Deji Elumoye and Olawale Ajimotokan in Abuja
Scores of Nigerians were unanimous yesterday in their rejection of the provisions of two controversial bills – Hate Speech and Anti-social Media Bills – that have passed through first reading at the Senate.
Prominent Nigerians and activists who spoke at a Town Hall meeting organised by Daar Communications Plc for the two bills advised the sponsors of the Bills , Senators Sani Musa ( APC Niger East) and Sabi Abdullahi ( APC Niger North), to withdraw the bills from the Senate in the interest of the country’s democracy.
This is just as the President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, told the gathering that the National Assembly under his leadership will welcome advice on how to curb hate speeches in the country.
At the roundtable session after the presentations by their sponsors, only one out of the eight panelists was in support of the bills.
Others against the bill included activist, Mr. Deji Adeyanju; the National President of Nigeria Union Journalists (NUJ) Mr. Chris Isiguzo; Co-convener of Bringbackourgirls, Mrs. Aisha Yesufu; Founder of Daar Communications Plc, Chief Raymond Dokpesi, and media rights activist, Mr. Richard Akinnola.
The panelists including the former Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Professor Chidi Odinkalu, and the Chief Executive Officer, Connected Development (CODE), Mr. Hamzat Lawal, also kicked against the two bills for allegedly being tailored at gagging the freedom of press and speech enshrined in Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution (As Amended).
Odinkalu while kicking against the bills, said neither the anti-social media bill nor the Hate Speech bill will address the pervasive poverty and increasing wave of insecurity in the land.
According to him, it is ironic that the sponsors of the bills are from Niger State where innocent lives are being lost on daily basis to uncontrolled and uncheckmated attacks from armed bandits without any bill in that direction.
“Senator Sabi Abdullahi who sponsored the Hate Speech bill spent 20 minutes on his presentation without mentioning a provision while Senator Mohammed Musa laboured to convince us that the anti-social bill is not meant to stifle freedom of speech, which by all intents and purposes , is the case.
“Nigerians want bills that will facilitate improvement of their wellbeing and security of their lives and property. Extant laws abound on what the two bills are aiming at. What is the work of the National Orientation Agency (NOA), National Human Rights Commission, that will warrant establishment of National Commission for Prohibition of Hate Speech,” he asked.
Lawal, on his part, raised two posers on who to decide hate speech or fake news saying rather than wasting time and tax payers money on such bills, they should be discarded by the sponsors or rejected by the Senate.
Members of the audience, in their contributions too, also outrightly rejected the two bills.
In his contribution, the National President of the NUJ, Iziguzo, described the two bills as anti-people, anti- freedom of speech and against the media.
He said the bills should be prevented from seeing the light of the day.
On his part, Akinnola described the Hate Speech Bill as dead on arrival.
He also said the bill was duplicitous as some of the offences the bill was seeking to address could be dealt by Section 307 and Section 42 of the Criminal Code.
In opposing the bill, Adeyanju flayed its purveyors for grandstanding.
He asked Sabi to apologise to the Nigerian public.
His views were echoed by Dokpesi, who insisted that Nigerian media should not be criminalised for trying to inform the public.
“What is hate speech? Who defined it? Even the criticism of Mr. President is not hate speech. He is not being attacked because he is a Fulani. It is his office that is being looked into. The media must be guaranteed freedom of speech and not inhibit their freedom,” Dokpesi said.
Another activist, Mr. Daniel Makido, also kicked against the bills during the questions and answers session .
Makido even presented a judgment given by the ECOWAS Court in Abuja against the Hate Speech bill last November to buttress his point.
The sponsors of the bills who spoke with reporters after the town hall meeting, however, vowed to continue the push for the consideration and possible passage of the bills , saying “ the bills are not about them but about unity and peaceful coexistence of Nigerians.
Earlier in his address, the Senate President, Lawan, said the Ninth National Assembly is not averse to suggestions from Nigerians on how best to tackle the menace of hate speech and fake news.
Lawan, emphasised the need to address the challenge of hate speech and fake news in the Nigerian society.
“We are here today because of some of these challenges, which is the challenge of hate speech and fake news. Added to this is the extent to which government should intervene. Important also is the need to come to an understanding on the best approach in finding a way forward.
“I need to reiterate that we are a democratic nation, where dialogue, conversation, disagreement and agreement are central to how we resolve issues. When exchanges are meaningful, we are sure to have a productive outcome. But when it is characterized with ceaseless conflict, I doubt if there can be progress.”
“This is the direction that the National Assembly has always followed, by asking citizens to be involved in the democratic process. Of course, democracy is about inclusion and participation. We do not expect these features only in the provision of the dividends of democracy, but also in the processes that lead to it,” Lawan said.
He noted that the liberalisation of information on various social media platforms has been exploited severally and is subject to different dimensions of abuse warning that if left unchecked without the introduction of laws and sanctions, it could have consequences on the nation.
His words: “The point about progress in information technology that I earlier made is central. There is no doubt that this progress has resulted into the liberalization of information gathering and sharing. The new freedom has led to an equally new celebration. The citizen is now supposedly freer, and probably more participatory in conversations. This is consistent with the philosophy of democracy.
“Coming with this freedom however is different patterns and channels of abuses. This come through half-truths, lies, and hate speech. Concerned about this trend, some countries have imposed sanctions, as deterrence, or to prevent it from happening.