Bloodthirsty Senate?

By Mustapha Temidayo

ABUJA – What is driving our distinguished senators to propose capital punishment for an offence, which to a large extent is a common pastime for many Nigerians? Could it be a way of paying Nigerians back, for their stringent objection to the criminal enrichment going on in the national assembly, by way of unconstitutional emoluments? Or perhaps, the senators hope that if the law is passed, it will silence Nigerians who have been abusing them for failing to make appropriate laws that could lift the country from the prevalent economic quagmire.

Without equivocation, the bill on hate speech before the senate, which has passed first reading, and which provides for death penalty, is an overkill. In some instances it may amount to a capital punishment for an offence with a nebulous presumption of guilt. For instance, does it amount to hate speech to stringently denounce a public official who has misappropriated the resources put in his care, and ostensibly use it for self-aggrandizement? Will a caller for civil disobedience face death penalty if the people angrily riot and the police in quelling the riot use life bullet on the demonstrators, resulting in the death of a citizen?

Again, when frustrated citizens from one tribe call citizens from another tribe names, which inflame passion, and in a roforofo arising therefrom, somebody dies, will the police be entitled to seek out those they believe started the quarrel and ask for death penalty when they are charged to court for hate speech? Furthermore, will political and socio-cultural leaders who have threatened and boasted severally that their tribesmen don’t forgive an offence against their cattle, be eligible to face death penalty for the many deaths traceable to those they defend?

How would the law exhaustively define hate speech? Will the usual abuse that happen in a danfo bus or molue be treated as a hate speech? Will the regular abuse between neighbours in the ‘face me I face you’ living quarters, when passions are inflamed, during which they mutually haul abusive words to members of each other’s tribe and even dead parents, be treated as hate speech? Will it amount to hate speech, to say that the Deputy Chief Whip of the senate, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, who sponsored the bill, is a woeful failure in the senate?

Will it amount to hate speech to tell the electorates in Niger state to recall Senator Abdullahi, and vote in a more serious person who will be concerned about their welfare, instead of an extremist law on hate speech? Will it amount to hate speech to speculate on constituency projects since the details of the work, the project costs, and the beneficiary of the usually over-bloated contract, are shrouded in secrecy? Will it amount to hate speech to speculate on the health condition of a public official, who goes abroad on a medical tourism with public funds, but refuses to disclose his medical challenge publicly?

Of note, the criminal code provides in section 59(1) as follows: “Any person who publishes or reproduces any statement, rumour or report which is likely to cause fear and alarm to the public or to disturb the public peace, knowing or having reason to believe that such statement, rumour or report is false shall be guilty of a misdemeanour and liable on conviction, to imprisonment for three years.”

The Code further provides in sub-section 2: “It shall be no defence to a charge under the last preceding subsection that he did not know or did not have reason to believe that the statement, rumour or report was false unless he proves that, prior to publication, he took reasonable measures to verify the accuracy or such statement, rumour or report.” At the level of public interest, the above provision to a large extent deals with the scourge of our time, the plague of fake news and hate speech.

To protect the individual reputation, the Criminal Code provides on the law of defamation, which is defined in section 373, thus: “Defamatory matter is matter likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or likely to damage any person in his profession or trade by an injury to his reputation.” While the punishment for publication of defamatory matter is one year imprisonment, publication of defamatory matter with intent to extort is seven years.

Away from criminal law, there is the tort of Defamation, which deals with libel and slander, both of which protect the reputation of individuals from hate speech and allied fake news. In Ratcliffe vs Evans (1892) 2 QB 524 at 529-530, Bowen LJ, said thus: “Every libel is of itself a wrong in regard to which the law implies damages… Akin to action for libel are those actions which are brought for oral slander, where such slander consists of words actionable per se, and the mere use of which constitutes the infringement of the plaintiff’s right. The very speaking of such words, apart from any damage, constitutes a wrong and gives rise to a cause of action. The law in such a case presumes… general damages.”

So, to a large extent, there are provisions in our laws, which can substantially deal with the scourge of fake news and hate speech, in a civilized manner. The problem with us is the lack of capacity to bring culprits to book, in accordance with the law. While no doubt, the birth of social media has made life miserable for high class individuals and public officials, especially those with a lot of skeletons in their cupboard, such challenge is not enough to seek to unnecessary abridge the right to be informed, guaranteed by the constitution.

Section 39 of the 1999 constitution (as amended), without equivocation provides: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without hindrance.” Of course, the above provision is not absolute, that is why the law criminalises wrong use of the right as criminal defamation, and punishes the pocket, when the right is recklessly exercised by way of damages in the tort of defamation. If we need to upgrade the punishment for the reckless exercise of the right to freedom of expression, it must never be the harsh proposals before the senate, clearly geared to scare the public from exposing the deep rooted abuse of power and corruption in high places.

From hindsight, it is also fair to allege that the purveyors of the malice laden bills now before the senate, are preparing to corner the jobs that would come from the proposed National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches, for their wards and friends.

‘From hindsight, it is also fair to allege that the purveyors of the malice laden bills now before the senate, are preparing to corner the jobs that would come from the proposed National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches, for their wards and friends’

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