But, what exactly is hate speech? -By Abimbola Adelakun

Filed under: Political Issues |

Abimbola Adelakun

 

These days, there are many articles on the phenomenon of hate speech in Nigeria, and curiously, they all seem to assume the meaning of hate speech is across the board. These op-eds editorialise on how to fight hate speech but stop short of telling the reader what it is. How does one fight an enemy that has not been identified?

Typically, hate speech is any speech that is used to demean persons based on their identifiers such as race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and predispose them to acts of violence.

Earlier this month, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said hate speech would no longer be tolerated in Nigeria as it was tantamount to terrorism. This development should have been cheery news in these times when all manner of venomous speeches against groups and individuals are flying cacophonously in Nigeria’s media space. Some newspapers’ comment sections, online, have become the cesspool for lowlifes that need to empty the malicious content of their small souls.

Not all of the comments can, however, be classified as “hate speech.”

The resurgence of hate speech in our public culture, in recent times, cycles a little back to the rather divisive 2015 electoral campaigns when the word was generously dispensed, eventually blurring the lines of its meaning with the general vitriol of political propaganda. When the Africa Independent Television aired a documentary that was considered anti-Buhari, the then presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, his party called for an investigation of the station for what they quickly labelled “hate broadcast.” They petitioned the National Broadcasting Commission to complain about the “hate speech” against their candidate even though one could argue that the contents of the documentary, narrations around Buhari’s past as a dictator and a repressive leader, were mostly factual.

In retrospect, the APC should have been compelled to define what they meant by “hate” so the rest of us could understand how their mind works. In the heat of the campaign, one could take their protests as part of the sentiment manipulation that is typical of electioneering. Now that they are in power, and they are going all out against “hate speech”, it is important to draw the borders of what can be characterised as “hate speech” as against libel, slander, insults against political leaders, satire, comedic jibes against floundering politicians, anti-government propaganda, legitimate protests against government policies, political dissension either as a group or as individual, and even malevolent wishes against political leaders.

This demarcation is crucial because we are dealing with President Muhammadu Buhari, a man that once ruled Nigeria as a military leader. He promulgated brutal decrees that limited press freedom and tolerated no dissent from civilians. Even if Buhari has become reconstructed, or “converted” as he called himself and realises the imperatives of free speech in a democracy, we should still be circumspect. He is surrounded by a breed of people who take any criticism of their “Sai Baba” rather personally and would not hesitate – by any means necessary – to clamp down on any force that makes him look weak.

I have come across social media posts by Buhari’s supporters who label every commentary that refuses to worship at the Buhari “shrine” a “hate speech.” Every contribution that shrugged off an opportunity to pray for Buhari’s recovery when he was abroad was described as “hate speech.” When the meanings of politically charged terms get that fuzzy, we open the door to an intolerant government to clamp down on our fundamental human rights.

In Nigeria, people have been arrested for speaking against the government on social media. In 2011, in Jigawa State, one Mukhtar Ibrahim Aminu, was arrested and jailed for praying for divine retribution against Governor Sule Lamido on Facebook. In February, Chocolate City boss, Audu Maikori, was arrested for exaggerating the number of victims in the southern Kaduna killings. It was instructive that those who were carrying out the killings had not been arrested, but the man who tweeted about them (falsely, though) was hurriedly herded into jail. In March too, a Katsina Chief Magistrate Court sentenced one Gambo Saeed to nine months’ imprisonment for “insulting and defaming” the governor’s character on social media.

While I do not have problems with laws on defamation being exercised where necessary, it was worrying that Saeed was arrested after the governor’s Special Assistant on “Radio Monitoring” reported him to the police. Are we in the Orwellian state already that a governor assigns someone to monitor public commentaries? As if that is not enough, the Director of Defence Information, Maj. Gen. John Enenche, recently admitted that the Nigerian military now monitors the social media for “anti-government, anti-military, and anti-security” communication.

If history has taught us anything, it is that the government cannot be given freehand to draw the borders of free speech. By setting up units to monitor radio and social media commentaries, it will not be unthinkable for them, at some point, to forbid people from protesting the conditions of their oppression. The government can easily lump any expression that makes them uneasy into the amorphous category of “hate speech.” In fact, those government officials who are asked to monitor others can even set up social media pages to post a litany of insults and “hate speech” that their government would react to by clamping down on public freedom. The opportunities for mischief in such a set-up are rife and one needs to be wary.

How does a government that once characterised a documentary against their presidential candidate as “hate” presently separate the phenomenon of “fake news” that is circulated online – sometimes out of sheer ignorance or mischief – from the large tent erected for “hate speech”? Is merely distasteful speech (such as citizens cursing the governor and his family) the same as “hate speech”? Does “offensive” or “disagreeable” necessarily translate into “hate speech”? In Turkey presently, people are being arrested for social media posts that criticise the government. To their tyrannical government, posts that are not for the government are against them, and to be perceived to be against them is to be supportive of treasonous terrorists. Who says we cannot experience the same in Nigeria if our authoritarian governors are given the weapons of mass abuse when “hate speech” is treated as terrorism?

Indeed, there is a case to be made for curtailing hate speech, especially in a medium like the social media that is so democratised that practically anyone can set a fire on it. Recently, in Germany, the police raided 36 homes of people across 14 states accusing them of hateful postings over social media. Those people were alleged to have made inciting racial comments, threatened others, and even harassed people over their sexuality. Given its history, Germany is careful not to let hate speech take the field once more. They are coming up with laws that will curtail the excesses of hate mongering right wingers and the Neo-Nazis. Social media organisations like Twitter and Facebook themselves take hate speech seriously, and they too regularly come up with means of restraining pubic excesses.

Nigeria can learn a lot from them to develop her own means of curtailing the phenomenon of social media abuse. Given our history, we cannot afford to close our eyes to incitement against any group. But first, we need to define hate speech in clear terms, so that no one abuses their power and privilege. The government cannot be allowed to up the ante on the moral panic on hate speech and then set up its proposed special courts to prosecute it. We should be vigilant as the abuse of power can be masked as state benevolence; we need to question what they are thinking of when they talk of hate speech. The term has been used so liberally these days we should not assume that its definitions are as clear as it sounds.

 

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