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Averting The Pitfalls Of Hate Speech In Our Journalism


What Is Hate Speech?

According to Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus: hate speech is a “public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation (the fact of being gay, etc.).” Though there is an outline that there is no uniform definition of “hate speech” under international human rights law, rather, it is a broad concept which captures a wide range of expression.

Characteristics Of Hate Speech

Before moving ahead to deliberate on other key issues that to do with averting the pitfalls of hate speech in our journalism, it essential to outline some of the characteristics of hate speech and they include:

Religion– A situation whereby person(s) tend to carry out certain social, political and business activities on the basis of religion and not as fellow citizens encourages hate speech.

Race– By this, it meant a situation where people (humans) are being grouped or shared based on physical or social qualities into categories generally viewed as distinct by the society. It gives an indication or a clear picture of encouraging discrimination among citizenry.

Disability– This is motivated by prejudice towards people with disabilities because they are considered to be vulnerable due to the symptoms of their impairment or health conditions.

According to DisabilityHateCrime.org.uk, “ 90 percent of people with learning disabilities reported being harassed. And out of that, 47 percent were either assaulted, robbed or spat on. Spat on.

“Overall, between 2011-2012, 1,744 disability hate crimes were reported in England and Wales, and authorities believe thousands of other hate crimes never get reported. In a poll conducted by TUC’s Action for Rail campaign released in April 2013, they also found that one in four people with disabilities experience some kind of hate crime or abuse whenever they ride the train. That’s just unacceptable.”

Indigenous Origin– The demand for state and local government of origin to be filled by Nigerians while applying for jobs or other things in the country, has in one way or the other, divided the country the more, instead of uniting it. The sharing of political appointments and other infrastructural developments based on indigenous origin, as against the Federal Character creates room for hate speech.

Sexual Orientation– Is all about who you are attracted to and want to have relationship with. But it is essential for men and women, particularly the youths to continue to be oriented on who they feel drawn to romantically, emotionally and sexually. It also important to educate them on a bunch of identities associated with sexual orientations which include: gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, and asexual, among others.

Other characteristics of hate speech include: National or social origin, colour, birth, gender identity or intersex status, sex, language, property, political or other opinion and migrant or refugee status.

Motives Of Hate Speech

A report by Daniel Burke of CNN on the 12th of June, 2017 identified the following factors as the reasons why people commit hate speech (crime) and they include:

  1. Thrill-seeking
  2. Defensive
  3. Retaliatory and
  4. Mission Offenders

But for the purposes of relating the topic to Nigeria as a case study, the following factors are synonymous in the Nigerian polity:

Political Interest– A situation whereby politicians; employ offensive or abusive words against opponents in order to gamer support from the electorate which in turn heightens incitement among supporters. The masses or the electorate should know that politicians are only inciting them against one another for their selfish interest and should not fall to their political antics.

Religious Intolerance– The prevalent killings of innocent Christians and Muslims across the country over the years has been adduced or alleged to be politically motivated and a ploy by politicians to attract sympathy votes from members of their religion. Thereby, create room for division across religious line in the country. But the masses should not be their prey in that regard, rather, should hold them accountable on dividends of democracy at all times.

Gender Discrimination– This is about the unfair treatment of women, denial of opportunities and violation of their rights. It makes women to experience biasness on the basis of their gender.  In developing countries like Pakistan, gender discrimination is more rampant in both rural as well as urban areas. Hence the introduction of the 35% Affirmative Action Bill at the Nigerian National Assembly to address some of the women biasness, if eventually passed into law. Women should not relent in their quest for the 35% affirmation.

Marginalization– When a group or certain section in the country; feels that they are not being carried along or given their fair share by the government, which leads to agitation and hate speech. The IPOB and other agitators experience in Nigeria. Government should at all times create room for peaceful engagement on issues raised by the agitators.

Tribal Sentiment– This has become the order of the day in Nigerian polity, orchestrated by politicians through their ‘divide and rule’ syndrome; by placing some ethnic nationalities above others in a bid to subdue them irrespective of their God given natural resources. The masses should endeavour to give their supports to politicians that are not self centered or tribalistic.

