Chiemeka ADINDU, Calabar
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, Ntufam Mba Ukweni has taken a swipe at the federal government’s decision to increase the fine payable by hate speech offenders.
He said in an interview in Calabar that the government should be more interested on how to improve the welfare and safety of Nigerians, especially in the midst of the pandemic ravaging the country, other than being inhuman in handling public issues.
“Freedom of press and freedom of expression is key in every democracy. Modern democracy is founded on freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Any government that comes to gag freedom of expression and freedom of the press- because once you gag freedom expression, you are also gagging the freedom of the press- is a government that has come to be dictatorial. It’s not a government that is democratic.
“The government has certain things they want to hide, that is why they start gagging people from expressing themselves. Section 39 of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended, has given every person freedom of expression. And then, it has also given certain constraints to your expression and what can be done.
“Any law that is being made that will run contrary to this freedom that has been entrenched in section 39 of the constitution will be unconstitutional and will be null and void.
“The hate speech is contrary to the constitution because the constitution says everybody is entitled to freedom of expression including freedom to hold his opinion and receive ideas and information without interference, that is what the constitution has provided. Every person, not even every citizen, it says every person, so every person in Nigeria be he a citizen or non citizen, is entitled to freedom of expression. He has freedom to hold his opinion and to receive and to impact ideas and information without interference”, he explained.
Ukweni added that the only constraints were defamation and sedition. He said in Nigeria, there had been duplication of laws. “I am completely against the issue of hate speech. I’m not saying that people should just talk at random, but there is already an existing law that takes care of that”.
The senior lawyer said when a government had its main attention to gag people from saying something, there was something the government did not want people to say.
“Boko Haram is there, people must talk about it. There is lawlessness in the country, people must talk about it. The government should not gag people. If the government is not abiding by the rule of law, people must talk about it. That is the right the citizens have to be able to call the government, the people they have elected to order.
“It would be wrong for the government to come up with what they are calling hate speech to gag people, it’s against the constitution. Citizens should be allowed to express themselves. Is hate speech reasonably justifiable in a democratic society? That law is not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.”
He said the government was only protecting their interest, even as he lamented that the government was trying to use the law to defend their lawlessness. He added that the fine was to calm people down from saying something knowing that only a few people would have N5m fine to pay.
“Public offices are public trust. Any person who wants to be hidden and does not want what he is doing to be revealed should remain in private office as a private person. Once you have allowed yourself to be in public office, you are open to scrutiny.
“So any person who does not want to be open to scrutiny should remain in his house. When Buhari was a private person were they scrutinizing him? Nobody goes there to scrutinize him. When the Minister of information, Lai Lai Mohammed was in a private office, were they scrutinizing him? But from the day he took up public office, it is a public trust. They must scrutinize him and ensure that he is doing the proper thing, he is accountable,” the senior advocate highlighted.