on “The Impact of Hate Speech on Press Freedom.” The discussion was organised by the U.S. Embassy, Abuja, as part of the programme to mark the 2018 World Press Freedom Day.
Mr Abdullahi, who is also Chairman of the Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, also explained why he recommended perpetrators of hate speech be treated as murderers.
“My interest in introducing the anti-Hate Speech Bill is for the country to have a law that would make Nigerians more responsive to the sensibilities of other Nigerians and avoid utterances capable of inciting violence and needless killings,” he said.
“If we have a law that moderates incidences that incite people to hatred and violence, it will allow people to live in peace. I am interested in ensuring Nigerians are saved from the killings going on today. We want to produce a society that is peaceful and ready to protect the dignity of persons.
“Hate speech is about right to life. Most violence are traced to irresponsible statements by influential persons. That is why the bill says if someone made a speech that instigated people into violence and killings, that person should be committed for murder, which must be proven beyond reasonable doubt.”
Mr Abdullahi said experts have traced the roots of hate speeches to two fault lines, ethnicity and religion, in view of the multi-ethnic and religious differences in the country.
He said a study by the Centre for Ethno-Information Technology and Development, Kano, between June and December 2015, recorded over 5,385 incidences of hate speeches, with over 94 per cent attributed to ethnicity and religion.
Noting fears by Nigerians, particularly among media practitioners, that the proposed law is a prospective tool for government to muzzle the press from performing its constitutional role in society, Mr Abdullahi urged critics to be circumspect and cautious.
“Media and press freedom are not negotiable. Without them, the enthronement of democracy in Nigeria would not have been possible. But, to sustain and deepen democracy, we must support and protect free press at all cost, without which democracy would suffer,” he said.
He noted the thin line between hate speech and press freedom, saying both were sensitive subjects requiring Nigerians to always be alive and alert to their responsibilities, by ensuring incisive criticisms of government was a civic duty based only on facts.
On the definition of hate speech, Mr Abdullahi referred to it as “a very severe form of public speech targeted at an identified group, capable of inciting people to hatred, violence and killings.”
Besides, he said, other elements of hate speech include statements that, when considered, were not helpful in their social and historical contexts.
A visiting South Africa-based American journalist and photographer, Linda Hervieux, who was also on the panel, presented a global perspective to the discussion.
Other members of the panel included the Director-General, National Broadcasting Commission, Is’haq Kawu, and a former Executive Director, Africa independent television (AIT), Imoni Amarere.
Ms Hervieux, who gave the American perspective on the topic, said hate speech, as defined by American journalism think tank, the Newseum Institute, was a “speech that tags a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic or national origin, sexual orientation, disability or gender.”
Drawing a thin line between hate speech and free speech, Ms Hervieux who wrote at various times for the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the New York Daily News, and the Daily Beast, said anti-hate speech laws in U.S. were linked to regulations under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Describing hate speech regulation as “tricky”, particularly in the current era of the internet and fake news, she said often laws targeting hate speech or fake news could be used as instruments for muzzling the press.
Although she said such laws do not necessarily diminish the freedom of the press, Ms Hervieux said they constituted “a slippery slope requiring tremendous vigilance by citizens to ensure they do not become tools of oppression (by government).”
Citing various experiences in U.S., UK, France, Germany and South Africa, Ms Hervieux said questions by journalists criticising anti-hate speech laws often centred on the definition of hate speech and how they are enforced.
“How sound are the institutions or public officials who enforce restrictions against hate speech? Or how honest are the officials? Or what their interests are? Is there a hidden agenda behind those efforts? Is the effort aimed at protecting people or silencing critics of government? she said.
Apart from the latest World Press Freedom index showing Nigeria in the red tier as one of the places the practice of journalism is difficult, Ms Hervieux said ‘Reporters Without Borders’ organisation also noted recently that although Nigeria has a very vibrant media, there were reasons for concerns.
To check hate speech, she said “we need to encourage more speeches from many different voices by educating citizens about the value of free speech, rather than enforced silence.”
She said the media has an important role to play in spotlighting violence and speech that targets victims by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and religion, status, identity.
The anti-hate speech bill is set for Second Reading and public hearing at the parliament. It has been criticised by activists and journalists as a tool to gag free speech undermine the media.
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