Despite public outcry against the proposed Hate Speech Bill and Social media bill, the National Assembly is pushing for the passage of the two bills since it will please the Presidency. If these bills are finally signed into law, it is the nation’s democracy that is the loser and not only the Nigerian media as is being portrayed by the sponsors of these draconian laws
By Anayo Ezugwu
WHEN President Muhammadu Buhari announced in his Independence Day Speech on Tuesday, October 1, that his administration will deal d ecisively with those abusing free speech in the country, Nigerians didn’t take him serious. But one month after the warning, precisely on Tuesday, November 12, the Senate reintroduced a bill seeking to penalise persons found guilty of hate speech.
The president had in his speech said: “Our attention is increasingly being focused on cyber-crimes and the abuse of technology through hate speech and other divisive material being propagated on social media. Whilst we uphold the Constitutional rights of our people to freedom of expression and association, where the purported exercise of these rights infringes on the rights of other citizens or threatens to undermine our National Security, we will take firm and decisive action.
“In this regard, I reiterate my call for all to exercise restraint, tolerance and mutual respect in airing their grievances and frustrations. Whilst the ongoing national discourse on various political and religious issues is healthy and welcome, we must not forget the lessons of our past – lessons that are most relevant on a day such as this.”
The bill for the establishment of a National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech was sponsored by Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, Senate Deputy Chief Whip. While that of the social media is sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa. The two bills have passed second reading in the Senate.
The hate speech bill proposes death penalty for people whose speech results in the death of another person. And the social media bill empowers government regulators to shut down social media and perhaps the internet for those whose posts are deemed to risk public safety and national security.
Though these bills were introduced under the guise of public interest both are likely by-products of growing attacks on human rights. For many Nigerians, these bills are not just a matter of new, inconsequential rules. It is a war on their voices, freedom and rights. It is seen as having been designed as a trap for government critics, journalists, lawyers and any opposition to the government.
As rejection and protest continued to trail the bills, Aisha Buhari, wife of the president on Wednesday, December 11, confirmed to Nigerians that the media is really under threat in the country. She narrated the ordeal of her media aides and reporters of Nigerian Television Authority, NTA, in the hands of Garba Shehu, senior special assistant on media and publicity to the president.
Aisha said when she returned from her long visit to Europe a few weeks ago, she granted an interview to NTA at the airport wherein she revealed that it was Mamman Daura’s daughter, Fatima that leaked a video showing her protesting the excesses of the Daura family. She alleged that rather than do his job and clear the air, Shehu ensured that her media aides and NTA employees were suspended for airing the interview.
“Garba then, vented his anger on the NTA management, insisting that the media crew to my office must be sacked. He succeeded in getting them suspended for doing their job. I had to intervene to save the innocent staff from losing their means of livelihood by involving the Department of State Services in order to ascertain roles played by key actors in the saga,” she said.
Aisha’s revelation is one of the reasons why media practitioners, lawyers, human right activists and indeed the general public are condemning the bills. Since the reintroduction, many interest groups and individuals have called on the National Assembly to drop the bills.
According to Amnesty International, since 2015, attacks on journalists and media activists have continued unabated. “Between January and September 2019, at least 19 journalists and media practitioners have suffered attack. We are closely monitoring these attacks and now reports on how they have contributed to the violation of other human rights in Nigeria. These attacks take the form of verbal and physical assault, as well as indiscriminate arrest and detention by Nigerian authorities.
“These violations are mostly perpetrated by Nigeria’s security forces – the Nigeria Police, the Nigerian Army and officials of the Department of State Service, DSS, and they occur when journalists and media practitioners seek access to information, share information or express critical views that could drive public opinion.
“Oftentimes, dissenting views expressed by media practitioners are criminalized, particularly when they revolve around sensitive issues. Also, the stifling of freedom of expression for these groups occurs in circumstances where journalists are pressured to disclose their sources of information. Those who spoke to Amnesty International confirmed that they came under intense pressure from Nigeria’s security officials to reveal their sources of information, particularly when they published stories that focused on corruption, elections and armed conflict.
“Some of the journalists were kept under surveillance, while others received death threats through telephone calls from unidentified people. Many journalists also came under attack while reporting the 2019 General Elections across Nigeria,” it said.
The Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE, also joined many Nigerians in condemning the proposed fake news and hate speech bills. The Guild noted that draconian legislations have no place in Nigeria’s democracy. In a communiqué issued after its 15th All Nigerian Editors’ Conference in Sokoto, the NGE condemned all dictatorial tendencies against the media.
It stressed the need to collectively fight against all media abuses by non-professionals. It also frowned at all the attempts to punish conventional media for the wrongs of non-professionals on the social media platforms. The editors called on the federal government to release of all detained journalists across the country. It stated that democracy thrives better in countries that cherish and promote media freedom.
Uba Gaya, former deputy president, Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE, described the bills as illegal. He advised the government to avoid actions that could scare away foreign investors. “’My view is that the government should tread with serious caution, so that it is not perceived negatively by the international community. Every step we take is being watched. There are international groups that monitor the media globally. They are watching every move, every step the federal government takes,” he said.
Gaya called attention to the ”speedy pace” the hate speech bill is going through the National Assembly. He added that he considers the changes to be illegal. “’The social media bill being considered by the National Assembly contravenes Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, which guarantees freedom of expression, opinion.”
He advised the federal government ‘engage the founders of Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks, to get them to filter information that could endanger public interest.
Likewise, the Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD, has expressed concern over the bills. Idayat Hassan, director, CDD, in a press statement, said the social media bill reveals a dangerous push by the government to establish powers to determine and declare what news is fake and what is true.
“CDD is deeply concerned that the legislation places an inordinate amount of power in the hands of the government and security agencies. There are also technical issues, as a result of overlapping legislations in Nigeria. The Cybercrime Act of 2015, already has stipulations for the sharing of false information and the Nigerian Communications Commission Act of 2003 grants the NCC powers to oversee the function of telecommunications providers. The proposed bill (social media bill) raises far more questions than it provides answers.
“CDD views the underlying objective of this legislation as being to silence critical voices. While it is indeed true that Nigeria is a country that is, and has been, the victim of disinformation campaigns, the evidence does not seem to indicate the existence of political will towards eradicating false information. Since the gazetting of the 2015 Cybercrime Act, no politician or high-profile figure has been indicted for propagating false information,” he said.
But Lai Mohammed, minister of information and culture, has said that there is no going back on the plan by the government to regulate the social media in Nigeria. “People are using traditional media to criticise the administration. Why not? This is a democracy and there should be a plurality of opinions.
But our concern has to do with the abuse of the social media by those who are bent on spreading fake news and hate speech, and the dangers inherent in that are for our national peace and unity. We have no hidden agenda. No responsible government will sit by and allow fake news and hate speech to dominate its media space,” he said.
Be that as it may, despite the rejection of the bills by Nigerians with protests, hashtags, editorials and campaigns, it seems the bills could be passed into law sooner than expected. With the unending bad governance, insecurity, looting of public funds, suppression of human rights and liberty, will Nigerians equally allow this government to take away their voices, and by extension, social media?
– Dec. 13, 2019 @ 18:55 GMT |