Hate Speech: The Presidency Must know its Place

The Federal Government, through the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, announced last Tuesday that the fine for hate speech had been increased from N500,000 to N5 million. According to the minister, the presidency was acting in what he called national interest, and that the decision to increase the fine was approved to reposition the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to perform its regulatory role better, mostly in the areas of political broadcasting, local content, coverage of emergencies, advertising, and anti-competitive behaviour.
Both on the surface and under the microscope, nothing can conceal the draconian nature of the minister’s Orwellian doublespeak, prompting eminent legal practitioners and the immediately affected press to give vent to many words echoing the same sentiment that the unconstitutional fine was a military-styled impediment to democratic freedom of speech.
The constitutionality or otherwise of the Hate Speech Bill will remain a source of debate for a while, and that is only because Section 39(3)(a) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended derogates the right of every Nigerian to freedom of expression. Many countries have enacted laws against hate crimes, but it is not directed at only the media. Nigeria’s hate speech bill, if it should ever see the light of day, must adhere to the constitution strictly. Moreover, until it has become an act, the presidency cannot issue orders on it, and if the act does not authorise the office of the president, then the presidency should humbly refrain from giving such frivolous orders. The body empowered to edit the fines in the bill is the legislature.
It is in view of this that many lawyers have kicked against it. They argue rightly that the Hate Speech Bill has only cleared first reading at the legislature, and mere executive orders are not enough to derogate the fundamental rights of citizens. The presidency should know this, as the Quarantine Act drama, which preoccupied itself among other things with the rights of Nigerians to movement, is barely six months old.
The increased fine for hate speech does not represent the best deterrent to hate crimes in Nigeria. There are underlying factors causing ethnic animosity, part of which is the mindless attacks and killing of Nigerians an issue the federal government has been rather tardy in addressing. In fact, the western world, with its more functional jurisprudence, has long recognised the inanity of remedying every crime with fines or jail sentences and have taken a more psychological approach to correcting social crimes.The questionable fine that the hate speech bill proposes is a heritage of the brusque military culture of unbridled force, which birthed the idea that everything from force to ideological differences must be met with superior force and high-handedness. That panacea is jaded.
The federal government needs to address and eliminate the causes of hate speech. Fining a person will not kill the idea in the person. The catastrophic failure of the death sentence as a deterrent to crimes such as armed robbery and kidnapping has not stopped the prevalence of capital crimes in the society. It is also telling that the federal government’s policy is more lenient towards Boko Haram militia and is willing to force what it thinks are rehabilitated individuals back on the uncompensated victims of Boko Haram attacks. It is counterproductive to apprehend, reform a rapist and then force the victim to house him once again, paying no heed to her trauma. Is there any wisdom in this indulgency towards terrorists and severity towards hate speech? Does the government not think it is time to revivify the field of psychology and psychiatry in the country such that hate criminals can be sent to compulsory psychiatric sections and forced to pick the bill?
It is not clear why these failures and jaded legislations remain part of the laws of Nigeria, but without doubt, these laws still occasionally enjoy judicial interpretation to the dismay of many eminent legal minds. It may be instructive to note that no law is foolproof, but some laws are more foolproof than others. A bill will never be binding until it is enacted (passed by the legislature and ratified by the executive), so can the president eat his maize before cooking it?

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