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Press Freedom On A Darkling Plain In Nigeria, By Jide Jimoh



Once reputed as the freest press in Africa, the Nigerian press is sliding down at a quick pace as one of the worst. The litany of the subterfuge against the press in Nigeria is reaching a crescendo during this administration of President Muhammadu Buhari and the ruling party. It is like a premeditated onslaught to bring the press to its knees to assuage the whims and caprices of those who hold the levers of power. 

We are witnesses to these significant events that have blighted the record of Nigeria as a press-friendly nation. It has become an incremental foray in the ignominy of incessant attacks on the press and freedom of speech generally. The zenith, so far, of that ignominy, is contained in the recent amendment of the Nigerian Broadcasting Code (NBC) conceived, nurtured and birthed by the minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, who gleefully announced those ignominious provisions. 

Let us look at the hate speech phenomenon on which I have carried out academic research in recent times.

There is no universally accepted definition of hate speech. The possible effect of hate speech is determined by some five criteria that have no universal application. They are moderated by specific sociological and political variables that are shifting with time and circumstances. The implication of such shifts in circumstances in the political context is the possible manipulation by those who hold the levers of power. It is my view that in the current Nigerian situation, the hate speech posture of the government, is a veneer for silencing dissenting views and imposing a spiral of silence on an increasingly disillusioned polity, in a situation of a rising frustration of expectations.

The expectation was high; the deliverables were mouth-watering at the onset of this administration. Not a few thought that the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy, as listed in Chapter Two of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as Amended, was inching towards implementation. But what we have witnessed is a regression to the dark days of blatant disregard for the rights and basic humanity of the average Nigerian.

Back to the hate speech phenomenon. In hate speech scholarship, five criteria are generally recognised in assessing the possible impact of hate speech on the polity: The status of the speaker, the reach of the speech, goals of the speech, the content of the speech and the surrounding climate (social/economic/political). Even if all of these are present in a particular hate speech, it is no guarantee that it will have impact in the society. What is considered hate speech by government might just be an early warning signal for society to arrest a deteriorating situation.

So the definition of hate speech has to be socially defined and recognised, irrespective of what the government of the day feels. Some speeches are necessary to galvanise actions from the holders of the levers of power, more so as a feedback from the populace on possible implications of certain actions on the society. Patriotism is said to be the refuge of every scoundrel. We are witnesses to the idea of national security being appropriated as the personal interests of those in power.

For a phenomenon that has no universal definition, caution must be the watchword. The fake speech debate gained prominence when Donald Trump became the president of the world’s most powerful nation, the United Sstates of America. Every news that did not suit his agenda he regarded as fake news. We had Decree Four of 1984 during the military regime of General Muhammadu Buhari, which criminalised truth, if the truth embarrassed the government or any of the officials. Under that decree Tunde Thompson and Ndukar Irabor went to jail for a report that embarrassed the government. Are we back to that period? Buhari had earlier told Nigerians in an interview that he would tamper with press freedom. Are we back to those days?

In the particular circumstances that led to a fine being imposed on a radio station, there are many questions begging for answers. Not the least of these is whether the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) can be accuser, judge and executioner in its own case. Another poser is whether they have the right to impose fines in the first place. The board of NBC has also disowned the purported amendment to the Nigerian Broadcasting Code. I believe our positive minded legal luminaries will not allow these anomalies to reign. 

From conception to implementation, the amendment to the Broadcasting Code has been trailed by controversies. It is obvious from reactions from stakeholders that there were no industry-wide consultations before the amendments were foisted on the public. As it turns out, not even the internal mechanisms were exhausted, judging by the rejection of the Code by the Board of NBC. The posture of the minister in privileging the legal option over other mechanisms for stemming hate speech has not helped matters. A holistic look at the sociology of hate speech will put Nigeria in a better position to counter it.

Nobody is advocating a situation where hate speech dominates the air. It is just that governments throughout history cannot be allowed to be the sole determinant of what is and what is not hate speech. When a government believes a hate speech has been uttered, it must go through a judicial process, instead of instant judgement. The media are also duty-bound to undertake regular assessments of their internal mechanisms for self-regulation and stick to professional and ethical standards. That role cannot be outsourced to government. A vibrant press is the one that uncovers what governments would rather put under cover.

Jide Jimoh is a press freedom advocate and journalism lecturer at the Lagos State University. Email:

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