Nigeria is preparing legislation that could mean the death sentence for anyone found guilty of hate speech. It is also contemplating new media laws that have earned it the accusation of trying to curtail free speech.
While hate speech on social media is a problem affecting the world, not many countries resort to such extreme measures as are in the offing in Nigeria. Ignoring strong criticism, the nation's highest lawmaking body, the Senate, is preparing a law which will make it possible to sentence to death by hanging anybody convicted of spreading hate speech. The Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill is being sponsored by Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, a lawmaker of the ruling All Progressives Congress party.
The bill, which was initially thrown out following a barrage of attacks, resurfaced suddenly a fortnight ago, going through two readings in just two weeks. It is a very extensive piece of legislation, which covers a slew of possible wrongdoings, including the publication or presentation of material deemed to stir up ethnic hatred. It also takes aim at written or visual acts seen as threatening, abusive, insulting or offensive.
Death or a life sentence
The proposed law says that any person who commits an offence of the kind described could be jailed for life. If the actions are found to have caused loss of life, the punishment can be death by hanging. However, there are indications that the part of the bill dealing with the death sentence could be removed, according to recent comments made by Senator Abdullahi, in which he recognized strong resistance. "Given the high respect which we have for Nigerians, we will make amendments to the death penalty aspect that most Nigerians objected to [... ] Clearly, from the conversations, Nigerians agree that we have a problem today as a result of hate speech which has fuelled so many killings and violence," the senator said.
The government also aims to implement more stringent laws regulating the media. Information and Tourism Minister Lai Mohammed recently said that the laws passed 27 years ago needed to be re-evaluated. He added that the new bill "will address the existing lacunae in the areas of the regulation of the Internet," among others.
Under the new laws, fines for erring broadcast media organizations will be moved upward from 500,000 Nigerian Naira (N) (€1,252) to N5 million for hate speech and related offences.
President Buhari set on curbing hate speech
The planned laws, which came in the wake of announcements to the effect by President Muhammadu Buhari two months ago, are arousing some controversy. Buhari promised "firm and decisive action" against anyone found spreading hate speech. But the bills have come under heavy attacks by civil society organizations, who believe the planned laws are targeted at government critics.
"Our view, and very much that of civil society organizations in Nigeria, is that the government does not have any patriotic or nationalistic reason for amending the existing broadcasting laws. In fact, the government is planning to target independent media. The primary target is the African Independent Television. Everybody knows that the federal government is not comfortable with the liberal approach that most of these independently-owned and operated electronic media houses," Emmanuel Onwubiko, coordinator for Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria, told DW.
An attack on freedom of expression
Uba Gaya, a public affairs analyst and former deputy president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, an umbrella organization of Nigerian editors, described the bill by the lawmakers as illegal. He also advised the government to avoid actions that could scare away foreign investors. "My view is that the government should tread with serious caution, so that it is not perceived negatively by the international community. Every step we take is being watched. There are international groups that monitor the media globally. They are watching every move, every step the federal government takes," Gaya told DW.
Gaya called attention to the "speedy pace" the hate speech bill is going through the National Assembly. He added that he considers the changes to be illegal. "The social media bill being considered by the National Assembly contravenes Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution of the Nigerian Federation of Nigeria, which guarantees freedom of expression, opinion," and information.
Social media's responsibility
Gaya suggested that the Nigerian government "engage the founders of Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks, to get them to filter information that could endanger public interest."
DW Africa tried without success to interview National Broadcasting Commission Director-General Ishaq Modibbo Kawu for this story. However, a source within the NBC, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, told DW that "the commission is only doing what's expected of it as a regulatory body. We can't sit back and watch the broadcast space being messed up with all manner of offensive content. There wouldn't have been a better time than now."