The Nigerian Bar Association, senior lawyers and human rights groups on Tuesday took a swipe at the Federal Government for raising the fine for hate speech from N500,000 to N5m.
The NBA and others, in separate interviews with The PUNCH, said the hike was an attempt to stifle the media and kill free speech through an unconstitutional means.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, while unveiling the reviewed Nigeria Broadcasting Code earlier on Tuesday in Lagos, disclosed that the fine for hate speech had been increased to N5m..
Justifying the decision, Mohammed said, “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.”
He stated that the new code included,“the provision raising the fine for hate speech from N500,000 to N5m.”
Mohammed said the amendments were necessitated by a presidential directive for an inquiry into the regulatory role of the National Broadcasting Commission and conduct of broadcast stations before, during and after the elections.
The minister said the recommendations were approved by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), to reposition the NBC to perform its regulatory role better, mostly in the areas of political broadcasting, local content, coverage of emergencies, advertising, and anti-competitive behaviour.
He noted that the reviewed code also had provisions on exclusivity and monopoly, prohibiting exclusive use of rights by broadcasters who intended to create monopolies.
The minister said this would boost local content and encourage open access to premium content.
He explained that sub-licensing and rights sharing created opportunities for local operators to also gain traction and raise revenue for their services.
Mohammed also noted the law prohibiting backlog of advertising debts would promote sustainability for the station owners and producers of content.
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Recall that a senator from Niger State, Sabi Abdullahi, last year presented a bill seeking death penalty for hate speech.
But following criticisms by Nigerians, the senator said he would amend the bill to remove death penalty as the maximum punishment for hate speech.
The bill, which passed the first reading in November 12, 2019, has yet to progress to the second reading.
But the Minister of State (Transportation), Gbemi Saraki, in an interview with state House correspondents after the Federal Executive Council meeting in November 2019, said hate speech bill was already captured in the country’s cybercrime law.
Nine months after the controversy generated by the hate speech bill died down, the NBA, two SANs and human rights groups on Tuesday faulted the Federal Government for hiking the fine for it.
Hike in hate speech fine unconstitutional attempt to gag the media – NBA
The NBA described the astronomical increase in the hate speech fine in the newly introduced broadcasting code as an unconstitutional attempt to gag the press.
The NBA said this through its outgoing National Publicity Secretary, Mr Kunle Edun, who was responding to The PUNCH’s request for the association’s position on the Federal Government’s new policy.
Hike anti-people – Lawyers’ association
Edun said the 900 per cent increase in the fine was anti-people. He stated, “This is an unconstitutional attempt at gagging the press. The press as the fourth estate of the realm plays the constitutional role of a watchdog of our democracy in the face of increasing impunity, seemingly official policy of disobedience of court orders, sheer exhibition of rascality by some of our security agencies and unbridled corruption in government.
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“Gagging the press by increasing the fine for hate speech by 900 per cent is anti-people. The government should be more concerned about how to improve the welfare of Nigerians, stop the senseless killings in the country and give the people some hope that they have a government that cares. It is the failure of these core responsibilities of government that causes disaffection in society.
“These are the root causes and that is what government should deal with primarily, not scratching the surface.”
On his part, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr Seyi Sowemimo, said penalty increment was not the best way for curbing hate speech in the face of widespread divisiveness in the country.
The SAN also doubted whether the fine could be enforced or not since it was imposed by a code made by the minister and not by the National Assembly, which is the body with the constitutional powers to make laws.
Sowemimo said, “It is difficult to really define hate speech in the context of the ethnic animosity and divisiveness that pervade the land. I am not sure increasing the penalty from N500,000 to N5m is the best way of discouraging hate speech. The ethnic animosity and divisiveness that pervade our society are some of the things that make people make statements that are being termed hate speech. I don’t think hate speech is the real problem that we have in our country now and so, I don’t see that this measure will serve any useful purpose.
“Besides, I think this fine for hate speech is going to be difficult to enforce. I don’t see how the minister and some people will make a code and increase fine for hate speech from N500,000 to N5m. Until there is a law made by those who are charged to make laws, and not a code, I don’t see how this will be enforced.”
It’s an expression of Buhari govt’s despotism, dictatorship – Ozekhome
Also, Mike Ozekhome, SAN, described the increment in the fine for hate speech as unconstitutional.
The constitutional lawyer warned that if the Federal Government ever attempted to enforce the provision, it would be challenged and outlawed.
