The Minister of Information and Culture, the Kwara State- born hitherto relatively unknown Lawyer, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, has in the last five years of his stint in the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration, done nothing but to work in cohorts with anti-democratic forces and reactionary elements embedded in the National Assembly, to design and introduce proposed legislations targeting the whittling down of the increasingly expanding frontiers of media freedoms, which is the global trend.
His latest dance of shame, is his attacks against the United States of America’s based Cable News Network (CNN) and his angst which represents the mind of President Muhammadu Buhari, is all about the effrontery and courage displayed by the international media giant to authenticate the widely held claims that indeed, peaceful protesters in Lekki Tollgate Lagos, on October 20th were shot at by a group of soldiers.
Recall that around October 19th or so, the Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives, Mr Femi Gbajabiamila, and the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan (both accused of being Yes-men to the President), visited Aso Rock to meet with the head of the Executive Arm of Government-President Muhammadu Buhari. They said they met behind closed doors, over the circumstances surrounding the nationwide peaceful protests against Police’s excessive deployment of force and the deployment of extrajudicial killings of civilians, as policing tactics. As they rose from that meeting, the Senate President spoke to the media and asked protesters to leave the streets, since, according to him, their grievances have been heard by the President. He sounded a note of warning, that the Government would not allow the protests to go on longer than necessary. 24 hours after that speech by the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, peaceful protesters at Lekki Tollgate Lagos on October 20th, were reportedly attacked by soldiers who wanted to flush them out of the streets barely a few hours after the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu had announced a State-wide curfew.
That incident has however, become very controversial going by arguments and counter-arguments, with a lot of contradictory statements and claims emanating from different government officials and the military. The Officials try to hide the fact that, the peaceful protesters at the Lekki Tollgate on October 20th, were purportedly shot at by soldiers. However, some of those who were eye witnesses, including some actors and entertainers such as DJ SWITCH who broadcasted the said military attacks live to the world, maintained that indeed, the protesters were attacked by soldiers.
This, and many other claims were investigated by the United States of America’s based CNN, using the latest technology to unravel the facts that indeed, soldiers shot at peaceful protesters. This bold finding of the CNN did not go down well with the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who staged a press conference few days back to castigate the CNN over their reports and to threaten to blacklist or sanction the television station that operates from the USA, meaning that it is not within the jurisdiction of the National Broadcasting Commission of Nigeria. This is a dance of shame on the part of Lai Mohammed, because as a public official paid by taxpayers, it is absolutely intolerable that he would be seen taking sides against the public good.
Besides, what he has demonstrated by threatening the CNN, is that there are facts that the Government has about why the peaceful protesters were attacked by both armed hoodlums all over the country, and by the military at the Lekki Tollgate on October 20th, which the public are not aware of. Could it be that the attacks were State-sponsored terrorism? If not, why is the Federal Government so angry with the United States television network, which ought to be commended for helping us out to unravel what actually happened on that day which the Lagos State Governor is spending millions of taxpayers money to set up a judicial panel?
Lai Mohammed’s Coordinated Attacks Against the Media
This latest outing of Lai Mohammed, is just one in the series of coordinated attacks against media freedoms and freedom of expression. It looks like both the National Assembly and the Federal Executive Council are made up of anti-democratic forces, who are very uncomfortable with media freedoms. They should be tutored on what constitutes constitutional democracy. Constitutional democracy cannot work, without freedom of expression and/or media freedom.
This is because freedom of expression is one of the fundamental rights provided for in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended)(CFRN). By virtue of same and other international instruments, it is the freedom to hold opinions, receive ideas and information, and impart ideas and information without interference. Social media is used in reference to the means of expression, other than the main stream media.
Freedom of Expression in Nigeria
Section 39 of the CFRN entrenches the right to freedom of expression, in the following words:
- Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.
Without prejudice to the generality of subsection 1 of this section, every person shall be entitled and operate any medium for the dissemination of information ideas and opinions.
Provided that no person, other than the Government of the Federation or of a State or person or body authorised by the president on the fulfilment of conditions laid down by an Act of the National Assembly, shall own, establish or operate a television or wireless broadcasting a station for the any purpose whatsoever.
Similar provisions are found in Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, Article19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It does not appear a mere coincidence that Section 39 of the CFRN which provides for freedom of expression, comes immediately after Section 38 which provides for right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Next to thought, is expression.
The basis for this right therefore, cannot be over- emphasised in a democratic society.
