Hate Speech: Lawyer drag FG, NBC, Lai Mohammed to court over N5m Fine, says it’s unconstitutional

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Lagos-based lawyer and human rights activist, Inibehe Effiong, has filed a fundamental rights enforcement suit to challenge the imposition of N5 Million fine on Nigeria Info 99.3FM Lagos and the threat by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to punish other broadcast stations in the country over alleged hate speech.

Joined as Respondents in the case marked Suit No. FHC/L/CS/1088/2020 filed at the Federal High Court in Lagos on Monday, 17th August, 2020 are the NBC, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed and the Federal Government of Nigeria.

Effiong is asking the court to determine “Whether the imposition of a sentence of fine and other penalties on broadcast stations and broadcasters in Nigeria by the National Broadcasting Commission for alleged contravention of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code without a trial and conviction by a court of law is not unconstitutional, illegal, arbitrary and a flagrant breach of the right to fair hearing as guaranteed by Section 36 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) and Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act Cap. A9 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004”.

The lawyer also wants the court to determine “Whether the imposition of a sentence of fine and other penalties on broadcast stations and broadcasters by the 1st Respondent during radio and television programmes for critical comments made by citizens about the government and public office holders considered by the Respondents to be “abusive”, “insulting” and/or “hate speech” is not a breach of the right to freedom of expression given that the said expressions are neither created nor defined as offences under any written law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society having regard to Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act Cap. A9 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004”.

Effiong stated in his affidavit that the NBC, with the support of the Federal Government, has continuously imposed fines on broadcast stations and broadcasters over alleged violation of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code.

He said that the NBC has threatened to continue to impose fines on broadcast stations in the country and has also barred broadcast stations, broadcasters and citizens who are either guests or callers during radio and television programmes from making critical comments about the government and public office holders considered by the Federal Government, the Minister of Information and NBC to be “abusive”, “insulting” or “hate speech”.

Effiong further narrated how the NBC on 13th August, 2020, without initiating any criminal action against Nigeria Info 99.3FM Lagos, imposed a sentence of fine in the sum of N5, 000,000.00 (Five Million Naira) on the radio station after finding the station guilty of what it described as “unprofessional conduct” over comments made by a guest of the station on Monday, 10th August, 2020 during a programme called Morning Cross Fire.

Effiong told the court that the actions of the NBC, the Minister of Information and the Federal Government have gravely affected his freedom of expression and that of broadcast stations, broadcasters and other Nigerian citizens who also appear as guests on radio and television stations to express critical views about the government and public office holders.

Effiong argued that “abusing” or “insulting” the government cannot be criminalized in a democracy. He contended that the expression “hate speech” is not defined under any written law and cannot be invoked or penalized based on the capricious expectations of the Respondents.

He said that to do otherwise “will amount to setting fire on the Constitution”, and that “those who are paid with tax payers’ money cannot be insulated or shielded from insults and abuse by those who pay them (the citizens)”.

The activist reminded the court that “Nigeria has passed the era of colonialism and military dictatorship”. He said that Lai Mohammed, NBC and the Federal Government were “seeking to subvert Nigeria’s constitutional democracy with the attendant liberties and foist a civilian dictatorship on the country.”

The lawyer therefore prayed the court to make “a declaration that broadcast stations in Nigeria, broadcasters, guests and callers during radio and television programmes are entitled to a fair trial before a court of competent jurisdiction as guaranteed by Section 36 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) and Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act, Cap. A9 L.F.N. 2004 before a sentence of fine or other penalties can be imposed on them over comments, views or opinions expressed on radio and television”.

Effiong also asked the court to declare that “the provisions of the extant National Broadcasting Code or any law or Executive Order issued by the Respondents which purports to prohibit, criminalize or penalize comments or views expressed by citizens about the government and public office holders considered by the Respondents to be “abusive”, “insulting” or “hate speech” is unconstitutional, arbitrary, illegal, not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society, null and void and a breach of the fundamental right of the Applicant and other Nigerian citizens to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act, Cap. A9 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004.”

He further prayed the court to make an order of perpetual injunction restraining the NBC, the Minister of Information and the Federal Government from imposing fines or other penalties on broadcast stations in Nigeria for comments or opinions expressed by citizens during radio or television programmes.

The lawyer also asked the court to nullify and set aside the penalty of fine or other penalties imposed on broadcast stations by the NBC.

Effiong equally asked that the court should aside the provisions of the extant National Broadcasting Code and any amendment made thereto, which purports to prohibit, criminalize or penalize comments or views expressed by citizens about the government and public office holders considered by the NBC, Lai Mohammed and the Federal Government to be “abusive”, “insulting” or “hate speech”.

No date has been fixed for the hearing of the suit.

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