Few weeks back, the Nigerian government drew a line on hate speech in the country, equating it to terrorism. The Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, stated this at the National Economic Council security retreat held at the Presidential Villa in Abuja.

He said the intimidation of a population by words or speech is an act of terrorism and will no longer be tolerated by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration. He warned that the government intends to take the matter seriously.

Although the acting president did not mention any name or groups in his speech, some of those who have been accused of hate speech include Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the secessionist pro-Biafra group, IPOB, and some northern youth who, in various audio speeches, have spread hate against Igbos.

Since this declaration was made weeks ago, the debate about what constitutes hate speech, particularly on social media has become the new national discuss. Many pundits lamented that developing such policies runs the risk of limiting an individual’s ability to exercise free speech.

While some Nigerians supports the move by Federal government to criminalize hate speech in Nigeria, some urge the government to draw a line between hate speech and constructive criticism.

It is therefore important to explore the concept of hate speech, as it relates to the freedom of expression and determines whether or not, the criminalization of hate speech constitute an infringement on free speech.

Section 39(1) of the 1999 Constitution provides that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information without interference”. Similarly, Article19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” By the same token, Article IX of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights provides that “Every individual shall have the right to receive information and the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.”

While hate speech is any speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits, constructive criticism is designed to help someone “do better”, such as a boss pointing out mistakes that need correcting.

In common usage, people use “hate speech” to refer to speech that expresses hatred towards a group of people, or towards a person as a member of such a group. Speech criticizing an individual as an individual or a political party, should not be described as “hate speech.”

However, public criticism can be brought to the degree of hate speech when the criticizer uses the racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, etc. traits of a certain person to criticize that person, but most often is not brought to that extent.

Criticism of a government isn’t the same as criticism of an entire religion or ethnic group. For example, if someone fairly or unfairly criticizes Nigeria’s foreign policies, it doesn’t mean the person hates Nigeria or the government.

Hate speech is so pervasive in Nigeria that it is doubtful if there are many Nigerians that are completely free from the vice. Today it is evident all over the internet going by interactions by youths on numerous online platforms. This does not strengthen unity or the cords of oneness.

As Nigeria take the giant step to ensure sanity in its polity by taking steps to hold every citizen accountable to their freely expressed speeches, we should understand that this it is not the first to do so.

Hate speech is prohibited in several jurisdictions such as Canada where advocating genocide or inciting hatred against any ‘identifiable group’ is an indictable offence under the country’s Criminal Code with maximum prison terms of two to fourteen years. In the United Kingdom, several statutes criminalize hate speech against several categories of persons. In South Africa, hate speech (along with incitement to violence and propaganda for war) is specifically excluded from protection of free speech in the Constitution.

While hate speech isn’t free speech, free speech and criticizing of the government should not be restricted on Nigerians.

It is important we do make a distinction between the right to free speech/criticism and the rights of others not to be abused or threatened. constructive criticism and questioning play a positive role in every nation’s polity. Hate does not.

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