Hate speech is not your right

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By Lanre Isah-Onilu

So you have been asked to watch your tongue. That is if you are one of those whose thoughts have been twisted by hate. Hate is evil. Like cancer, it corrodes the heart. It nibbles away at the humanity of the one that hates. It also hurts the one to whom it is directed. It does much worse for the one who hates. Hate literally stifles the ventricles of the heart, ensuring it is not able to pump as much blood as the brain requires to function optimally. And the one whose brain is shackled is a potent danger to the society.

The social media is filled with discriminatory narratives. It is a crisscross of national bugs, feeding on the blood of our country’s unity. It is the stuff that is captured aptly by J. A. C. Brown in his legendary book, Techniques of Persuasion: From Propaganda to Brainwashing. It is about “rejection by exclusion”. It is a situation of “we and them”. It is an act of war. A soft war. It is a precursor to a war of machine guns and fighter jets. It is a war where no one wins.

We all know that hate speech has to stop one way or the other or we bring the roof down on our heads. So last week, the government issued a no hate speech order. Our reckless freedom of speech got a body check. It is the best thing for us as we tiptoe on the cliff edge. Perhaps, we may begin to pull back from the precipice. At least that was what I expected. But that is far from what is playing out. We are back in 1984, the year of the jackboots, is the more vocal view. Our freedom of speech is under attack is the opinion that has rented the air. But we are missing the point. Of course, we would miss the point when we descend to the base instinct. Reason would take a flight. Education wouldn’t suffice.

Let me state here that the government has just done the right thing. Although, it should have come before we got to this stage. Free speech is your right; hate speech is not. That is, if you understand that free speech is not absolute. It has never been, even before the avoidable hate speech induced genocide in Rwanda. The civilised world is not oblivious to the danger that hate speech is. It was xenophobic and anti-Semitic propaganda that led to the Holocaust. So there has always been a need for body check.

No serious government would allow supremacists free baleful speech. America wouldn’t. The First Amendment is not a defence for discriminatory speech in the United States. Free speech and hate speech are not the same in the United Kingdom. There are laws that punish people who make baleful comments about race, religion, and sexual orientation. The European Union has circumscribed its laws against hateful comments in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) CERD), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The United Nations (UN), rising from the ashes of the 2nd World War, knew the 3rd World War could follow quickly if people were allowed to continue to incite hatred with noxious and discriminatory comments. Therefore, the very first article of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, states, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The second article provides for equal enjoyment of the rights and freedoms. It proclaimed, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, …”

No hate speech order is in order. Let me admit that I understand what is feeding into many people’s fear. This is Nigeria, where our laws most often speak the language of those in power. Our laws attend the same mosque and church with the people of influence. But what do we do? Do we continue to dance this macabre dance? The signs are just too grisly. The pillars of this building are creaking. And we are all nestled under the same roof. A leaking roof, that is.

We need the security agencies to enforce the no hate speech order so that we can begin a process of recovery from the abyss. But we all need to know where free speech ends and hate speech begins. We must drive the process by opting out of this dangerous journey to perdition.

The enforcing authorities must understand that free speech is an inalienable right of the citizens. So the system must rise above any form of sentiment. Going by President Buhari’s charge to the visiting PDP leaders, last week, it is save to say this government needs no further education on people’s right to freely express themselves. Criticism is an essential condiment to democracy. The President admitted that much. Therefore, this government must be seen to be above board as it puts a rein on anyone trying to stoke violence using race, religion, or politics. In doing that, it must sieve the wheat from the chaff. While wheat is good for consumption, chaff is not. Chaff can only stoke the fire that may consume us. Stoking the fire of hatred is exactly what we do not need now. Freedom of speech must be allowed to knock on the doors of government officials, unfettered.

Lanre is a corporate and political communications specialist

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