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EDITORIAL

Proposed Law On Hate Speech

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Hate speech and the legalities associated with it are always a hotly debated topic. Hate speech is loosely defined by laypersons as any offensive speech targeted toward people based on race, tribe, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. Opinions about how such speech should be handled by legal authorities vary. Few seem to be familiar with the actual legalities of hate speech, and it is not uncommon for it to be confused with other crimes where hatred is believed to be a motivating factor. The advent of social media has created more opportunities for hate speech merchants to reach millions of people at the press of the keys of a mobile phone. These have raised concern around the world and the calls for laws to be made to curtail the threat posed by hate speech.

However, the Rwandan genocide that cost one million lives, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus, 25 years ago reminds us how dangerous hate speech can be when political leaders and media outlets single out certain groups of people for dehumanizing messages.

Apparently not wanting what happened in Rwanda to occur in our country that had survived a civil war, and various ethno-religious killings, the Senate to take measures to curtail hate speech, even proposing life imprisonment and death sentence depending on the gravity of the offence.

The Senate decided to go tough on promoters of hate speech when it passed for second reading a bill seeking death by hanging or life jail for anyone who runs foul of the proposed law.

When passed into law, the offenders would be prosecuted under the “Act to provide for the prohibition of hate speeches and for other related matters in Nigeria.“

Depending on the gravity of the offence, the sponsor of the bill, Senate deputy chief whip, Sabi Abdullahi, appealed to the upper legislative chamber to approve death by hanging for offenders.

The objective of the bill, according to him, is to ensure the “elimination” of all forms of hate speech against persons or ethnic groups as well as advising the federal government on the matter. The proposed law defines hate speeches as comments that insult people for their religion, ethnic, linguistic affiliation and racial contempt among others.

Another provision of the bill is that a person who subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not less than five years, or to a fine of not less than N10 million, or to both.

However, senators elected on the platform of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have said that they would resist any proposed law in the National Assembly that infringes on the rights of Nigerians.

Prominent Nigerians including lawyers, civil society groups, Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) and others have warned against passage of the bill. They described it as an obnoxious law that would further drive underground the opposition and genuine social critics who criticise anti-people policies of government.

Hate speech is condemnable and we abhor it, but we cannot support killing an ant with a sledgehammer. It is imperative to note that there are existing provisions in the Nigerian constitution which define, in plain terms, the offence of defamation. A defamation matter is defined in Section 373 of the Criminal Code as a matter likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt or ridicule or likely to damage any person in his profession or trade by injury to his reputation. Nigeria has more than enough laws such as the Cybercrimes 2015 Act and other existing laws that could be invoked to sanction purveyors of hate speech.

What we need now is not a draconian law against hate speech, but rather more campaigns and public enlightenment programmes in churches and mosques, schools, universities, and all media platforms on the consequences of hate speech. The public should be educated on what constitutes hate speech so that they will be able to know the no-go areas while speaking in private, public and on the social media.

However, if it is true that the Senate has backtracked on the Hate Speech Bill following public outcry, it is a welcome development.

The hint that it may be dropped came from the new Senate spokesman, Senator Godiya Akwashiki who said the bill would be subjected to debate, adding that it may be killed if the lawmakers discover that it would create more problems for the people.

The explanation given by Akwashiki does not give confidence that the Senate may not go ahead with it. As a newspaper we state that there is no point wasting legislative time subjecting it to further debate; it should be dropped altogether. The government should strive to implement the laws already in existence.

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