It is one of the essential foundations of a democratic society, and the basic condition precedent of its progress and development, as held by the European Court on Human Rights in Handyside Case.
The Director of Amnesty International in Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, underscored this fact in the following words:
“I think the debate that is ongoing now in society, is good for people to talk and have a debate. It is good for people to engage with others, and to hear their opinions and the ideas that drive those opinions. Whatever terms or words used should not be a cause of alarm, but, rather, to draw attention to the issues at hand we know that in some cases, some people try to stimulate interests, we read even in the media, sensational headlines because they want to draw attention to an issue, and it’s important that people interrogate the issues. Fixation on a word or phrase would lead us nowhere, and it does not address the foundation or the root causes of the problem which the people are trying to raise in present present-day Nigeria.
That should be the focus – that should be the most important thing. I think because people are kind of tired, people are fed up, they want to see improvements in their lives, in their communities, you find that everyone is looking for one way or the other to be heard. For me the best reaction would have been what exactly is happening: what exactly do we need to show that there is light at the end of the tunnel? And we can bring people who are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs to the table, so that we can engage and discuss. I think that is needed a lot more now, to engage, discuss and deliberate, to hear the people’s concerns and problems. Trying to stifle free speech, is not going to get that necessary discussion that we need to have among people who have different views on the current state of affairs in the country.”(Culled from Punch Newspapers, September 8, 2019).
Restriction of Freedom of Speech
The Supreme Court per Ayoola JSC, in the case of Medical and Dental Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal v Okonkwo (2001) 85 LRCN 908 declared that the courts are the institution society has agreed to invest with the responsibility of balancing conflicting interests, in a way as to ensure the fullness of liberty without destroying the existence and stability of society itself. Therein lies the wisdom and need for qualification of all rights, including this one most essential right.
The primary restrictions on the right to freedom of speech are provided in Sections 39(3) and 45(1) of the CFRN. Section 39(3) provides thus:
“Nothing in this section shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society-
(a)For the purpose preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintaining the authority and independence of courts or regulating telephony, wireless broadcasting, television or the exhibition of cinematograph films; or
(b) imposing restrictions upon persons holding office under the Government of the Federation or a State, members of the armed forces of the Federation or members of the Nigeria Police Force or other Government security services or agencies established by law.
“Section 45(1) CFRN reinforces the foregoing by stating that:
“Nothing in sections 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society – (a) In the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or
(b) For the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of the other persons.”
In the case of Gozie Okeke v The State (2003) 15 NWLR (Pt.842) 25, the Supreme Court held that the word “reasonable” in its ordinary meaning means moderate, tolerable and not excessive. In this regard, there are extant laws in Nigeria which seek to prevent abuse of free speech. Section 24(1) of the Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention, etc.) Act 2015 makes it a criminal offence to send a message or other matter by means of computer systems of network that is grossly offensive, pornographic or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character, or causes any such message or matter to be sent or he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, injury, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another or causes such message to be sent.
Also Section 24(2) of the Act criminalises transmitting or causing the transmission of any communication through a computer system or network to bully, threaten or harass another person, where such communication places another person in fear of death, violence or bodily harm or to another person.
In the same vein, there is the tort of defamation under a victim of abuse of freedom of speech can seek redress besides the criminal offences of defamation and injurious falsehood under the Criminal Code and Penal Code. Section 391 of the Penal Code Law makes it a defamation to speak or represent by mechanical means or by signs or visible representation, or publish any imputation concerning another intending to or knowing or having reason to believe that it will harm the reputation of the person. While a false statement of fact under similar circumstances, is injurious falsehood under Section 393 of the Penal Code Law. There are similar provisions in Sections 373, 374and 375 of the Criminal Code Laws of the Southern States. Besides, there are various provisions in the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission Act dealing with violations which have become known as “hate speech” with varying degrees of sanctions.
The Problem of Over Regulation and Limiting Access to Social Media
To require more than the existing laws have provided, would portray the Government in a bad light and pitch it against the people, and any such further regulation will only take Nigeria centuries back in civilisation, with attendant consequences of gross and flagrant abuse like in the colonial era, or the immediate aftermath of military dictatorship which had such over-regulation like the laws on sedition by which a lot of persons were frequently charged and convicted, for what ordinarily would be fair comment by citizens of democratic society. A lot of these cases are high profile cases with potential to cause political tension, affect the peace and stability of the entire country which the proponents of the of social media regulation claim to want to prevent. This would further deepen the already entrenched distrust between the people and Government. This way, the Government loses its right and benefit of feedback from the people.
