Death penalty for hate speech: ‘It’s dark clouds over Nigeria’




The re-introduction of a Bill that prescribes death penalty by the Senate has caused outrage among Nigerians. SAMSON BENJAMIN and JOAN EZE in this report examine the controversies surrounding the Bill.

The Senate on November 21, 2019, re-introduced a bill that seeks to impose death on hate speech. The bill sponsored by the deputy chief whip, Senator Aliyu Abdullahi, has passed second reading Wednesday November 20, 2019, at the Senate.

Previous bill

Senator Abdullahi had, in March 2018, introduced the bill for consideration and passage. The bill prescribes death by hanging for any person found guilty of any form of that results in the death of another person.

It seeks the establishment of an Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches. The proposed commission is expected to enforce laws in the country and ensure the “elimination” of same.

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.”

The bill also proposes that: “A person who uses, publishes, presents, produces, plays, provides, distributes and/or directs the performance of any material, written and/or visual, which is threatening, abusive or insulting or involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, commits an offence, if such person intends thereby to stir up ethnic hatred, or having regard to all the circumstances, ethnic hatred is likely to be stirred up against any person or person from such an ethnic group in Nigeria.

“A person subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity for the purposes of this section where, on ethnic grounds, he unjustifiably engages in a conduct which has the purpose or effect of (a) violating that other person’s dignity or (b) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person subjected to the harassment.”

The charge would be justified if such a person intends to stir up “ethnic hatred.”

The bill, however, did not make it through to third reading in the 8th Assembly.

However, its re-introduction came a few days after the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, had at different forums insisted that the federal government plans to regulate social media in order to curb hate speech.

It also came about a month after President Muhammadu Buhari threatened to take a “firm and decisive action” against promoters of hate speech and other divisive materials on the internet.

Speaking on the bill, Senator Abdullahi said cases of religious and ethnic violence experienced in the past years in Nigeria informed his decision to sponsor the bill.

According to him, the bill proposes various mechanisms to prevent cases of death which emanate from hate speeches.

Activist kicks

Speaking with Blueprint Weekend on the bill, a human rights activist and executive director, Good Governance Forum, Barrister Afolabi Babafemi, said it is outrageous and shameful for the Senate to contemplate a bill of that nature.

 He said: “Death penalty for so-called hate speech; who decides what constitutes hate speech, our political leaders? If social media statements that have landed some Nigerians in the Gulag approximate what the drafters of this bill have in mind, then there is real threat of a dark cloud over Nigeria. The idea smacks of total insensitivity and is not expected of even the most autocratic. It is a bill with murderous intent. The National Assembly should spend its time on bills that deepen rather than constrict the democratic space. This bill should be withdrawn!”

NUJ rejects bill

Also, in its reaction, the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in a statement jointly issued by the president, Chris Isiguzo, and national secretary, Shuaibu Usman Leman, said most actions being taken in recent times were deliberately crafted to target and silence journalists.

“Safety implies freedom from danger and, in the news gathering context, safety implies protection from a range of threats journalists encounter, including arrest, legal action, imprisonment, kidnapping, intimidation and murder, amongst others.

“Journalists that are, hitherto, exposed to more danger in violent armed conflicts than in peace and stable situations, now face greater threats in a democracy like Nigeria. These threats and attacks against the media are aimed at inducing fear and self-censorship and regrettably these are the basic strategies of authoritarian regimes and not democracies like in Nigeria,” the statement read in part.

 Why not death penalty for corruption?

Similarly, in a chat with Blueprint Weekend, the executive director, Centre for the Defence of Democracy (CDD), Barrister Dele Amusan, said the bill is “draconic.”

Amusan, a human rights activist, said many of the senators and politicians would have been hanged had Hate Speech Bill existed in Nigeria.

The legal practitioner stressed that “they would have been dead by now. They are the ones spreading hate speeches.”

Amusan said the Hate Speech Bill is to silence opposition activists who are saying the truth and that’s why we are going to kick against it. The Hate Speech Bill is similar to Decree No.4., saying if they want the country to move forward, they should make corruption a death sentence and not hate speech.

“They want to use the bill to cage quality criticisms. It is madness. It will not solve problems of this country. There is corruption, looting of our resources, looting of our common wealth. The looting has resulted to insecurity in this country. It is the offshoot of the looting by politicians that caused the insecurity.

“Let their laws address these critical problems. The Bill is against the masses. It is not pro-people. They just want to silence the masses,” he said.

FG disowns bill

Significantly, following the controversy trailing the new Bill, the federal government has distanced itself from the proposed death penalty being prescribed.

