A member of the National Assembly, Sen. Shehu Sani, has urged the legislature and National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to evolve a template to define what constitutes hate speech.
The lawmaker made the call when he visited the Acting Executive Secretary of NHRC, Mrs Oti Ovrawah, on Tuesday in Abuja.
He said that if the definition of hate speech was left to the interpretation of security agencies, Nigerians may suffer serious violation of their rights.
According to Sani, who is the Chairman, Senate Committee on Foreign and Local Debts, unless there is a definition of what constitutes hate speech, mere criticism may be construed as one.
He warned that “if we refuse to do that, we will give security agencies a blank cheque to operate.’’
Sani said that while he was not against fight against hate speech, care must be taken to avoid violation of the rights of Nigerians.
“We must collectively fight the evil of hate speech but in the process, we must be careful not to trample on free speech.
“As we all stand against the evil of hate speech, we must preserve and protect the values and spirit of free speech,’’ he said.
He cautioned against the use of the military and other security agencies in clamping down on hate speech peddlers.
The lawmaker said, “as a human rights activist who has fought for the restoration of democracy in the country, I know the danger of giving security agencies the blank cheque to go after social media enthusiasts.
“It is of concern today that the military has formally announced that it will be monitoring what is happening on social media.
“The military as well as the Police have no business monitoring social media or arresting people for posting things on social media,’’ he said.
Sani advised people in positions of authority in the country against intolerance to the freedom of speech.
“One of the biggest threats to fundamental human rights today is intolerance from the people in position of power; they have failed to embrace, accept and tolerate right to freedom of speech.
“We have seen in many states where bloggers were arrested for posting their views and opinions on social media.
“We have also seen cases where government at all levels are finding it difficult to come to a realisation that we are in a democracy and that people have the right to express themselves.
“These violations of human rights come in a number of ways and it is not only those who express themselves in social media that are being arrested.
“We also see the gagging of the conventional media and this form of gagging is not the same as it used to be during the military regime. This time, blackmail is being used.
“In most states, most journalists find it difficult to send reports that are critical of their state governments.
“This is because they are either blackmailed by directors of information or threatened even by colleagues not to use such reports,’’ he said.
Sani further said that media employers were not left out as many journalists found it difficult to do their jobs professionally because of poor or non-payment of remuneration.
He promised to do everything within his power to ensure that NHRC was put on first line charge in view of its critical role in the protection of human rights.
In her remarks, Executive Secretary of NHRC, Ovrawah, said that in spite of the enormous powers of the commission to protect the rights of Nigerians, it was constrained by a lot of challenges.
Ovrawah said that the commission had a myriad of challenges, including gross underfunding resulting in its inability to carry out its mandate effectively.
“We have a number of challenges and we know you will be there to help us sort them out.
“In spite of the challenges, we do our best to create awareness among major stakeholders on the need to respect human rights.
“We do a lot of work with the Police and we are on ground in the North-East to monitor activities of the military, particularly with regard to respect for human rights,’’ she said.
On hate speech, the executive secretary said that the commission had issued advice on the right of Nigerians to freedom of expression.
According to her, the commission has commenced sensitization on the matter in schools and other places of interest.
She, however, warned that such freedom must be expressed within the purview of the law.