A civil rights advocacy group, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), has kicked against a bill in the House of Representatives which seeks to classify hate speech as an electoral offence with a 10-year jail term and N40m fine.
HURIWA’s National Coordinator, Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko, in a statement on Friday, August 26, 2022, described as undemocratic and unconstitutional, the aspect of the bill also seeking to establish a National Electoral Offences Commission.
The group said sponsors of the bill seek to muzzle free speech, describing them as enemies of democracy who have been clandestinely and openly pushing anti-press laws and moves to stifle free speech in the country of late.
Recall that the House of Representatives’ Committee on Electoral Matters held a public hearing on the Bill for an Act to Establish the National Electoral Offences Commission and for Related Matters 2022 in Abuja on last Tuesday.
Under Part IV of the bill, titled “Electoral Offences,” Clause 32, which has an explanatory note “Prohibition of hate speech,” criminalises speeches that could spark violence.
The clause partly read, “(1) A person who, in the course of politics or elections, uses or directs the use of threatening words, behaviour or action, or displays or directs the display of any written material which is threatening or incites violence, is guilty of an offence if — (a) he/she intends thereby to stir up ethnic, religious, or racial hatred, social or political insecurity or violence against anyone or group of persons; or (b) having regard to all the circumstances, ethnic, religious, or racial hatred or social or political insecurity or violence is likely to be stirred up thereby.
“Subjective descriptions of a person’s actions or behaviour, however abhorrent, crass or objectionable, may not be considered an attempt to spread hate unless the motive is clearly defined as such.
“(2) Any person who commits offence under sub-clause (1) of this clause shall be liable, on conviction, to imprisonment for a term of at least 10 years or a fine of at least N40,000,000, or both.”
Commenting on the bill, Onwubiko said: “The‘Bill for an Act to Establish the National Electoral Offences Commission and for Related Matters 2022 is germane and generally acceptable but the obnoxious provision therein is counter-productive, undemocratic and unconstitutional and therefore null, void and of no moment and should be discarded and the sponsor named, shamed as enemy of free speech and hater of constitutional democracy.
“That provision in the fresh bill is another way of trying to stifle press freedom and freedom of speech in the country. It is not surprising that many media moguls such as former Editor-In-Chief of Newswatch Magazine, Ray Ekpu; two-term President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Gbenga Adefaye; as well as Nigerian Guild of Editors’ President, Mustapha Isah, have all accused the regime of the President Muhammadu Buhari (retd), of secretly bringing back the infamous Decree 4 of 1984, enacted during the dark days of military rule through cronies in the National Assembly and Minister of Information of Culture, Lai Mohammed.
“The current regime has tried in so many ways to unconstitutionally stifle free speech. The Information Minister had characteristically suspended Twitter in Nigeria on June 4, 2021 for many months till January 12, 2022. Mohammed also lobbied the House of Representatives to pass laws regulating internet broadcasting and social media in Nigeria. The Buhari regime also sought to amend the Nigerian Press Council Act and the National Broadcasting Commission Act in the National Assembly to have more control over the press.
“Of recent, the National Broadcasting Commission under the purview of the Information Minister, moved to shut down 52 broadcast stations under the guise of debts but Nigerians can see through the shenanigans of the federal government which has the two legislative arms at its armpit as members of the All Progressives Congress.
“The proposed bill tagging hate speech electoral offence is not only anti-democratic but oppressive. The criminalization of free speech is antiquated and only belongs to repressive military regime.
“The present rulers of Nigeria must realise that the game of military subjugation is over. Section 39(1) of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria guarantees freedom of expression as a fundamental right.
“The new bill by the House of Representatives belongs to the canals and not to a decent society. It must never make it into an act. All lovers of democracy must reject it.”