Hate Speech


This is the inaugural lecture of the League of  Nigerian Columnists (LNC)

By Dan Agbese

Sometime in July last year, the Department of State Services hosted a national seminar on unity in diversity, security and development in Abuja. In his address to the participants, the vice-president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, raised an issue that was not then playing in the public space, namely, hate speech. He warned that “hate speech precedes genocide, the greatest tragedy in human history.”


In ten words, he drew national attention to what is creeping up on us with the potential of becoming perhaps the most pernicious fault line in a nation traversed by many fault lines. The nation now appears to be astir over hate speech. Some very important people are unable to resist the temptation to sound off on hate speech, warning the rest of us against indulging in it. The Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, has served notice that it would monitor the electioneering campaigns and ensure that the politicians do not set the house built by Lord Lugard on fire with hate speeches.

But danger lurks in the nearby corner here. There is generally a limited understanding of hate speech in our country at the moment. We do not have a law against it. If its interpretation is allowed to be determined by an individual’s poor understanding of it, there could be egregious assaults on freedom of speech by over zealous security agents. Only last week, the Nigeria police arrested Deji Adeyanju, convener of a civil society group called Concerned Nigerians and two of his colleagues for what the police termed hate speech. Their alleged offence was their posting these in the public space: “the romance between APC and the police is unholy”; “police is not a department of APC”; “we just want the police to be neutral.”

The alacrity with which the force reacted to this and instantly became the judge and jury in their own tenuous case, is part of that danger we might face. We must be careful. A panic reaction such as this, borne out of ignorance, on the part of state actors could threaten one of the world’s most cherished freedoms in a democracy, the freedom of speech. We must ensure that those who are minded to act on hate speech understand what it actually means and are able to make an informed distinction between a hate speech and a robust expression of opinions deemed by those who express them as their contributions to national discourse. What Mr Adeyanju and his friends put out were as far from hate speech as hell is from heaven.

Let us begin this discussion then by doing what academics do and that is to first of all address the question: What is hate speech and why do we suddenly see it as a potential danger in our nation today? In my search for some answers, I did what all researchers handily do today. I consulted Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia. And this is what I found. It says “hate speech is speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

This is a very broad definition indeed. It is quite easy for the unwary to be caught in its trap. But a speech that attacks persons or groups but not on the basis of those attributes would be accepted as merely robust but essentially harmless. Columnists need not fear that they are being asked not to call a spade by its real name or to be mealy-mouthed about those things that trouble us as a nation.  I can understand Otunba Tola Adeniyi’s suspicion that the foot soldiers of anti-hate speech might be asking Nigerians to “submit themselves and their sacred fundamental human rights to gagging.”

I hope not.

The Wikipedia definition speaks to the fundamentals of hate speech. But it does not even cover the entire ground now claimed by anti-hate speech legislations. Hate speech is broader than the verbalisation of venom directed at persons or groups of persons on the basis of the attributes enumerated earlier. It can be in words or deeds or intent. According to Wikipedia, hate speech falls into two broad categories – actual or menacing. It can either be an actual speech or its intent could be inferred from its non-verbalisation. “Menacing,” it points out, “constitutes intent to enact not just psychological harm but also bodily, psychological, metaphysical, spiritual and social harm.” It seems the noose is out for all those who try to live by habitual hate and spew hate speeches.

Some nations have not expressly defined hate speech. They simply erected boundaries beyond which no one is allowed to roam in words and deeds. Let us briefly look at some of them. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights enjoins all nations to take steps to eliminate all forms of discrimination, racial or ethnic, as well as incitements to racism and hatred. The covenant advises that “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

The Chilean law on hate speech is found in Article 31 of the statue on press freedom. It punishes anyone who “through any means of social communication makes publications or transmissions intended to promote hatred or hostility towards persons or a group of persons due to their race, sex, religion or nationality.”

The Croatian penal code on hate speech is even slightly broader. It provides that a speech “based on differences of race, religion, language, political or other belief, wealth, birth, education, social status or other properties, gender, skin colour, nationality or ethnicity violates basic human and freedoms recognised by the international community.”

