Balancing the competing rights of free speech and hate speech

In August, the Nigerian Government announced the increase of fines for hate speech by media houses from N500,000 to N5 million. The announcement was made by the Minister for Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, at the unveiling ceremony of the revised National Broadcasting Code by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) in Lagos.

The code amendment stirred controversy with Nigerians kicking against its provisions. Many claimed the amended code is another attempt to clamp down on freedom of speech and media since the November proposed hate speech bill, which prescribes death by hanging for any person found guilty of hate speech has been put on hold.

Paradigm Initiative’s Program Manager, Adeboye Adegoke, said the hate speech fine increment has a very huge implication for the civic space and even for journalistic work. He said the government through the fine is forcing Nigerians to self-censor and more importantly, using the media to censor Nigerians.

“Since it is the media platforms that get to be fined at the end of the day, they are naturally compelled to limit the thoughts that their guests, interviewees can share on critical national issues,” Adegoke said.

“What we have seen clearly is an attempt by the government to unilaterally decide what amounts to hate speech and use that as a weapon to targets critical voices in society.”

A lawyer Ayo Odenibokun said the recently increased hate speech fine is absolutely “ludicrous.”

“It is an attempt to subjugate and suppress the people’s right to freely express themselves,” Odenibokun said.

“It is quite unfortunate that such increment is done in an era where the minimum wage is N30,000 only.”

However, the Nigerian government is hell-bent on regulating citizens’ expression online and offline with determination to curb hate speech. In 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari, during his Independence Day speech vowed that his administration would take a “firm and decisive action” against promoters of hate speech and other divisive materials on the Internet. The minister of information while announcing the hate speech fine increment stated the amendments were necessitated to vest more regulatory powers in the NBC.

“If we the citizens of the federal republic of Nigeria or as citizens of the world rescind our rights to free speech, that would definitely cripple the meaningful development of our country,” publisher and social change advocate Khadijah Abdullahi -Iya said.

“How would great ideas be shared? Who would then critique the performance of the government and charge them to do better? All of these are necessary elements of a growing democracy.”

Some Nigerians have also argued that the government and regulators would arbitrarily define hate speech and use this new regulation to oppress press freedom and free speech.

This however is not farfetched because, despite the clamour to clampdown on hate speech, there is still no clear identification of what expression or commentary defines Hate speech.

“I think no one is certain about what the phrase ‘hate speech’ denotes,” Abdullahi-Iya said.

“I see it as one of those ambiguous words with fuzzy edges.”

The Nigeria police and State Security Service (SSS), have made regular arrests of journalists, bloggers, and social media commentators. Journalists like Agba Jalingo, have been detained or charged to court for writing articles or posts on social media criticising political officeholders.

“The government ought to look at the root cause of the various criticisms it receives and which are not far fetched i.e. lack of adequate and quality education, insecurity and poverty,” Onibokun said.

“Rather make laws which on the face of it offend the rights of its innocent citizens,” he added.
Adegoke also noted that if Nigeria is really interested in mitigating the effect of harmful speeches then the country must be willing to go through an open, inclusive, and collaborative process in arriving at the best solutions.

“All ongoing conversations are an attempt by the government to unilaterally decide what is acceptable speech and what is not,” Adegoke said

He also stated that once there is an agreement that citizens’ expression should be regulated, then the government would be taking away the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression.

“ While rights are not absolute. Any derogation to it as provided for by the constitution must be necessary, towards a legitimate end and must proportionate to that legitimate end,” Adegoke said.

Written by Abisola Olasupo – Paradigm Initiative’s Digital Rights and Inclusion Media Fellow.

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