Last week, the federal government, as part of the ministry of information’s review of the National Broadcasting Code, raised the fine for hate speech from N500,000 to N5 million.
In the face of a public backlash, the information minister, Lai Mohammed, said on TV that the new fine was imposed to deter “desperate people” from airing broadcast content containing hate speech.
“What motivated the amendment was that when the fine was N500,000, we saw the provision being violated at will because the amount was very easy to pay,” he said.
Citing the Rwandan genocide and wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Cambodia as consequences of unchecked hate speeches, Mr Mohammed said the fine increment was justified.
He added that the sanction was still “lenient” when compared to the action of the government of Chad, which slowed “down the speed of its internet service to slow down the growth of hate speech.”
“Iceland has a provision in its penal code against hate speech and the punishment is up to five years in jail,” Mr Mohammed said.
“The sanction in Norway is up to two years imprisonment while South Africa separated hate speech from the protection their citizens can get from the constitution,” he added.
Mr Mohammed said that the amendments were necessitated by a presidential directive in the wake of the 2019 general elections to vest more regulatory powers in the NBC, Nigeria’s broadcasting commission.
Meanwhile, still receiving legislative action is the National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill, sponsored by the deputy chief whip of the Senate, Aliyu Abdullahi.
Among other things, the bill which could not scale through in the eight assembly, prescribes death by hanging for any person found guilty of hate speech that results in the death of another person.
For offences such as harassment on grounds of ethnicity or race, the offender shall be sentenced to “not less than a five-year jail term or a fine of not less than N10 million or both,” a section of the bill read.
Like the bill, the new fine in the reviewed broadcasting code has been heavily pushed back by some Nigerians who argue that regulators would arbitrarily define hate speech.
They fear that what could otherwise pass as bickering, satire, or a challenge to authority may be adjudged as hate speech.
This, they say, would stifle freedom of expression and gag the press in the country.
The Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, told PREMIUM TIMES that the new sanction is bound to undermine the right to freedom of expression and of a free press.
“By imposing such an ambiguous provision, it creates opportunities for the press to be intimidated and harassed for disseminating information without interference,” the rights group head noted.
“It is a dangerous attempt to cage the social rights of Nigerians,” David Hundeyin, a journalist and social critique, also wrote.
The critics say the move is needless and that the government should instead focus its “energy” on human and social development of the Nigerian people.
Their worries are further fuelled by the rights violations that have been meted out on dissenting voices who challenged governments at both state and federal levels over perceived misrule.
There have been recent reports of harassment and arrest of political opponents, journalists, clerics and other citizens who make critical statements on social media or in the traditional news outlets.
A recent report found that attacks on the press and free speech have worsened under President Muhammadu Buhari’s watch.
For instance, in August last year, a police inspector in Yobe State, Sunday Japhet, was arrested for allegedly insulting President Buhari, Vice President Osinbajo and the Inspector-General of Police on his Facebook page.
The police officer, who said he was only venting his anger at the inhuman treatment meted out to him and his colleagues by their superiors, and calling for action, spent days in custody.
Also, a Bauchi-based Islamic cleric, Idris Abdullaziz, was in May 2019 arrested and detained by the SSS for his attacks on the Buhari government during his periodical sermons.
“I was told categorically that I have been abusing the president in my sermons and other majlis (gatherings) and that they have the records. I challenged them to play one for me, but they could not present any as evidence,” the cleric said after his release, vowing to continue to deliver his criticism in line with Islamic injunctions.
Arguably, the most controversial application of the NBC’s powers in recent times was the clampdown on Daar Communications last year June.
For the alleged use of “inflammatory, divisive, inciting broadcasts, and media propaganda” against the government in its flagship morning programme, Kakaaki Social, the NBC suspended the license of Daar Communications PLC, owners of Africa Independent Television.q
Meanwhile, following claims he was being trailed by Nigerian security agents with intention to arrest and charge him for treason and incitement, Ohimai Amaize, the anchor of the programme, fled the country, before being granted asylum in the United States earlier this year.
State governments not left out
Using extant laws like the Cybercrime Act, state governments, too, have a long history of muzzling dissenting voices and intimidating critics.
The police later withdrew the charge and the governor denied having a hand in his arrest.
Last August, a social critic, Abubakar Idris, better known as Dadiyata, was whisked away by unidentified men from his residence in Barnawa neighbourhood of Kaduna.
More than a year after, state authorities are still ‘unaware’ of the abducted critic’s whereabouts.
Mrs Ojigho said with these records of abducting and arresting critics by state and federal governments, the hate speech clause in the broadcasting code could be wielded by the state to justify abuse of rights.
“Such broad provisions are liable to be a used and potentially have long term implications for not only the right to freedom of expression but also association, thought and conscience and freedom from discrimination,” she said.
Instead of the sanction, she said the state should address the root causes of hate speech, especially insecurity.