Even broader still is the Maltese law on hate speech. I will quote this rather long piece of legislation in full because it reflects the broad views on hate speech. The law says that “whosoever uses any threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written or printed material which is threatening, abusive or insulting of otherwise conducts himself in such a manner, with intent thereby to stir up violence or racial or religious hatred against another person or group on the grounds of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, colour, language, ethnic origin, religion or belief or political or other opinion or whereby such violence or racial or religious hatred is likely, having regard to all the circumstances, to be stirred up, shall on conviction, shall be liable to imprisonment for a term from six months to eighteen months.”

I do not think many of us here would like to live and practise journalism in Malta.

The United Kingdom has several enactments against hate speech. All of them follow, broadly, the categories in the other countries mentioned earlier. We need not repeat them here. Britain was forced to rise to the challenges of hate speech during the Gulf War of 2001 when Muslim clerics, believing the war was waged by the infidel West against Islam, radicalised young Muslims with their hate speeches in mosques across the United Kingdom. The young men so radicalised and indoctrinated went out to bomb and kill innocent people in vengeance. Fundamentalism and hate speech are twin enemies of free speech.

The big surprise in the global fight against hate speech is the United States of America. You would think that like in all things it would lead the fight against hate speech but God’s Own Country refuses to stand shoulder to should with other nations here. The mayor of Oregon, Ted Wheeler, spoke sometime last year against the grain when he argued that “hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment.” But it is the firm view of the US Supreme Court that he was wrong. In three separate cases of hate speech or offensive visual representations in 1969,1992 and 2011, the court ruled that free speech is free speech even if it is bigoted or inflammatory.

All the other nations woke to up to hate speech and its potential dangers for social, religious, racial or ethnic harmony much earlier than our own dear country. But the giant is bestirring itself, if one can take the zeal by the police in arresting Mr Adeyanju and his friends as a true indication of this.

From the definitions provided explicitly or implicitly by various nations, we can extrapolate the following facts:

One, hate speech must be explicitly or implicitly directed at persons or group of persons who are different from us in terms of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

Two, hate speech is intended to cause social, racial, ethnic or religious disharmony and incite violence directed at persons or groups so categorised here.

Three, hate speech includes verbal or non-verbal communication with the same intent as mentioned earlier.

Four, hate speech must be seen to be calculated to injure or traumatise persons or groups of persons for the purposes of causing the community in which they reside to deny them their basic human rights and entitlements.

Five, hate speech must explicitly or implicitly profile the persons or groups it is directed at to prejudice others against them by emphasising their detestable racial or ethnic characteristics.

Six, hate speech must be discriminatory of persons and groups on the basis of their attributes referred to earlier.

A speech deemed to be a hate speech must meet those criteria. A personal insult does not qualify as hate speech. You are free to call someone stupid. You can also describe the Nigeria police as inefficient. In both cases there is an inherent intent to annoy but that is not on the basis of any of the attributes that might be deemed prejudicial in the sense of hate speech. You are safe but you do risk a broken head from the person you insulted.

A full understanding of these criteria is important otherwise as I pointed out earlier, we run the danger of arming overzealous law enforcement officers with a warrant for the egregious misuse of the noose to stifle legitimate opinions and dissent exercised under the rubric of freedom of speech. All the legislations setting the boundary between hate speech and freedom of speech talk of publication in both the literary and the legal sense of the word. This means that the mass media being the means by which hate speech is spread, the heavy responsibility for curbing it rests essentially on journalists. It is important for journalists to understand this and know when their sources of information over step the boundary and they with them. The mass media were found to be complicit in the horrendous Rwandan genocide of 1994. Evidence, if uou needed some, that hate speech is spread through the mass media. It is important to bear this in mind because hate speech is fuelled by politics. Politicians are the main sources of news that reporters and their editors cultivate. When hate speech meets politics, the fire of hate goes really, really wild.