As much restriction or qualification of the right to freedom of expression is desirable and also constitutional, the operating words for any such restriction or qualification, is that it should be “reasonably justifiable in a democratic society”. And although the question of what is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society is a matter of fact depending on the circumstance of each case, it means that restriction of the right should not be arbitrary or targeted at silencing opposition, or a tool of getting back at public criticism or negative perception of governance or government policies or the running of the affairs of the State which social media is perceived to be achieving, but wholly about democratic ideals and practices. These were the underlying bases for which the law of sedition was introduced into our society basically to protect the so-called sovereign and her colonial government, and it does appear history is about to repeat itself.
Thus, a discourse on the regularisation and over- regularisation of the right to freedom of expression or debate on preventing “hate speech”, cannot be complete without a consideration of the law of sedition which, though has been held to be inconsistent with the Constitution, still exists.
There is legal definition of sedition, but Section 50(2) of the Criminal Code defines a “seditious intention” as an intention:
” to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the person of Her Majesty, her heirs or successors, or the person of the Governor-General or the Governor of a Region or the Government or Constitution of the United Kingdom, or of Nigeria, or of any Region thereof, as by law established or against the administration of justice in Nigeria; or to excite her Majesty’s subjects or inhabitants of Nigeria to attempt to procure the alternation, otherwise, than by lawful means, of any other matter in Nigeria as by law established; or to raise discontent or disaffection amongst Her Majesty’s subjects or inhabitants of Nigeria; or to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of the population in Nigeria”.
The law wizard, Chief FRA Williams, SAN, in the Chike Obi case, postulated that “Any law, which punishes a person for making a statement which brings a Government into discredit or ridicule, or creates disaffection against the government irrespective of whether the statement is true or false… is not a law which is reasonably justifiable in a democracy”.
The unconstitutionality of the law of sedition finally came to the fore in the celebrated case of Arthur Nwankwo v The State (1985) 6 NCRL 228 in which the Appellant was charged with sedition for publishing and distributing a book entitled, ‘How Jim Nwobodo Rules Anambra State’. The court examined the case in the light of Sections 36 and 41 of the 1979 Constitution, which gave all Nigerian citizens the right to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference, except as stipulated by the Constitution itself.
The Court of Appeal concluded that the law of sedition as Contained in Section 51 of the Criminal Code, derogated from the constitutional provisions on freedom of speech guaranteed under the 1979 Constitution; more so, when the publication could not lead to public disorder envisaged under Section 41(2) of the Constitution. The Court made very far reaching pronouncements that, to date, continue to guide modern and present view of whether there is need for more regulation or restriction of the right to freedom of speech, especially in the light of the advent and outburst of social media. The Court held thus:
“… While Chike Obi v D.P.P, (Supra), Wallace Johnson v the King (1940) AC 231, were birds of their respective periods, it is my view that Sections 50(2), 51 and 52 which cover them are inconsistent with the provisions of Sections 36 and 41 of the 1979 Constitution, and are by implication repealed from the first day of October, 1979. There is no ban in the Constitution… against publication of truth, except in the provision and security necessities embodied in those sections.
If a publication is false news with intent to cause fear and alarm in public, there is Section 59 of Criminal Code to cover it. If a person feels defamed, there is the civil remedy of suing for libel or slander. There are also provisions in Chapter XXXIIl of the Criminal Code Law as to criminal defamation – see Section 374 thereof. By looking at the Constitution in the light of existing law so as to accommodate and save the provision of existing inconsistent law, defeats the purpose of Section 274(3) of the Constitution. If the existing law is inconsistent with the Constitution, the existing law is null and void to the extent of that inconsistency”.
It is a firm view that society thrives on robust plurality of ideas and opinions, and the availability of information. Freedom of speech offers that platform for the exchange of those ideas, and should not be unnecessarily clogged in the name or form of laws that seek to guard against hate speech and the like.
HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA (HURIWA) hereby asks the National Assembly and Lai Mohammed to suspend ad infinitum the current attempts at introducing obnoxious legislations to curb access to social media, create a Commission against the so-called hate speech, and the attempt at muzzling press freedoms. Democracy thrives on free speech.
This 9th Assembly will go down in history as the set of persons that strangulated constitutional democracy, should they proceed to pass these set of draconian bills.
All right thinking citizens of Nigeria must wake up, and oppose these choreographed attacks against media freedoms and freedom of expression by Lai Mohammed and the National Assembly.