Opinion: Senate’s proposed bills and the diminution of democracy – By AYO OLUKOTUN

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The bill on the regulation of social media poses a serious threat and danger to freedom of speech and expression. Any law aimed at limiting the rights and freedom of citizens to express their views is aimed at building a tower of tyranny. Combating hate speech is a smoke screen to annihilate free speech.”

–Senator Shehu Sani, The PUNCH, Wednesday, November 13, 2019.

Nigerian politics continues to reek in apprehensions, threats, violence, the fear of death, assertion of naked power beclouding our still evolving democracy, turning it to a dreaded journey in a forest of ghosts. The imminent Kogi and Bayelsa governorship elections, for example, are preceded, frightfully, by upscale thuggery, resulting in a recent teargassing by police of eminent stakeholders in Lokoja, the Kogi State capital. As outrage billows over a bill to regulate the social media, the Senate prescribed in another bill that has passed first reading, death sentence for ‘hate speech offenders’.

One is reminded sadly of the Cameroonian scholar and political theorist, Achile Mbembe’s insights in to necropolitics, or the politics of death, tending to hollow out the promise of democracy. In a book published last month, by Duke University Press, Mbembe draws attention to tendencies in, especially African democracy to coddle its dark side, characterised by obsessive search for enemies, the jettisoning of liberal ideals, and the penchant for political competition to take place in the shadow of death.

There is a difference between condemning, even recommending sanctions for hate speech, which definition is itself open to controversy, and criminalising it by stipulating the ultimate retribution, that is, death for it. Similarly, setting aside existing retributions for libel, slander and defamation in our laws, the Senate is contemplating and working towards harsh penalties for excesses in social media, their operators and enablers, including telecommunication companies.

No doubt, this is not the first time, obnoxious bills, in the name of regulation and pruning excesses, have surfaced in the upper legislative chamber. Before the current proposed bill, entitled, “Protection from Internet falsehood and manipulation Bill 2019”, we had, two years ago, “A bill for an act to prohibit frivolous petitions and other matters connected therewith”. Interestingly, that emerging bill was sent to an early graveyard after it passed the second reading, and President Muhammadu Buhari repudiated it, by affirming that he was committed to free speech. As Senator Shehu Sani, quoted in the opening paragraph, pointed out, echoing informed opinion in the civil society, there is no basis for the projected bill on hate speech, any more than there was for previous attempts to shrink the democratic space by harsh laws.

Remarkably, Senator Gbemisola Saraki, slyly distanced the Federal Government from the planned hate speech bill, on Wednesday, by pointing out that there already exists in our law books, a hate speech bill which is a part of the Cybercrime Act, passed by the Eighth National Assembly. Argued Saraki, “I think there is a law already in Nigeria that has the hate speech aspect in it. So, hate speech is within that cybercrime aspect”. It may well be that the so-called hate speech bill will die a natural death, because those proposing it have not even bothered to check whether what they want to see done is already covered by existing laws.

No less, the proposed social media regulation bill, sketched out in omnibus terms, and justified by reference to some other countries which have passed similar bills does not say anything more than existing laws have said, if we remove its attempt to bring in a wide circle of stakeholders.  For example, the bill in gestation ropes in mobile companies such as the MTN and Glo, in ways that can hardly be defended. Besides, some of the countries mentioned are hardly models of democracy or good governance, with several of them possessing a heavy overlay of authoritarian traditions. In the case of some advanced democracies like France, limited regulation is specific to attempts by foreign powers to meddle in their elections following the revelation that such a thing had occurred, a decade or so ago. Consequently, the French law is confined to periods of elections.

In other European countries, limited regulation, adopted hesitantly, arose mainly as a response to the use by terrorists of social media as a vehicle of disseminating falsehood, panic and hysteria.  It should be of interest that none of the advocates of these bills has cited the United States, where the First Amendment, and a hefty culture of outspoken free speech, precludes any such limitation, or the so-called regulation. This is not to say that all is well with the social media in Nigeria, where quackery and inventive falsehood, threatening in some cases to outweigh the positive contribution of social media to the enlargement of the democratic space, prevail.

Furthermore, if we borrow from what sociologists call the theory of broken windows, then, we must interrogate the two bills in light of the current dishevelled status of civil liberties and press freedom, virtual and offline. For example, there is evidence that before now, and according to a recent report by the State of Internet Freedom, there has been increasing surveillance of online critics and criticism in Nigeria between 2016 and 2018. Similarly, a recent colloquium on shrinking media and civic space in Nigeria, with the expressive theme, ‘Keeping power in check’ regretted “recent reports of detention, harassment, assault and obstruction of journalists and citizens, showing a troubling trend in the attempt by the state to control the media and civic space in the country”( The Guardian, Tuesday, November  12, 2019).

Had the times been ordinary, and less fraught, both the social media regulation and hate speech bills, proposed, would have looked less frightening.  However,  drawing on the insights that broken windows are a signifier of more unflattering and tell tale settings of crime and disorder, the ill-health of state-media relations predisposes us to conclude that there may be something sinister about the sudden impetus to control the media and civil expression through a rash of new legislation. It is a crying shame that power in our context leads to an exuberance of impositions and efforts to restrict the liberty of others, rather than feats of creativity issuing in rebuilding and renewal of governance. So, we can ask the question, why is it in the midst of troubling woes of insecurity, infrastructural decay, soaring unemployment, inflationary upswing and a dilapidated health and educational system, that our Senate is preoccupied and single-mindedly focused on showing its muscle on excesses of social media and the problems of hate speech.

As representatives of the people, and arguably the preeminent governance institution, Nigerians would have been pleased if what ails and hurts them had provided the grist for discussion and rule making. Cheerlessly, this is not so. Can we ask a favour of our senators? They should henceforth do nothing more in the direction of ominously limiting free speech and civil liberties, rather they should allow the existing laws to be tested to their limits, while they put their attention on the many sorrows that are diminishing Nigeria, almost turning it to a hell hole. Punch

 

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