Elections and Hate Speech in Nigeria, By Jibrin Ibrahim

The NBC must increase its capacity to address the rise of hate speech in our society. It is, however, important to note that it is not the work of NBC alone to do that, so partnerships would have to be developed to carry the work forward.

This week, the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission held a stakeholder’s meeting in Kano to work on the revision of the Broadcasting Code, which sets the standards that determine the dos and don’ts of the broadcast industry. One of the issues that were addressed was how to counter the type of escalation of hate and dangerous speech we encountered in the build up to the 2015 elections.

Indeed as the 2015 elections approached, verbal and non-verbal communication symbols of every imagination were deployed to promote self-interest and denigrate opponents. Politicians and their agents used clearly unethical communication content on the broadcast media and Internet platforms to campaign for votes. It was in this context that hate and dangerous speech became a major problem.

Hate and dangerous speech refers to speech acts that insult people due to their religious, ethnic or linguistic affiliations. It is about expressing contempt for people because of their place of origin or gender, or alternatively desecrating their symbols of cultural or religious practices. It is also about deliberately spreading falsehood or rumour that demeans, demonises, maligns or otherwise ostracises other people on the basis of their origins and beliefs.

In the 2015 elections, hate and dangerous speech became a very serious problem because it reached unprecedented heights. The campaigns disseminated hate speech and used foul language on leading broadcast stations like the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and the African Independent Television (AIT) and some national newspapers. Damaging jingles, documentaries and write ups against the leading opposition presidential candidate appeared repeatedly as advertisements in violation of the basic professional etiquettes and provisions of the Advertising Code.

Dangerous speech over the air in a diverse multicultural setting like Nigeria can be volatile and lead to violent conflict. This is because the broadcast media’s acquired legitimacy and authority over the content of messages relayed is often accepted as true. In this case, messages by practitioners of hate and dangerous speech can be assumed to embody legitimacy and authority. Secondly, the broadcast medium has a wide and instantaneous reach, making it an easy tool for mobilisation. Mobilisation is, of course, a major hallmark of dangerous speech since those deploying it actively seek to incite communities to commit or condone violence.

Hate and dangerous speech in the broadcast media is much more dangerous in an already polarised and sharply divided society than elsewhere because of its greater reach, perception and potential for provoking reactions almost instantaneously.

Regulatory agencies had great difficulties taming culprits of hate and dangerous speech in the media mainly because incumbent governments at the federal and state levels were often implicated. Many broadcast media owners opted to broadcast hateful content and pay fines, knowing that it was more profitable to do so since the sponsorship rates of the messages ran into millions of naira, while fines were a few hundreds of thousands of naira. In addition, there was weak autonomy on the part of the regulatory agencies, which did not provide them with the space to conduct their regulatory functions professionally. While the lack of personal integrity might have contributed to this, the greater problem is in the law establishing the regulatory agencies, which did not provide for institutional mechanisms to insulate and protect the professional autonomy of these agencies. Finally, there is the fact that there is little understanding about hate and dangerous speech in the broadcast industry.

Although the INEC’s Political Parties Code of Conduct (2015) has a provision against the use of inciting language in electioneering campaigns, regulating campaign language has never formally been mainstreamed into either the electoral law or other laws of the country. Consequently, right from the beginning of electoral politics in Nigeria, politicians have tended to deploy inflammatory speech to consolidate their hold over specific constituencies or to prevent their opponent from getting a hearing.

There is an explosion of discourses that embody hate and dangerous speech in the country and while the most extensive use has been in the social media, hate and dangerous speech have penetrated the print and broadcast media. Hate and dangerous speech in the broadcast media is much more dangerous in an already polarised and sharply divided society than elsewhere because of its greater reach, perception and potential for provoking reactions almost instantaneously.

There was a spike in hate and dangerous speech in the period leading up to the 2015 for the simple reason that the stakes were high, the possibility of defeating an incumbent president was apparent, and there was desperation to discredit opponents, leading to the explosion of hate and dangerous speech that was documented in the research. The principal actors in the transmission of hate and dangerous speech were incumbents, in particular, the federal and state governments who encouraged broadcast stations under their control to be used as vehicles for such. The combination of desperation and incumbency created conditions that vacated the red line historically drawn by the Broadcasting Commission.

For the first time, major media organ such as the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) that have been traditionally careful of not being excessively open about their support for the government of the day, threw caution to the winds and broadcast infomercials that were clearly purveyors of hate and dangerous speech. The tradition of professionalism was breached under pressure from the presidency. At the state level, some governors pushed radio stations under their control to recklessly engage in the transmission of hate and dangerous speech. .

… by the time of the 2015 elections, the political tensions in the country and the stakes of the elections were so high that many of the organisations took the risk of crossing the red line.

Historically, the fear of sanctions by the NBC had been sufficient to deter broadcast organisations from excessive use of hate and dangerous speech. But by the time of the 2015 elections, the political tensions in the country and the stakes of the elections were so high that many of the organisations took the risk of crossing the red line. The NBC has very senior staffs that are very competent and professional. Their monitoring system tracked abuses and they intervened to stop and sanction culpable organisations. The errant stations, however, were protected by top members of government and even the Director General of the NBC failed to stand up to defend the mandate of his organisation and the efforts of his staff to do their jobs diligently. It would therefore be wrong to talk of the failure of the NBC to do its work but rather the inertia of the top leadership at the time.

The NBC must increase its capacity to address the rise of hate speech in our society. It is, however, important to note that it is not the work of NBC alone to do that, so partnerships would have to be developed to carry the work forward. The National Human Rights Commission has received 153 petitions of hate and dangerous speech expressed during the 2015 elections and is currently processing them before holding a public hearing. The Commission intends to establish a national register of political parties, organisations and individuals who had been engaged in hate and dangerous speech. Other stakeholders should join this initiative to strengthen it.

The Independent National Electoral Commission finds itself crippled because since its creation, the police has never investigated any person for hate or dangerous speech in spite of provisions in the Electoral Act 2010 as amended, which allows them to do so. Stakeholders need to work together to encourage, as well as enable, the police to investigate breaches so that INEC can prosecute.

The Ministry of Information and the National Orientation Agency have finalised a policy package for the adoption of public service broadcasting in Nigeria. That would mean a review in the establishment laws of the FRCN and most of the state owned broadcast outfits, to transform them into public broadcasting stations, not just in spirit but also in operations. The central thrust of the new policy is to break the link between incumbency and the content of public broadcasting by ensuring the independence of broadcast stations, autonomy of operations and immunity of broadcasters from interferences. The guiding principle shall be public interest and professional ethics, while implementation of the policy would address the problems of abuse of the powers of incumbency and executive interferences, as demonstrated in this report.

At the level of civil society, Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD) has developed very effective mechanisms for the tracking of and advocacy against hate and dangerous speech in broadcast and social media contents by citizens and the civil society. Such techniques can be shared with and carried out in collaboration with ministries, departments and agencies of government, thereby creating traction in combating hate and dangerous speech. The Savannah Centre for Democracy and Diplomacy has established an Elders Forum for combating hate and dangerous speech that can play a leadership role in ending hate and dangerous speech in the country. All of these organisations can work together in a proposed National Platform for Combating Hate and Dangerous Speech in Nigeria that can be convened by the Ministry of Information and the National Orientation Agency.

A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and Chair of the Editorial Board of PREMIUM TIMES.

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