The Minister of State for Transportation, Gbemi Saraki, while responding to questions on the Bill, stated that Nigerians should have nothing to fear, adding that the Bill is yet “a mere proposal.”

She said the fact that the Bill is prescribing death penalty does not mean it will necessarily pass like that, adding that the nation already has Cyber Crimes (Prohibition, Prevention, Etc Act, 2015) which takes care of hate speech.

She said, “Let me just address the issue on hate crime and the bill before National Assembly. Like you rightly said it’s a bill, it’s not yet law. So, the sponsor of the bill might have might have put the death penalty there.

“I think we are jumping the gun a bit. Like you said, he is proposing the bill is not yet an act.

“Be that as it may, I think the Cybercrime Act, there is a law already in Nigeria, the cybercrime act that has the hate speech aspect in it…there is a law. I stand to be corrected.”

Continuing, she said: “I think it was passed 2014/2015. I am not particularly sure, but there is a law that takes care of…Because cybercrime is now a major issue and as your know internationally, the world over, everybody is concerned about it being the new frontier to fight crime. So, hate speech is within that cybercrime aspect.”

Not Senate’s idea

Similarly, worried by the spate of criticisms on the Bill, the Senate has distanced itself from the proposed legislation.

Its acting spokesperson, Godiya Akwashiki, told journalists in Abuja on November 18, 2019, that contrary to the widespread impression, the Bill was not the idea of the 9th Senate.

He said it was solely being sponsored by the deputy chief whip, Sabi Abdullahi, based on his conviction.

Akwashiki described as “unfortunate” the statement credited to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which insinuated that the bill was a Senate bill, either to Islamise Nigeria or skewed to make the alleged third term ambition of President Muhammadu Buhari a reality.

He said the fate of the bill would be determined on the floor of the Senate after a robust debate by senators.

“There is a statement credited to the spokesperson for the Peoples Democratic Party saying that the hate speech bill before us is a collaboration between the Senate and President Muhammadu Buhari to Islamise the country or make things happen the way he wants it .

“It also claims that Buhari is trying to bring the hate speech to enable him to achieve a third term. I’m happy that the sponsor of the bill is here. He has cleared the air.

“It is the right of a senator to sponsor a private member bill. We also have the executive bill but the hate speech bill before the Senate today is a private senator bill. Mr. President has nothing to do with it and it also has nothing to do with third term agenda,” he said.

He also said, “It is not also aimed at Islamising Nigeria; when the bill gets to second reading, senators would have the opportunity to speak. They would scrutinise it and remove whatever they perceive offensive and insert those that are meant to protect the interest of Nigerians.

“I want to make it clear once again that the hate speech bill before the Senate is a private senator bill, not an executive bill.”

Why it’s necessary

Meanwhile, the ex-spokesperson for the Senate who sponsored the bill, Senator Sabi, insisted at a news briefing on November 18, 2019, that his proposed legislation was aimed at achieving peace in the country.

He also denied being used by the executive arm of government to actualise or pave the way for the third term agenda of the President.

 “The assumption by some people who think the bill is a ploy to give the current president a third term is laughable and it is a shame on those holding such views because I don’ t see how that is related.

“If anything, I have seen studies conducted where the issues of violence were catalogued, particularly electoral violence and hate speech featured prominently as a major cause.

“This clearly shows that if we allow hate speech to fester, it means we won’t get good governance and it would also be difficult to fight corruption,” he said.

He also said Nigeria is not the only country affected by the issue of hate speech, adding that there are more than 20 countries that have various laws directly targeting at hate speech.

“Giving the context and happenings within the country, it is time to check this monster that is known as hate speech.”

Death by hanging

On the prescribed death by hanging, Abdullahi said it was the judge that would determine the punishment.

“As far as the issue of death by hanging is concerned, which the Constitution in Section 33 spelt out, it must be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

“We are going to provide additional definition after the debate. Hate speech is when you deliberately incite somebody on the basis of making a statement targeting at getting violent reactions from certain religious or ethnic groups.

“Hate speech must be hateful which means something that is deep, spoken deliberately to make another person angry, or to debase the person or dehumanise him or her.

“I have listened to criticisms and condemnation of the bill; in all what they have said, one beautiful thing that came to my mind is the fact that we are all united against hate.”

“We are all against all forms of discrimination and that everybody is concerned with the subject of death; nobody wants to see death being unleashed on anybody.

“I think that is very fundamental. I am happy we are having this conversation as a nation. Over the past 10 days since the bill was read, I have received all kinds of messages, including threats, but I am not bothered about that. In all of this, if I receive one commendation, it gladdens my heart and I did receive many commendations.”

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