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The controversial hate speech bill

Jerome-Mario Utomi

Looking at the ripple reactions that greeted the hate speech bill currently before the Nigerian senate; one will but agree with the words of John F. Kennedy, that ‘a man who creates power makes an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness. But the man who questions power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when the questioning is disinterested; for it is in this, that we determine whether we use power or if power is using us’.
Essentially, the bill among other things proposed, that any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person shall die by hanging upon conviction. This is in addition to its call for the establishment of an ‘Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches’, which shall enforce hate speech laws across the country.
But, however, noble the bill seems to be, and following the understandable controversy and worries already raised, it has become a moral duty for all to collectively and objectively take a disciplined look at the proposed bill in order to adjust, adapt, incorporate or reject.
Without much labour, the most telling evidence about the bill’s good intention is signposted in its resolve to promoting peaceful coexistence among Nigerians. However, Nigerians are worried that dissipating energy on such which many described as trivial in the midst of the nation’s legion of socioeconomic woes, portrays our parliamentarians as a group that is out of tune with the yearnings of the masses as our failures lie in the system and not in hate speech.
To further lend credence to this argument, the Christian holy book, the Bible, stated that ‘without wood, the fire goes out, charcoal keeps the ember glowing as wood keeps the fire burning’. Same is applicable to the factors propelling hate speech. It is a barefaced truth that the dearth of leadership, the asymmetrical posturing of our political space and the refusal to have it restructured, among others, propel hate speech; as every tribe/group jostle to be more Nigerian than the other. A development that has since morphed into a hydra-headed challenge such as insecurity, youth restiveness, nepotism, cronyism among others;  with all, culminating to a nation in grief. The effort to having this scourge reduced should be the preoccupation of our parliamentarians. Getting to the root cause of the monster and having it tackled from that point will be well appreciated by Nigerians.
What is most frightening about this proposed bill is that, at a time when the United Nations and the international community are standing up against capital punishment, has become the ripe time for us, as a nation, to nose-dive into the outdated practice. A country such as the Gambia and other countries that were notoriously known for capital punishment have recently placed a moratorium on it
Critical minds have argued that if capital punishment is to be encouraged in any form, the corruption fight should be the right Guinea pig as it remains a scourge that has brought so much grief to the people. And an effort to voice condemnation by the poor masses or group against this malady is now erroneously tagged hate speech.
Apart from this baffling development coming when the nation is still in the throes of economic hardship, Nigerians are not particularly happy about the insensitivity of our leaders towards the grinding poverty and the excruciating pains the masses are going through. Very instructive, no amount of excuse by the lawmaker to defend his position for coming up with such bill can be sustained as the whole episode in my view is perceived as misguided, ill-timed and a decision arrived at without factoring other causes.
As the debate rages, another area of interest to watch with suspicion is the relationship of this bill with the media. I am aware that the media should reinforce and not undermine the government effort. But in the same token, Nigerians are also aware that ‘a free press is not a privilege but an organic necessity in a society. That without criticism, reliable, and intelligent reporting, the government cannot govern well. For there is no adequate way in which it can keep itself informed about what the citizens think of it.
Like the global audience, Nigerians also believe that “the function of the press is very high. It is almost holy. It ought to serve as a forum for the people, through which the people may freely know what is going on. To misstate or suppress information is a breach of trust.” Still, in the same line of argument, one established truth we cannot shy away from is the fact that the sole aim of journalism is service and in providing this service, the journalists enjoy great power and followership.
Thinking that the proposed move will solve the problem of hate speech can only but meet with a mirage of a challenge as it will increase the already soured relationship and suspicion among tribes/ethnic groups. Allowing this bill to fly in my view will further heighten the already polarized political environment, present hate speech as alluring as ‘whatever that is forbidden is most admired’
Contrary to speculations, a critical appraisal of some of these comments tagged ‘hate speech’, will reveal that the reader or the listener must have put a statement together with previously known facts to come up with a hate speech. What this implies is that some of these so-called ‘hate speeches’ may actually be personal or subjective interpretation, opinion or commentary garnished with a basket full of prejudice by the reader or the listener. So, how will Nigerians know when to draw the line between hate and non-hate speech.
In the same vein, it is antithetical for an administration that had ‘change’ as its mantra and a party that promised us a new order is the one coming up with such a bill. Our leaders should be reminded that some of these people that are commenting when they can and condemning when they should are not in any way enjoying it but are compelled to do so based on the love of their nation.
From what the people are saying, most of the comments tagged hate speech, in my understanding, are not directed to any individual, group or tribe but to the government; criticizing either their policies or inactions. So, the government, in my opinion, is using the bill to shield itself from being further criticized.

Jerome-Mario writes via [email protected]

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