Hate speech has been a source of worry to nations large and small, particularly after World War II. What the Nazis did to the Jews on the basis of racial profiling, given the force of truth by a sustained barrage of hate speeches directed at them lives on the conscience of the world to this day. Both this and the preceding centuries have witnessed genocide on a lesser but by no means a less dehumanizing scale since World War II. All of them followed the same pattern of profiling before their perpetrators poured the venom of hate speech on the targeted racial, ethnic, sexual or religious groups. I referred earlier to the Rwanda genocide to show that the world is not out of the woods yet. Genocide remains an ever present danger, particularly in developing countries where the competition for limited opportunities is fiercer.

Experts have established that hate speech hurts its promoter as much as its victim although the degree or the extent of the hurt might differ. It exacts the same psychological trauma on both sides. It is a two-edged sword. A hate speech monger or fundamentalist risks being consumed by hate speech too.

My humble view is that hate speech does not just happen. It is incubated and given expression when social circumstances make the resort to it possible, even if inadvisable. There might be several reasons for the rise of hate speech in particular communities but it seems to me that the seed that germinates the shoot of hate speech can be traced to the eternal struggle for economic, political, social and other rights and opportunities in all communities. A sense of superiority among racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups is a critical factor too.

The struggle by one group or race or tribe to corner such opportunities and secure the advantages accruing thereto, inevitably leads to the resort to denunciations that often results into hate speech. Those who have protect their turf and fence off all others. To sustain them in their position requires the promotion of differences through profiling. Profiling, be it racial, ethnic or social is dangerous, very dangerous.

Profiling is used in inter and intra racial and ethnic groups. Perhaps, the best example of of inter-racial profiling is found in the Nazi propaganda that dehumanised the Jews and labelled them as vermin. When Hitler and his men herded a total of six million Jews into the gas chambers, they did not believe they were killing human beings. As far as they were concerned, they were ridding their nation and the world of vermin. I am sure they expected the rest of the world to be thankful to them. Some nerve.

Intra-racial or ethnic profiling may result from internal differences. The group that disagrees with the main body is profiled as an enemy. This was the case, I believe, when the late Ken Saro-Wiwa’s group in MOSOP labelled those that disagreed with it vultures and set the stage for what happened to them. Their alleged killers thought they were killing vultures, not their fellow Ogoni country men.

Profiling can often seem to be a mild joke. The best example of this must be the nick names that tribes in Nigeria have for one another. I refer to such nicknames as nyamirikobokobongbati ngbati and wawa and many others. Implicit in these jocular names is a covert attempt to set us apart from those who are with us but are not of us. I do not point out these to in any suggest that inter ethnic nick names should be treated like hate speech. That would be wrong and take something away from healthy inter-ethnic jokes.

There are too many examples of profiling in our country for anyone to pretend not to know. Hate speech is a dangerous product of profiling. Our major national fault lines such as ethnic, regional and religious differences are given, as the poet would say, a local habitation by profiling. Perhaps, a good example of what narrowed economic and political opportunities can lead to in a community would be what is referred to as the indigenes and settler’s syndrome in which disadvantaged ethnic groups suddenly wake up to the fact that their economic, social and political opportunities have been cornered by strangers whose ancestors arrived at the community long after the indigenes had firmly settled down and claimed the land.

It gives rise explicitly and implicitly to hate, hate speech and enmity. Many such communities have gone up in flames, particularly since our return to civil rule in 1999. Many local champions, armed with incendiary hate speeches, have risen from the ashes of such bloody violence, death and destruction.

The fundamental purpose of the global anti-hate drive, in addition to promoting social, economic and political peace and harmony, is to protect minorities and their fundamental human and other rights in all countries and communities. The world is full of minorities – racial minorities, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, political minorities, sexual minorities as well as economic and social minorities. Everywhere you look, there are minorities whose basic human rights are at the risk of being cynically assaulted by their big brothers. Hate speech, honed on the anvil of profiling, comes in handy as a ready weapon for this denial meted out to the minorities of every hue and stripe.