He described the move as an expression of intolerance, despotism and dictatorship.
Ozekhome said the code also lacked the force of law and should not be taken seriously.
He said, “The constitution has permitted freedom of speech and freedom to hold opinions. Once the constitution has done that, no law, not even an Act of the National Assembly, also called Act of Parliament, can derogate the clear provisions of the constitution, not to talk of a mere code of conduct for broadcasters.
“The code of conduct for broadcasters, as the name suggests, is just a directive to broadcasters on what to do and what not to do. It is persuasive; but to go as far as putting a fine of N5m for hate speech, it means they are turning a code into a law and into a provision of the constitution.
“If they do it to anybody and the person challenges it in court, the court will declare that section of the document null and void and of no effect. They do not have the power to do that kind of a thing. It is outrageous, unnecessary, constrictive and it closes the freedom of speech space and enthrones illegality, despotism and dictatorship.”
Ozekhome said he was not surprised by the action to gauge free speech, saying the Federal Government was “intolerant of divergent opinions, plurality of ideas, right activists and anything that does not go according to its wills and caprices.”
“It is a government that wants everybody to lie down facing the same direction. They don’t believe anybody is entitled to superior arguments. To such extents, they are narcissistic and self-opinionated,” he added.
It’s an attempt to stifle free press – International Press Centre ED
Speaking to The PUNCH, the Executive Director, International Press Centre, Lanre Arogundade, described the increment as an attempt to further stifle free press.
Arogundade wondered what the criteria would be for determining what constitutes hate speech.
He said there were agencies of government that could enforce the crime of hate speech and there were already relevant laws that addressed the issue of hate speech.
The IPC director, therefore, stated that it was wrong of the government to arbitrarily increase the fine for hate speech by 10 times.
Arogundade said, “I still need to go through the details but I think imposing a fine of N5m for hate speech is excessive and arbitrary. You ask yourself, who will this fine be targeted at. I think this is just an attempt to muzzle the media. Quite frankly it is not okay because there are other regulatory agencies that deal with hate speech.
“This is just a way of stifling the voice of difference in the society because the question arises that who defines hate speech. If for instance, the minister of health fails to perform his function as regards COVID-19 and people are dying due to neglect and the deaths are attributed to the minister, will that be tagged hate speech? So, I think it is an attempt to curb criticism of the government.
“When government is losing support of the people, they come up with these sorts of regulations. For me, it is an attempt to intimidate the citizens and prevent them from expressing their true feelings on the failure of the government and it will not stand the test of time.”
The Executive Director of the Centre for Public Accountability, Olufemi Lawson, in an interview with The PUNCH, said, “The imposition of fine against perpetrators of purported hate speech by the Federal Government is a condemnable clear attempt at gagging free speech and the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression of the Nigerian people.
“The hate speech classification as of today is backed by no law, other than some executive orders, which are reincarnations of the days of military decrees under the regimes of military juntas.
“We have often said and remain of the opinion that whenever anyone is found to have made statements considered enough as ‘hate speech’ the instrumentality of our existing laws, including such that can be used to prosecute for libel, should be applied.
“This country is no longer under a military rule, where someone somewhere in an executive corner, can wake up to impose fines on citizens, without recourse to the courts of the National Assembly. This is arbitrary and we will surely challenge this, as citizens of this country
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Also the Media Associate, Resource Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education, Armsfree Ajanaku, in an interview with The PUNCH, condemned the fine.
He said, “Our position is that while it is good to take strong steps to deter hate speech, we believe raising a fine is a cosmetic approach to solving the problem. The fundamental question is ‘What in the opinion of government constitutes hate speech?
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“We hope this is not a ploy to clamp down on free speech. The next important thing is that if the government is keen on criminalising hate speech, what has it done to end actual hate crimes in which lives are lost. We can see the mindless killings happening in Southern Kaduna and other parts of the country; is government also going to impose fines for lives lost?”
Ali backs fine hike
But SAN, Mallam Yusuf Ali, said no penalty was too much to impose on makers of hate speeches because hate speech had the potential to destabilise society.
Ali said, “First, it is when society exists that we start to talk about rights and obligations. When society goes under, it is everybody to himself, God for us all. We have to look at the consequences of hate speech. Hate speech could cause a war. It could promote communal clashes, which are happening in Nigeria already. It could lead to the breakdown of law and order. And without peace, there can’t be progress; without progress, there can’t be sustainable life.”
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