While freedom of expression is not absolute in any society, including the leading democracies, freedom of the press and freedom of expression remain two of the fundamental human rights recognised by the United Nations. Press freedom has been defined as the right that the media have to hold governments to account. It also includes the right of citizens to be informed by the media on public interest matters so citizens can perform their role in society. Katrin Voltmer (2010) stated that, if citizens are ill-informed about political matters, if citizens do not make efforts to express their views, if they detest their political representatives and have little regard for democratic values, the future of democracy would be endangered.
Why should we be concerned about freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Nigeria? A free press is generally regarded as a symbol of a free society. Press freedom and freedom of expression are the hallmarks of democracy but they are also viewed as the barometer for measuring the political health of a country. Press freedom is also important because the press is a major institution that scrutinises government in order to prevent abuse of power.
Respect for press freedom, free speech and civil rights is taken seriously by member countries of the Commonwealth, including Nigeria. Violations of these rights attract immediate suspension from the Commonwealth. Fiji was thrown out of the Commonwealth in 1987 after two military coups. The country was recalled and reintegrated 10 years later after the return of democracy. In 2000, Fiji was again cast away for 18 months. Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth in 1995 following the execution of civil rights leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, by the military government. Nigeria was readmitted into the Commonwealth in 1999.
Even before the formation of the Commonwealth, press freedom was recognised and enshrined in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of the Declaration states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to hold opinions without interference and to strive for, obtain and communicate information and ideas through any media without constraints.
In a rapidly changing world, including national security considerations that impact on media freedom and free speech, violations of press freedom and free speech are growing. The development must be checked.
It is not only in non-Western (developing) countries that press freedom and free speech are repressed. Even in Western countries, press freedom is regularly contested when governments roll out laws that seek to restrict journalists’ freedom to investigate and report on various forms of abuses and human rights violations. One example is the United States in which concerns are growing about President Donald Trump’s directives that seek to restrict free speech and freedom of movement of citizens and foreigners.
It is against this background that I was stunned to read a news report published in Daily Sun newspaper of Friday, February 2, 2018, in which the Presidency, represented by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, accused Daily Sun and other news media of disseminating “hate speech.”
When he addressed State House correspondents last week, Shehu said, among other things: “The growing lack of respect for journalism ethics and press laws in the Nigerian media, especially regarding the clashes in Benue State, is very unfortunate. The frequent expressions of hate speech published by newspapers, in news stories, and especially in columns, is indeed a source of concern to all. We want to state emphatically that a segment of the Nigerian media is sinking deeper and deeper into the mesh of hate speech in spite of repeated appeals…”
The reference to “hate speech” is puzzling. What is hate speech? Hate speech is defined as “speech that attacks, threatens, or insults a person or group on the basis of national origin, ethnicity, colour, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.” It is unfortunate that the Presidency has appropriated this term and uses it to cover any criticism of the government. Indeed, hate speech is used haphazardly by the Presidency as a barricade to restrain journalists and other citizens from reporting critically on the catastrophic performance of the government.
In our current environment, it has become fashionable for state officials to toss insults and abuses at journalists and other citizens who criticise the government. Journalists and the media deserve to be recognised and respected because they represent an important institution in our society. Unfortunately, Nigerian journalists have become easy targets of attack by a government struggling to show leadership and direction.
More than five years ago, Nigeria was ranked 145th out of the 178 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ world press freedom index, based on the government’s absurd record of abuses of press freedom.
In 2017, Nigeria’s position improved marginally with the country ranked 122 out of 180 countries in the world. This suggests we still have a long way to go to be ranked as one of the top 10 countries.
The questions must be asked: Why is the Presidency too easily upset by press criticisms? Why can’t the Presidency respect the right of the people and the press to make adverse comments on government’s performance? Hate speech, as defined by the Presidency, is self-serving. Its aim is to suppress freedom of the press and freedom of expression by citizens.
The quality of democracy will be imperilled the moment the government disallows free expression of dissenting voices. Surely, a healthy democracy is not one in which the public sphere is dominated by comments in support of the government. Every citizen has the right to express their opinion through any medium. Criticism fosters democracy. It does not enfeeble it.
Free and unhindered exchange of information by citizens is provided for in the constitutions of democratic countries for a reason. If citizens must make judgements about their political leaders and their capacity to govern, the citizens must be free to express their views and at the same time they must be free to access other people’s opinions about their government. A democracy symbolises a free marketplace of ideas in which disagreement is tolerated. People who hold alternative viewpoints should not be persecuted or typecast as eccentric.
Ever since the Federal Government introduced the concept of “hate speech” into its own glossary of offensive terms, it has become increasingly hazardous for people to freely express their critical views about the government without being depicted as corrupt, unprincipled, unethical, and dodgy. It is in this existing climate of intimidation and fear that the voices of many citizens have been silenced.
By waving the flag of “hate speech” in everyone’s face, the Presidency is telling us that citizens who engage in open criticism of the government must be punished severely. That is the first sign of authoritarian rule. It would be tragic for our democracy and the future of a robust public sphere in Nigeria, if we fail to scrutinise our government.