But the anti-hate speech legislations face an uphill task in curbing hate speech from four sources.

One, the anti-hate speech legislation itself. Can it be enforced to achieve is objectives? A law is not of much use unless and until it can be enforced. So far, the global record of hate speech trials is negligible. It seems to me, however, that the presence of these legislations is a necessary deterrent. Matters could be worse were these legislations absent from the statute books of many nations, especially those of them, including our country, that are contending with racial, ethnic, religious, political and economic fault lines.

Two, the champions of free speech in its near absolute sense, who believe that hate speech is anti free speech by another name. They need to be persuaded to see the merits in the criminalisation of speeches directed at persons or groups with the intention of making them less human and, therefore, less entitled to their basic social, economic, religious, ethnic, racial and other rights without which human societies would be no better than animal kingdoms.

Three, the rogue of hate speech may be more difficult to chain given the global influence of the social media. This is journalism without borders. It is easy for the police to arrest a newspaper editor for publishing an alleged hate speech; it is not so easy for them to arrest the man who spreads the venom of hate by using his mobile telephone. We face a real danger here.

Four, fake news, the new and dangerous blot on information dissemination. This new intrusion in the tough task of informing and educating the people could undermine the anti-hate speech crusade by its very nature.

As journalists, I believe, we must be raising this crucial question in our mind: if the Nigerian state decides to enact a law against hate speech, should we support it or oppose it? There are implications for our profession either way. If we support it, we would be doing so in the belief that peace and harmony are important for our national development. And no citizen should be denied his fundamental human and other rights by reason of their being ethnic or religious or other minorities. It is good to be high-minded about this.

On the other hand, if we oppose it, we would be acting more or less out of fear of what such a legislation would do to our freedom of speech and of the press. It is not unreasonable to fear that poor policing of such a legislation would do us more harm than good. I take note of Otunba Adeniyi’s fear that any such legislation would clearly be “in violation of freedom of expression and subject it to abuse and partisanship.”

If that happens, it would be no different from other all laws that are abused by those entrusted with their enforcement. Such abuses have not made it unnecessary for nations to make laws. Without laws it is not difficult to imagine what the strong would do to the weak and what the rich would do to the poor. For us as journalists, it is not a simple choice of yes or no to a possible anti-hate speech legislation in our country. The press earns its own stripes by championing the interests and the rights of minorities. Must we abandon this for fear that a law that criminalises hate speech might impinge on the freedom of speech?

I do not think, for a moment, that anti-hate speech legislations alone can stop hate speech and sufficiently protect minority rights any where and every where. It would take something more than that; something like making changes in human hearts. And that verges on the sacerdotal, which is outside the purview of this discussion. But preventing the spread of hate speech would help to curb the inherent human tendency to profile those who are different from us and exploit their powerlessness as minorities.

Hate is a natural tendency. Hate mongers are every where as local champions. It is not wrong to see them as the fundamentalists of hate speech and hate-mongering. In defiance of the biblical injunction to love our enemies and do good to those who do us wrong, we hate our enemies and those who seeks to take away our rights or injure us in any way. Would you, for instance, forgive Boko Haram if your daughter was one of those taken away from their school at Chibok in 2014? Perhaps not. You see, through no conscious effort on our part, hate stalks us. How we react to it makes the difference between a nation at peace and one in perpetual conflict with itself.

The danger in ignoring or not taking appropriate steps to curb hate speech, according to a sensible argument put up by The Huffington Post is that “when we are exposed to hate on regular basis, we become desensitized to it and extreme views become ubiquitous. We destigmatise those members of society who spew hatred into our world and we allow views of division and discrimination to become endemic within our communities. If we open the floodgates to hate it will be impossible to turn our backs on it.”

Mr Chairman, I hate to end my speech. But I must not take your patience for granted much longer. So, let me rest my case on the point so eloquently made by The Huffington Post.

I thank you for being such a wonderful audience.