Notwithstanding the fact that a bill to criminalise “Hate Speech” is receiving the attention of the All Progressives Congress (APC)-dominated National Assembly, the Federal Government in an ostensibly panicky measure, recently directed Nigeria’s security agencies to go after those it considers to be threatening the nation’s unity through hate speech.
President Muhammadu Buhari had, in a short but most discouraging nationwide address upon returning from his 105-day medical vacation, dwelt more on how his government intends to deal ruthlessly with purveyors of hate speech in the regular and social media, given marching orders to security operatives.
In compliance with President Buhari’s directive, the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, said offenders would be prosecuted under the Terrorism Prevention Act, considering the fact that Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo had himself promised that hate speech “will be taken as an act of terrorism”.
More worrisome is the military’s avowed commitment to monitoring “troubling activities and misinformation capable of jeopardizing the unity of the country” in line with the Presidential directive.
The questions on the lips of many Nigerians now are: will this directive not infringe on the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech? Who decides what constitutes hate speech? Wouldn’t our overzealous security agencies over-step their bounds in enforcing the directive?
Given the nation’s current security operatives’ proclivity for obsequiousness to the APC-led Federal Government and their obsession with implementing Presidential directives, no matter how sinister they may be, it remains to be seen how this move would not trample upon the rights of the citizenry and retard the growth and progress of democratic governance in the country.
Apparently exasperated by what is obviously a dangerous move, a civil rights group, the Social Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) had petitioned President Buhari over the Nigerian military’s monitoring of Nigerians on social media platform.
SERAP had appealed to Buhari to direct the military to immediately stop the move as it infringes on the natural and constitutional rights of the citizenry, especially the freedom of speech and expression.
In a statement by its Deputy Director, Timothy Adewale, penultimate Friday, SERAP urged the President to ensure that the military complies with the letters and spirit of the 1999 Nigeria’s Constitution as amended and Nigeria’s obligations under the International Human Rights convention.
Noting that the military’s action will directly violate the constitutionally and internationally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and privacy on-line, the organisation argued that monitoring the social media was neither necessary nor proportionate as it portrays the Buhari administration as working to control the political and social media space which is at variance with universally acceptable norms.
SERAP considers the development as censorship of the media from reporting sensitive and critical issues relevant to the public but controversial to government.
The Tide endorses SERAP’s stance as the move will have deleterious impact on the media just as it poses serious threat to citizens’ rights to meaningfully participate in governance. Worse still, the action by the military could jeopardise Nigeria’s delicate unity and pose grave danger to its nascent democracy.
Classifying the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression as hate speech is counter-productive in the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. Nigerian should be allowed to speak the truth to the government and stand up for their rights.
Rather than haunt or crucify Nigerians for ventilating their views on the social media platform, the Federal Government should advance the frontiers of digital technology with a view to ensuring participatory democracy and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
While it cannot be gainsaid that the inherent contradictions in the polity had given impetus to the tension created by the so-called hate speeches, it behooves the Buhari administration to speedily provide a veritable platform for dialogue with the agitators of restructuring to which that obnoxious directive is obliquely targeted.
President Buhari must be mindful of not being seen by the international community as intolerant of opposition in a democratic setting, considering how he, as military Head of State, some decades ago, clamped down on the media through the dreaded Decree 4 of 1984.