FOR good reason, a cross section of Nigerians, trade unions, media practitioners and experts, and civil society organisations have reacted angrily to the recent decision of the Federal Government to increase from N500, 000 to N5 million, the financial penalty for individuals and entities adjudged to have run afoul of the “hate speech” stipulation in the reviewed Nigerian broadcasting code. In a statement signed by its national president Comrade Chris Isiguzo, the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) described the increase as “reckless,” “outrageous,” and “an act of impunity against the media.” For Chika Onuegbu, Deputy National President of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), the increase in the fine for hate speech is nothing but a premeditated attempt by the Federal Government to “gag the media.” Consistent with the sentiments expressed by the leadership of the NUJ and the TUC,organised labour under the rubric of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) is reportedly planning to stage a nationwide peaceful march to protest both the increased fine and rampant corruption in the higher echelons of government in the country.
We pitch our tent with organised labour and the rump of civil society in their legitimate denunciation of an arbitrary increase clearly aimed at pacifying political opposition against the Federal Government and its functionaries. The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen once said: “The pillars of truth and the pillars of freedom- they are the pillars of society.” To the extent that neither of these pillars could stand without freedom of speech, it goes without saying that freedom of speech is the real foundation of a democratic society. This is why, contra our compatriots and allies within the trade unions and civil society, we go one step further to condemn the very idea of hate speech as articulated by the current administration. While it is important to denounce the highhandedness involved in increasing the fine for hate speech from N500, 000 to N5 million, this assumes that there is nothing wrong with the original fine of N500, 000. We disagree.
We hold that the case for hate speech has yet to be made, and that what exists at the moment is nothing but a pretext by the Federal Government to penalise speech that it disagrees with. We saw an example in the N5 million fine imposed by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) on Nigeria Info 99.3 after the latter aired an interview with former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Obadiah Mailafia. The National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) accused Nigeria Info 99.3, implausibly, of promoting “unverifiable and inciting views that could encourage or incite to (sic) crime and lead to public disorder.” If indeed the radio station has promoted an “unverifiable” view, the proper thing to do is to ask it to provide verification. Also, if the same view could incite “public disorder,” why hasn’t it?
Nigerians from all walks of life should condemn and legitimately oppose this blatant attempt by the Federal Government to stifle legitimate dissent and put a bridle on free speech. Categorizing speech that is critical of the government as hate speech is a familiar tactic of tyrants. If free speech means anything at all, it is the freedom to offend and be offended, to hate and be hated, and the legitimate response to speech with which one disagrees is not less speech, but more. Criticising the state in the strongest terms possible is not hate speech. It is a constitutional right of every citizen in a free society. We are resolved to keep it that way.