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Fears proposed death penalty for hate speech will kill freedom of expression in Nigeria

Monday 2 April 2018, by siawi3


Fears proposed death penalty for hate speech will kill freedom of expression in Nigeria

By Andrew Thompson

Updated Sat 31.04.2018 at 10:48pm

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo making a speech
Photo: Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has equated hate speech with terrorism. (Reuters: Afolabi Sotunde)

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There are fears that newly proposed laws in Nigeria which stipulate a death penalty for hate speech will severely undermine freedom of expression in Africa’s largest democracy.
Key points:

The fierce public debate comes ahead of the 2019 general election
Proponents say it is necessary to crack down on violence and disorder
Experts say the laws would “kill” the whole essence of free speech

The bill’s sponsor, Senator Aliyu Sabi-Abdullahi, has taken to Nigerian breakfast television, enthusiastically promoting the most controversial aspect of the bill — death by hanging for a person who commits hate speech that leads to the death of another person.

“Hate speech … is targeted at an identified group and as a result leads to violence or disorder,” Senator Sabi-Abdullahi, who is from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party and is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, said.

“Somebody must not die in somebody’s hand because I want to express myself.”

The proposals come as Nigeria prepares itself for the next general election, while battling to control ethnic tensions, amid the Biafra separatist and Boko Haram militant movements.

The bill would create the Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches to enforce the proposed laws, which also include prison terms and fines for less severe cases.

Jideofor Adibe, an associate professor of Political Science at Nasarawa State University, said he was vehemently opposed to the proposed measures.

Dr Jideofor Adibe faces the camera wearing a a blue shirt and orange necklace
Photo: Professor Adibe is concerned about the practical application of the new laws. (Supplied: Dr Jideofor Adibe)

“It could be used to curtail speech, to frighten people,” Professor Adibe told the ABC.

“The whole essence of freedom of speech, which is the bed rock of democracy itself, would be killed.”

“It’s very difficult to make a distinction between what people call hate speech and offensive speech.”

But Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, also from the ruling APC party, has equated hate speech with terrorism and condemned using freedom of expression as a valid argument to defend it.

“Every genocide has been preceded by hate speech,” he said at a national security seminar organised by the Institute for Security Studies.

“We must do something about it, we must control hate speech.”

On a raid in Nigeria, members of Boko Haram hold guns and missile launcher
Photo: The debate comes amid an ongoing war with Boko Haram militants. (Supplied)

Nigeria is ranked 122 out of 180 countries in the Reporters without Borders 2017 World Press Freedom Index after falling six places in a year.

“We feel like it [the legislation] could be turned into an instrument of censorship,” Arnaud Froger, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Africa desk, told the ABC.

“Instead of getting more and more people rightfully pursued for hate speech, we find more and more outspoken journalists prosecuted for hate speech.”

Professor Adibe said with the worsening ethnic tensions, having a media that was seen to be free and transparent was vital to the democratic process in the next election.

The 2015 election marked the first time Nigeria successfully transferred power democratically, and there are fears that with a more restricted media a peaceful transition may prove more difficult this time around.

“Offensive speech may be uncomfortable, but it is generally accepted and it contributes to the whole market place of ideas on which democracy thrives,” Professor Adibe said.