The Senate came under fire yesterday for proposing the Hate Speech Prohibition Bill, which seeks to criminalise the offence with death as a penalty.
The bill, which passed first reading at the plenary yesterday, seeks to establish a federal government agency to check hate speech.
But senior lawyers, activists and a chieftain of Afenifere, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, who spoke with THISDAY, condemned attempts to make hate speech a capital offence and urged the National Assembly to tread carefully on the issue.
The bill, sponsored by a former Senate spokesperson, who is now the Deputy Senate Whip, Senator Sabi Abdullahi, is entitled "National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches (Establishment etc) Bill 2019."
Abdullahi had sponsored a similar bill in the Eighth Senate, which prescribed among others, death by hanging for anyone found guilty of the offence.
The bill Abdullahi presented to the previous Senate said an offence is committed when "a person 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 persons 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.
"Conduct shall be regarded as having the effect specified in subsection (1) (a) or (b) of this section if, having regard to all the circumstances, including in particular the perception of that other person, it should reasonably be considered as having that effect."
Part two of the 26-page bill talks about the discrimination that the bill applies to include ethnic discrimination, hate speech, harassment on the basis of ethnicity, offence of ethnic or racial contempt, discrimination by way of victimisation and offences by body of persons.
In his own reaction, human rights lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), called on Nigerians to rise up against the bill, to ensure that it does not see the light of day.
He wondered when making a speech which is guaranteed as freedom of expression under Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution, became punishable by death.
Ozekhome described the bill as ill-intentioned, ill-conceived, and ill-digested to breed dictatorship and absolutism.
"An obnoxious law such as this will further drive underground and into hiding, the opposition and genuine social critics, who speak truth to power and criticise serial opaque, anti-people, corrupt and high-handed policies of government," he added.
According to him, since the current government has been tested and known to be allergic to constructive criticisms, the bill if allowed would embolden it to clamp many Nigerians in detention.
Ozekhome's other colleagues also warned the Senate against passing the bill, describing it as a violation of the 1999 Constitution.
Mr. Dayo Akinlaja SAN, while describing the move as weird and absurd at this age, said inasmuch as the menace of hate speech in the country should not be tolerated, there was need for caution to ensure that innocent people did not suffer.
"As much as one would not want to condone anything like hate speech the reality is that one would have to be extra careful to avoid the possibility of an abuse," he said, adding: "If the punishment is that capital, then what happens if somebody is wrongly accused? That is rather absurd and preposterous at this age and I pray that such a thing does not come through."
Dr. Kayode Olatoke SAN also noted that the bill violated constitutional provision on freedom of speech.
Olatoke while recalling that the matter is already a subject of litigation at a Federal High Court, stressed that the punishment is outrageous when compared with other similar crimes, which borders on law of torts.
He, however, urged the National Assembly to refrain from going further with the bill until the issue is resolved in the court of law.
Another SAN, Mr. John Baiyeshea, expressed confidence that the National Assembly would listen to public outcry.
"I'm sure the sentence will be reviewed/reduced to terms of imprisonment", he said.
Mr. Ahmed Raji SAN called for a probe of what constitutes hate speech in the proposed law.
"I think we should start by probing into what constitutes hate speech under the proposed legislation. Notwithstanding what may constitute hate speech, the world is moving away from death penalty," he stated.
Also, human rights activist and Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Dr. Nnimo Bassey, told THISDAY that it was 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!"
A chieftain of the Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, said he was speechless.
"This is inconceivable in a Senate under a constitutional democracy. There is no arrest or prosecution for Fulani herdsmen's atrocities not to talk of death penalty for culprits but for free speech. God Save Nigeria," he said.
Also reacting, a former Special Adviser to ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo on Political Matters, Mr. Akin Osuntokun, said the new bill would amount to mindlessness.
"It is like using a bulldozer to crush a mouse. In the first place, classifying what qualifies as hate speech is problematic and prone to abuse. It will end up creating more problems than it can solve. There are extant laws that can be adapted for the same purpose. The law against defamation for instance," he said.
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 NUJ stated.