Hate Speech Fine: You Can’t Gag Nigerians-Letter to Lai Mohammed

Lai Mohammed

By Steve Osuji

POOR BODY LANGUAGE: Though I write with utmost respect to you, I seek to convey my utter disgust at the current situation in Nigeria’s media space and civil liberties arena. I am particularly miffed at the numerous less than salubrious utterances you have consistently made since your tenure as minister and the obdurate body language you are wont to project in the public space.
As a senior journalist who has been practising for over the three decades I believe I have a duty to speak up and draw your attention to some of the flaws and gaffes wafting from your office in the last five years.
I am particularly in a pole position to intervene not only because you represent my immediate constituency, but for the fact that I have seen and indeed reported at least a dozen information ministers in the last 30 years – and that includes during the heat of the military era.
There’s no gainsaying that that office stands in betwixt the government and the governed. It is of course, the voice, face and heart of any administration but with the crucial role of managing both ends of the divide.
But one is afraid to say that you have failed to maintain the requisite balance and nuanced empathy required of that office. Keen-eyed observers would tell you that you have maintained a ‘them and us’ posture reminiscent of the information ministers of the military era.
While you have pandered excessively to your bosses, you have exhibited adversarial tendencies towards the people – even when there’s no need for it.
I will get back to giving an overview of your tenure either here or in another piece, but let me quickly draw two examples to buttress the fact of your playing up unduly to your ’employers while perhaps unwittingly, undermining the universe of the Nigerian people.

OBSESSED ABOUT HATE SPEECH (HS): Dear Honorable Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, I dare say that since your advent over five years ago, you have given such offensive impression that Nigerians are irresponsible and that the public and media space is suffused with cranks whose pastime is to spew hate, insult and abuse of public officials.
You have the taken it upon yourself to ‘arrest’ the malady and put away the rascals for good – by any means possible.
You have vigorously pushed and supported the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill. Though proposed by a certain Aliyu Abdullahi, a senator from Niger State, you have cottoned unto the campaign as if it were your brainchild.
Twice, the ill-digested Bill has been thrust on the upper chamber and twice it has met the anger and rejection of Nigerians.
Knowing the history of Nigeria’s media and the liberties Nigerians (including you) have enjoyed over the years, that Bill or anything close to it will never mature into a law of the land.
But apparently frustrated that that obnoxious legislation-in-making is at the sick bay, you have elected to help yourself via the backdoor. Through the instrumentality of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC).
Nigerians woke up a few days ago to be confronted by your announcement that fines levied by the NBC for hate speech has been jacked up from half a million to five million naira.
For fear of sounding hateful, this is clearly an action with hateful intentions!
Honorable Minister, it must be stated clearly that this singular act is an assault on the intelligence, integrity and collective psyche of all right-thinking Nigerians.
While we shall not go into the legality of this action, are fines meant to correct the citizenry or to kill them? Are fines to serve as punishment or to pulverise?
The so-called hate speech law you seem so enamoured of is much concerned about the people abusing and insulting public officials.
But the great worry here is to be able to distinguish between scornful use of words for their sake and the application of appropriate lexicon.
A quick example: the other day a certain president of ours wasn’t quite up and doing. He wasn’t quick on the draw enough for many of us and we appropriately labelled him ‘clueless’.
We all (including you, Hon. Minister) took liberty and even licence; we relished in scourging him with that tag. It was cool. We didn’t know about the the idea of hate speech then, lest you may have been a prime victim and would still be in gaol now.
Today, many think our number one is worse than clueless; many think it’s just as well we didn’t have a head. And the buzz word today is ‘useless’.
Considering all the fires on all our mountains, is that the appropriate description? It may well be a perfect fit for the day. Would that be hate speech? I will leave that to you to ponder sir.

THE NBC 6TH CODE OF INFAMY: Hon. Minister, another example that would adversely define your time and tenure is the recent so-called 6th review of the NBC Code. As a journalist and an interested party (content provider) what happened is an example of how not to be a regulator and worse, how not to implement public policy.
First, you are too immersed in the affairs of the NBC, to the point that many would mistake you for the head of that body.
Second, from the look of it, the review seems to have been done with a preconceived agenda of your ministry (obviously with an intention to favour a person or group), so there were clear underhand activities and ambush of stakeholders through the entire process. In other words, the outcome is not the consensus of stakeholders but an official stamping of what looks like a hidden agenda.
Third, NBC is looking very stark, not to say stupid, after the ruinous decision on the so-called anti-trust provision and regulation of content exclusivity. Let’s illustrate: I am Commissioned to produce a quality content by a broadcast outlet at enormous costs and when job is done, NBC mandates that the content could never be exclusive if the owner so desires and it legislates who the owner of the content share with and the pricing. This falls far short of reason, to put it in a numbingly polite way!
Lastly on this point, Nigerian regulators are still stuck in the junta mold of yesterday. Wole Soyinka describes it as “strangulatory” as opposed to regulatory. They still see themselves as inquisitors and extortionists.
They must cast off that shell and assume the roles of moderators, facilitators, catalysts and agents for growth of industry sectors.
A cursory look at our regulators ( NCC, DPR, NERC, NPA, CBN, etc.) show centres of opportunism, profits and privileges instead of places of work, growth and development.

GOING FORWARD: Dear Hon. Minister, a review of your tenure so far would be an exercise for another day but suffice to note that from the foregoing, the prognosis is parlous.
To cap some of the points raised here, you have not shown much understanding of Nigeria’s media space, practice and even practitioners. This may be understandable since you were never a media man. Indeed, you had been more an image maker and an establishment man therefore, some nitty-gritty of media ethos are sure to elude you unless you seek for and yield to superior counsel.

This explains why you would needlessly expouse conventions that would seek to constrict our entrenched media spaces, basic civil liberties and rights. Need we repeat that there’s nothing about the so-called hate speech that is not already taken care of by extant media laws concerning libel, defamation slander.
It’s a most pathetic situation if our chief information manager is concerned with closing the space for robust discourse especially in a season gruelling maladministration.
At a time a raging pandemic of misgovernance assails the populace in every sphere of life, our chief mediator rail at us about hate speech and he hikes a fine by 500 percent. This reminds us of Decree 4 by another name! ( remember it was slammed on is by your current boss in his Jack boot days).
In your estimation, Hon. Minister, HS must be the root of all evils in the land. And one is moved to conjecture that should we all put bandage across our lips in the next three years, so many magical feats may just happen upon us.
For instance, our presidential hospital would spring to life so that our first lady wouldn’t have to shuttle to Dubai for a neck sprain as is currently the case as I write this.
Sir, I am sorry to note that you project the image of one who is much troubled about ringworm in an acutely leperous body.
But I dare say that we must be careful what we crave. It’s eternally salutary that we, Nigerians are allowed our docile and boisterous speeches – even hate speech.
In other climes, faced by our kind of woes, people would be speaking with machines now!
Yours sincerely,
▪︎Steve Osuji 09/08/20