Recently, Nigerians woke up to a new normal that would define the future of freedom of expression and inability to hold those in government accountable. The news that the Federal Government has increased the fine for hate speech from N500,000 to N5 million in the amended National Broadcasting Code (NBC) to deter prospective violators of national peace and cohesion took many by surprise. The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who gave the explanation on Friday 7 August 2020 when he featured on a TVC live Programme, “This Morning” disclosed that President Muhammadu Buhari had approved the increase of the fine which is stipulated in the amended Broadcasting Code.
He further explained the rationale behind the development thus: “What motivated the amendment was that when the fine was N500,000 we saw the provision being violated at will because the amount was very easy to pay.” Alhaji Mohammed lamented the situation where some desperate individuals who know that their broadcast content contains hate speech insist that broadcast stations should air it while they bear the cost of the fine.
The minister maintained that those attacking the government for the increase should remember how hate speech destroyed many countries like Rwanda which lost 800,000 lives to hate speech as well as Bosnia and Cambodia which lost thousands of lives as a result of the ugly phenomenon. He contended that Nigeria is not the first country to impose sanctions on hate speech noting that no responsible government would sit and watch purveyors of hate speech divide and set fire across the country.
The Information Minister also cited some countries which have more stringent provisions such as Chad, Iceland, Norway and South Africa. While insisting that “Chad has today slowed down the speed of its internet service to slow down the growth of hate speech,” he disclosed that “Iceland has a provision in its penal code against hate speech and the punishment is up to five years in jail.” He also emphasized that “The sanction in Norway is up to two years imprisonment while South Africa separated hate speech from the protection their citizens can get from the Constitution.” Although he decried the fact that social media is like a wildfire which has the capacity to spread falsehood and incite violence, he however, assured of government’s resolve to regulate social media without stifling freedom of speech.
One would expect that before Mr. President agrees on a fine like that, the National Assembly should have legislated on the matter. But, No! The Minister of Information and Culture took a unilateral decision by unleashing on the nation a controversial sanction fine which has sparked various debates. The question that readily comes to mind is whether the office of the Minister of Information and Culture has a legal status like that of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) or Attorney General of the Federation to legislate on a critical matter of this kind or not.
The weightier part of the argument is – what is the legal framework for hate speech and who determines what constitutes hate speech? It is crucial for fake news and hate speech to wear legal apparel otherwise, the prosecution would suffer somersaults. There has to be a constitutional provision perhaps through amendment of the 1999 Constitution to cover issues like these. Until then, any real or imagined label as hate speech would experience epilepsy except the executive arm of government would go out of its way to gag the masses.
This brings us to another important aspect of this penalty. If the government of the day had mobilized funds through the National Orientation Agency (NOA) for jingles and advertorials on national cohesion and the need for living in a pluralistic society, the impact would have been more. Increasing the fine for hate speech offenders does not automatically translate to curbing the menace. What government is doing is like a father who has defied the norms of natural law which obliges him to dialogue with his children in love to buying a koboko to discipline them when they err.
We need a reorientation like late Professor Dora Akunyili’s paradigm of rebranding or better still, the Mass Mobilization for Self Reliance, Social Justice and Economic Recovery (MAMSER) which was inaugurated on July 25, 1987, by President Ibrahim Babangida and headed by Dr. Samuel Joseph Cookey as a tool for political orientation. It would be recalled that the aim was to re-orient Nigerians to shun waste and vanity, shed all pretences of affluence in their lifestyle and propagate the need to eschew all vices in public life, including corruption, dishonesty, electoral and census malpractices, ethnic and religious bigotry. This is because, in the twenty-first century, it appears easier to lure people through strong persuasion than threats and sanctions.
It appears that we are copycats of anything foreign without proper evaluation of our local contexts. Otherwise, how can anyone explain why the government would not learn how to make Nigeria work again through the provision of basic needs for the citizenry like electricity, potable water, good roads, basic health care units, good schools et al as other developed climes but is quick to use Chad as an example of a country which slowed down the speed of its internet service to curb the spate of hate speech? The question is – how is the life of an average citizen in Iceland, Norway and South Africa in terms of provision of basic amenities?
It is true that like a responsible parent, no government would watch its citizens tear down the country through fake news and hate speech. However, what is even more essential is for the government to remember that the social contract it has with the masses goes beyond policing and commandeering. For example, the protection of rights and property through ensuring that life is safe from conception to death is now a mirage in Nigeria. Those in authority ought to be reminded that more energy is needed in securing the nation than merely daring the masses with payment of N5 million if they engage in hate speech. Me thinks that the executive should allow the courts to deal with that while it concentrates on the serious business of governance which is what would put food on the table of the ordinary citizen.
While it is true that the Bosnian and Cambodian genocides were partly caused by hate speech, it is equally true that those conflicts were sparked off by gross marginalization and injustices. This means that peace is a consequence of justice and equity. We are contending with cries of marginalisation and lopsided appointments. The youth restiveness, Biafran struggle and Boko Haram insurgency are sad commentaries we are still living with. As such, it would make more sense if more resources are deployed towards listening to minority voices rather than providing cosmetic solutions. What readily comes to mind is the “Problematique” of Michael Molenda and Anthony Di Paolo. In the 1970s, these two communication scientists from Indiana University argued that communication problems come in complex clusters and recur. To provide solution to any problem, they argued that you must distinguish between the symptoms which they called “Subordinate influential factors” and root causes which they referred to as “Superordinate influential factors.” If their submission is anything to go by, hate speech may be a symptom of an undiagnosed illness.
Many journalists and commentators have expressed worry that the new fine has the capacity to asphyxiate freedom of speech. Well, it is true that the Minister of Information and Culture said it will not, but in Nigeria, we know that sometimes yes means no and no means yes. The over-skill of government agents when it comes to the arrest and detention of those perceived to hold different political views from those in positions of power demonstrates that it is not yet Uhuru about this matter. What is more, the way and manner the press is muffled and peaceful protesters are tear-gassed creates the impression that freedom of expression is way out in woods in Nigeria.
Nigerians who feel that rejigging the NB Code to deter prospective violators of national peace and cohesion is a welcome development are entitled to their opinion. However, we appear to have a penchant for leaving our brains in the past. In the buildup to both the 2015 and 2019 general elections, political gladiators from various parties were culpable of spreading fake news and inciting hate speech. Is this supposed “legislation” free of political undertones? Is the move out of a deep conviction or it is meant to gag the populace from being too critical of government? Well, as Nigerians, we are waiting for the Red and Green Chambers to weigh in on the matter. Meanwhile, God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria!
Fr. Dyikuk is a Lecturer of Mass Communication, University of Jos, Editor – Caritas Newspaper and Convener, Media Team Network Initiative (MTNI), Nigeria.