Nigeria's harsh hate speech and social media bills are making ordinary citizens nervous – and this is why

It’s not unheard of for seemingly positive laws to be used as a way of selectively punishing those who hold contrary views to the government

Orji Sunday
Monday 09 December 2019 12:10

For the first time, I’m writing out of panic and not pleasure. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but I’m doing it because my country – Nigeria – is about to take a turn for the worse.

Perhaps the government is teasing autocracy. If it wasn’t, a death penalty for “hate speech” wouldn’t have been able to get as far as it already has. Nor would an internet shutdown as a way of regulating what people say on social media in a democracy. After all, what is liberty without freedom of speech?

Nigeria is nearing the prospect of signing two extreme bills into law: one that proposes the death penalty for people whose speech results in the death of another person. And another that empowers government regulators to shut down social media – and perhaps the internet – for those whose posts are deemed to risk public safety and the country’s security.

Though these bills were introduced under the guise of public interest – even nationalism – both are likely by-products of growing attacks on human rights.

You can see why Nigerians are troubled by these incoming laws.

To millions of citizens, this isn’t just a matter of new, inconsequential rules. If anything – it’s a war on their voices, freedom and rights. It is seen as having been designed as a trap for government critics, journalists, lawyers and any opposition to the status quo. Like a short route to totalitarianism, these moves ignore the wishes of the people who opposed these bills when they were first introduced in 2015 and 2018.

This shift towards what looks more and more like despotic governance is a familiar path, strewn with tragic histories and failures, some of which seem to lead all the way to the top. For example, since assuming office in 2015, Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president, has disregarded about 40 court decisions, according to Amnesty International lawyer, Dr Kolawole Olaniyan, who said he has shown “stunning disregard for the rule of law and human rights”. This, while journalists and lawyers across Nigeria are routinely jailed and critics are persecuted, kidnapped or killed – often in mysterious circumstances.

That’s why the storm over the bill is as heavy as it is, complete with protests, hashtags, editorials and campaigns. Yet, the louder the outcry, it seems, the quicker the progress of the bills. In the next month, the bills could be passed into law – which will come as no surprise. The ear of tyranny resists the cries of the enslaved, after all.

No one needs these laws – certainly not the politicians, who seem to be pushing them through for dubious reasons, or, as some suspect, in order to further oppression. The existing local laws sufficiently address concerns about the abuse of the social media and hate speech, we don’t need more severe ones.

Secondly, the court doesn’t offer a lot of hope for the common people. That’s why there is no guarantee that these laws will fairly apply to all. It may simply be used to selectively punish those who hold contrary views to the government. Or people from certain regions, or tribes in the country. Even seemingly positive laws in Nigeria such as the 2011 Freedom of Information Act, has been said to have been used to suppress or mislead people, rather than empowering citizens and the media to hold authorities accountable.

The media here has lost both its voice and vibrancy. The heavy stake upon social media in Nigeria is partly due to the fact that traditional reporting hasn’t been able to represent the concerns of the average person. Only a few of the top media organisations in Nigeria aren’t linked to one political affiliation or the other. It takes both money and influence to be heard in those publications in many cases.

While social media keeps maturing into a strong tool for challenging authorities, its regulation and clampdown has also grown globally. But Nigeria’s case has the prospect to be more severe. Hundreds of unarmed protesters have been killed by government security forces in the past. Freedom of speech is already severely limited. People live in constant fear of the government.

On their own, these are ambiguous laws – usually easy to abuse. For instance, what exactly is hate speech? In a country where tolerance, trust and political maturity is low, holding a contrary view or criticising government policies and actions can easily fall under that umbrella. Journalists, such as Ja’afar Ja’afar, an Abuja-based investigative journalist, have been threatened or locked up for as much.

Nigerians have become resigned to bad governance: insecurity, looting of public wealth, suppression of human rights and liberty – and that’s not a new phenomenon by any means. All that’s left with the people is the power of their voices, and by extension, social media – not the courts or government. Like Maya Angelou’s caged bird, the peoples’ power to sing must be protected.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments