Any organisation, body or society which regulates what can be said and what cannot be said will ultimately collapse and go into oblivion. Free speech is inherent in man. If we remember that thoughts are free and that for man to blossom such thoughts should be given expression, we would then appreciate the need to allow citizens to freely express themselves. The greatest innovations which mankind has experienced were not developed in locked societies or in societies where people were prevented from free thinking. Free speech is the capacity to freely express ideas which one holds with a view to being heard for whatever reasons. It is true that some people hold very dangerous views. Dangerous in the sense that the views are myopic, destructive or inflammatory and threatening to the ideals of mutual respect. It is for this reason that governments through legislative acts have tried to regulate free speech.
Hate speech is
any expressed idea that deny the need for mutual coexistence. It is defined as ‘abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation’. Hate speech comes in different forms. Any speech which denigrates a group or a sub-group, or a nation, an organisation or a movement is considered to be hate speech. Hate speeches usually do not recognise the niceties of mutual coexistence. They are one-sided and are often the product of ignorance or refusal to see the other side of things. For example, a speech which fans the embers of ethnic disunity is hate speech. Leaders, political and social, are particularly advised not to express hatred because of their position. Anyone who preaches that he is born to rule the other is simply instigating disaffection and hatred. Fake news is also a kind of hate speech!
Free speech carries a responsibility. It assumes that the speaker is conscious of whatever effects his speech could have. Often, the political, religious or cultural position of the speaker or writer adds weight to how the speech is received. The voice of an Emir or Oba or Pastor carries more weight than the voice of a private citizen. If an idea emanates from such a person, people reason, then it must be taken seriously. In the days when newspapers were the widely accepted medium of expression, it was easier to regulate what people read. The laws of libel were developed to protect persons or institutions that can be maligned through provocative and libellous statements. We have entered a new era where news has been redefined. These days, we do not depend on the regular reporters or news media to hear the news of the day.
Free speech is not a license to spew hatred through public speaking or writing. There is a line dividing both; it is tenuous, sort of, but is there. Those in charge of state security often consider views that are not favourable to an incumbent government as hate speech. This is wrong. It was this view of free speech that the late notorious dictator of Uganda Idi Amin Dada was quoted to have said: “There is freedom of speech, but I cannot guarantee freedom after speech’. The rights of individuals to express themselves even in a critical manner are enshrined in the constitution. Governments should realise that the people have a right to see things differently. When retired General Theophilus Danjuma berated the Nigerian Army in 2018 over its lack of professionalism in the crisis in his home state, some thought it was hate speech. The respected officer must have been fed up with developments and virtually called on the people to protect themselves against the army! The reasonable assumption is that he had exhausted all channels for private communication with the powers-that-be and saw a public outcry as a last resort.
In every nation or group, there are some sensitive issues which can bring supressed tension to the fore. Government has a responsibility towards ensuring that all issues on mutual coexistence are amicably settled. The fact that the Biafra issue came up again fifty years after the civil war shows that there are unresolved issues. The incumbent government may use intimidation and force to drive it underground, yet like the proverbial calabash, it will bubble up again.
Recently, the Senate introduced a bill that prescribes the death penalty for anybody guilty of hate speech. The mere thought of it raised tension in the land. Across the land, the assumption was that it was a bill introduced by the executive branch of government. The immediate reaction was that the government is preparing the ground for an assault on civil liberties in preparation for some strange plans against 2023. The rumour mill took over. The Senate needs to be told that there are enough laws in the Nigerian Constitution to deal with persons who contravene the law in Nigeria. The death penalty idea was a very foolish one. The originator of the bill should know that if such a law were in force under previous administrations some of the current holders of power would have been hanged by now! Do we remember the baboons and blood speech which led to the slaughter of innocent citizens?
The hate speech bill and whatever method government wants to apply to muzzle free speech should be discarded and thrown in the dust bin. Democracy encourages free speech. Different governments have used different methods to intimidate citizens and entrench themselves in power. But for how long? Free speech makes it possible for citizens to protest if elections are rigged. Free speech makes it possible for citizens to hold public officials accountable when they fall short of expectations. Hate speech is anathema to democracy. But the death penalty option deserves death before birth. The National Assembly should focus on legislation that will guarantee a full and happy life for all Nigerians. The level of unemployment and current harsh economic conditions need legislative intervention to reduce social tension. This, in my view, requires urgent attention.
By Hope Eghagha