The public outrage that greeted the Hate Speech and Anti-Social Media Bill sponsored by a lawmaker early this year had hardly died down when the National Broadcasting Commission(NBC) made it official. The bill, among others formed part of the 6th amendment to the NBC code which was unveiled by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed on August 4th, 2020 in Lagos. The Hate Speech bill sponsored by the Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, Aliyu Abdullahi, commentators believe, is to silence critics of the Government. And that it is not totally different from the provisions of Decree 4 promulgated by General Buhari then as Military Head of State between 1983 and 1985.
The repressive Decree drafted on March 29, 1984, had two Journalists, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor of the Guardian Newspapers jailed and a number of Newspapers/Magazines houses visited with punitive measures including arrests and shutdowns. Section 1 subsections 1, 2 and 3 of the draconian Decree 4, critics say are similar to the NBC amended code on Hate Speech which provides that any person who publishes in any form, whether written or otherwise, any message, rumour, statement or report which is false in any material or particular, or which brings and is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or Government of the State or public officer to ridicule or disrepute shall be guilty of an offence under the Decree.
The comparison cannot be far from the truth with the dangerous sign of gagging the press, even under a democratic dispensation which guarantees freedom of expression. Another angle to the contentious issue is the hike on the initial 500,000 naira penalty fee to 5 million naira stipulated by the NBC code as fine for those found guilty of the provision of the broadcast code on Hate Speech. It is the belief of the Information Minister that the NBC code will only compel Media houses, especially the broadcast stations to scrutinize advertisements and reports before publishing, with the proviso that offenders who violate the law on three occasions would have their operating license suspended. Giving the indication that the law regulating the conduct of the press has come to stay, the NBC Acting Director General, Professor Armstrong Idachaba in an interview said the NBC code on Hate Speech is targeted at the broadcast stations under its control, insisting that Managers of News and Information must take responsibility and be mindful of what they put in the public domain in order not to overheat the polity thereby compromising the security of the Country.
Our stand is that to avoid the likely inconveniences that may arise from the judicial interpretation of what constitutes Hate Speech, the authorities should rather do more in the area of education and enlightenment not to put the burden on the media outfits alone to decipher on the matter of Hate Speech. While we are not in doubt that the media houses are the target in rolling out the National Broadcasting Commission code on Hate Speech, we urge the broadcast regulatory body to tread with caution in order not to be seen as strangulating the press in a democratic dispensation.
On the other hand, the media should remain ever vigilant and thorough while also exercising some restraint in its reportage in order not to play into the hands of the existing laws. It should be bold enough to operate within the confines of the existing laws that promote press freedom and liberty. The media must never allow itself to be cowed into submitting to the whims and caprices of authoritarianism in any guise. Professionally, Journalists are guided by the code of conduct and ethics which, in summary, emphasizes objectivity and factual reporting. We believe that the NBC code of 2020 should be revisited. It should not deter the press from operating within the confines of the Nigerian Press Law.