The Senate has introduced a bill which seeks to establish a Federal Government agency to check hate speech in the country.
It also prescribed death by hanging as the maximum punishment for certain categories of offenders.
The bill, sponsored by a former Senate spokesperson, who is now the Deputy Senate Whip, Sabi Abdullahi, passed first reading on the floor of the red chamber on Tuesday. It is titled, “National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech (Estb., etc) Bill 2019.
But a few hours after the bill passed the first reading, groups and individuals including former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, eminent lawyers and civil rights organisations, warned that it was death sentence for democracy in the country. They described the bill as draconian.
Abdullahi had sponsored a similar bill in the 8th Senate, but it could not survive the second reading due to overwhelming opposition and criticisms from the civil society groups and the media.
A copy of the bill obtained by one of our correspondents shows that in the proposed law, offenders are either liable to 10 years jail term, payment of N10m fine or death by hanging.
An offender, according to the bill is, “a person who uses, publishes, presents, produces, plays, provides, distributes and/or directs the performance of any material, written and or visual.
Such material must be capable of causing threat, abusive or insulting or involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour.”
It stated that such individuals had committed an offence if they intended to stir up ethnic hatred, or having regard to all the circumstances, ethnic hatred is likely to be stirred up against any person or persons from such an ethnic group in Nigeria.
“Any person who commits an offence under this section shall be liable to life imprisonment and where the act causes any loss of life, the person shall be punished with death by hanging,” it added.
Ethnic hatred attracts 10-year jail term
Offenders liable to a 10-year jail term or that risk N10m fine are those who stir ethnic hatred by their speeches.
The bill states, “In this section (3), ethnic hatred means hatred against a group of persons from any ethical group indigenous to Nigeria.
“A person subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity for the purposes of this section where on ethnic grounds, he justifiably engages in a conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating that other person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment for the person subjected to the harassment.
“Conduct shall be regarded as having the effect specified in subsection (1) (a) or (b) of this section if, having regard to all circumstances, including in particular the perception of that person.
“A person who subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to an imprisonment for a term not less than 10 years, or to a fine of not less than N10m, or to both.
Forbids ethnic hostility
“Any person who knowingly utters words to incite feelings of contempt, hatred, hostility, violence or discrimination against any person, group or community on the basis of ethnicity or race, commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not less than five years, or to a fine of not less than N10m or to both.
“A person victimises another if in any circumstance relevant for the purpose of this Act, the person does any act that is injurious to the wellbeing and esteem of another person by treating the person to less favourably than, in those circumstances.”
The bill added that, where the offenders are a corporate organisation, every director, trustee and officer of that body corporate shall also be deemed to be guilty of the offence.
Trustees liable for corporate offence
“Where the body of persons is a firm, every partner of that firm shall also be deemed to be guilty ofthat offence.”
The bill noted that the proposed hate speech commission to be known as the Independent National Commission for The Prohibition of Hate Speech, shall be a body corporate with perpetual succession and a common seal.
The Commission in its corporate name, shall among others, be capable of suing and being sued; Purchase or othelwise acquiring, holding, charging or disposing of movable and immovable property.
“The headquarters of the Commission shall be in Abuja, but the Commission may establish branch offices in each of the states of the federation,” the bill stated.
The commission is expected among others, facilitate and promote a harmonious peaceful co-existence within the people of all ethnic groups indigenous to Nigeria.
CSO to mobilise Nigerians against bill
The Convener, Free Nigeria Movement, Mr Raphael Adebayo, said his organisation would mobilise Nigerians to resist the proposed anti-hate speech bill.
The activist described the planned anti-hate speech commission as an attempt to muzzle Nigerians and deprive the citizens of their rights.
Adedayo admonished Nigerians to rise up and oppose the bill, which he said was designed to take way the people’s liberty and constitutional rights, adding that the nation could not allow the National Assembly to pass “this tyrannical legislation.”
Also, former Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar, on Tuesday said the bill was an abuse of the legislative process, adding that it would violate Nigerians’ constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech.
He said in a statement by his Media Adviser, Mr. Paul Ibe, that it was prudent to build upon the tolerance inherited from those years and not shrink the democratic space to satisfy personal and group interests.
He said, “Atiku wishes to sound a note of caution to those now toying with the idea of an anti-hate Speech Bill, with punishment for supposed hate speech to be death by hanging. The contemplation of such laws is in itself not just hate speech, but an abuse of the legislative process that will violate Nigerians’ constitutionally guaranteed right to Freedom of Speech.
It’s not justifiable in a democratic society – NBA
The Nigerian Bar Association said that the newly introduced billcould not be justified in a democracy.
The association, in a statement sent to The PUNCH by its National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Kunle Edun, on Tuesday, cautioned the Senate to “tread carefully” with the bill.
It also reminded the Senate that section 39(3) of the Constitution had made it mandatory that no law could abrogate the rights of Nigerians to exercise their right to freedom of speech.
It stated, “We therefore, strongly advise that the Senate should tread carefully on this bill.
“Section 39(3) of the Constitution makes it mandatory that no law can abrogate the rights of Nigerians to exercise their right to freedom of speech except if such law can be reasonably justified in a democratic society. “Can a Hate Bill be reasonably justified in a democratic society?”
The NBA said with the nation already grappling with wanton arrest and prosecution of citizens from treasonable felony after expressing their opinions, there might not be any guarantee that the bill when signed into law would not be used to harass those exercising their right to free speech.
It noted that while the right to freedom of expression was not absolute, there were enough laws in Nigeria to tackle the excesses, implying that there was no need for the proposed law.
APC govt eroding gains of democracy – SAN
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Ifedayo Adedipe, condemned the bill and called on Nigerians to resist it. The SAN described the bill as an extension of rights abuses under the All Progressives Congress government.
‘It’s prone to abuse’
Also, Mr Norrison Quakers (SAN), said such a bill should not be encouraged as it would be prone to abuse.
Quakers said, “Whose parameters do you use to determine or judge hate speech? How many people can you possibly pick for that? It will be abused, there is no doubt. It will be targeted at political opponents and if we are not careful, there may be ethnic angles to it, there will be religious angle to it, depending on who is at the helm of affairs. So, it is not something that should be encouraged.
Abaribe allays fears
But the Minority Leader of the Senate, Enyinnaya Abaribe, has said the Senate will not pass any law that could affect the rights of Nigerians.
Abaribe stated this on Tuesday when coalition of civil society group paid him a courtesy visit to protest the new bill on social media which passed first reading last week.