The Position Of Nigerian Government On Hate Speech

To forestall the looming danger, Nigerian government declared hate speech as an act of terrorism and affirmed that accused persons would be charged under the Terrorism Act of 2011.

The indication was given by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, during his speech at the 2nd National Conference of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Kano on Tuesday, February 20, 2018.

The Information and Culture Minister also directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to sanction any media station found allowing its airwave to be used for such activities.

Lai Mohammed said the media must understand that they are responsibility for molding public opinions and preserving national unity.

“As gatekeeper, the media is expected in high hope to build responsible and lead vibrant societal development devoid of dangerous and hate speeches. The Federal Government will continue to promote and uphold the ethical standard.”

The position of Nigerian government as regards hate speech is that it is an act of terrorism. This position was first mooted by the country’s vice president, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, on August 16, 2017, during a security summit in Abuja.

The Vice President said the country’s Terrorism Prevention Act 2011 as amended defines terrorism as an act deliberately done with malice which may seriously harm a country and hate speech falls within this categorisation.

“Silence in such situations can only be seen as an endorsement,” he said.

“Hate speech and the promotion of the same through history from Nazi Germany and the extermination of Jews to the Rwandan genocide succeeded in achieving their barbarous ends by the silence of influential voices.

“The silence of leaders at this time -in our country will be a grave disservice to our country, its peace and its future.”

The scope of this law proclamation by the government also covers posts on all social media platforms.

Nigerian Senate Bill On Hate Speech

A new bill by the Nigerian Senate proposed that any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person shall die by hanging upon conviction.

The bill, which reflects the growing concern over the spate of violence in the nation, was sponsored by the spokesman of the upper chamber, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi (APC, Niger).

The Bill also seeks the establishment of an ‘Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches’, which shall enforce hate speech laws across the country, ensure the elimination of the menace and advise the Federal Government.

According to the Bill, for offences such as harassment on the grounds of ethnicity or racial contempt, a culprit shall be sentenced to “not less than a five-year jail term or a fine of not less than N10 million or both.”

The bill notes: “A person who uses, publishes, presents, produces, plays, provides, distributes and/or directs the performance of any material, written and/or visual, which is threatening, abusive or insulting or involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, commits an offence, if such person intends thereby to stir up ethnic hatred, or having regard to all the circumstances, ethnic hatred is likely to be stirred up against any person or person from such an ethnic group in Nigeria.”

It notes that “a person who subjects another to harassment on the basis of ethnicity for the purposes of this section where, on ethnic grounds, he unjustifiably engages in a conduct which has the purpose or effect of (a) violating that other person’s dignity or (b) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person subjected to the harassment.

“Conduct shall be regarded as having the effect specified in subsection (1) (a) or (b) of this section if, having regard to all the circumstances, including in particular the perception of that other person, it should reasonably be considered as having that effect.”The National Commission for Hate Speeches shall be headed by an executive chairperson who would be appointed by the president on recommendation of the National Council of State, subject to the confirmation of at least two-third majority of the National Assembly.

“The commission shall discourage persons, institutions, political parties and associations from advocating or promoting discrimination or discriminatory practices through the use of hate speeches; promote tolerance, understanding and acceptance of diversity in all aspects of national life and encourage full participation by all ethnic communities in the social, economic, cultural and political life of other communities. It shall also plan, supervise, coordinate and promote educational and training programmes to create public awareness, support and advancement of peace and harmony among ethnic communities and racial group.

“It shall furthermore promote respect for religious, cultural, linguistic and other forms of diversity in a plural society; promote equal access by persons of all ethnic communities and racial groups to public or other services and facilities provided by the government.

American Government Position On Hate Speech

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content could be. To be clear, the First Amendment does not protect behavior that crosses the line into targeted harassment or threats, or that creates a pervasively hostile environment. But merely offensive or bigoted speech does not rise to that level, and determining when conduct crosses that line is a legal question that requires examination on a case-by-case basis.

Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express “the thought that we hate.” (Matal v. Tam, 2017)

“Hate speech” doesn’t have a legal definition under U.S. law, just as there is no legal definition for rudeness, evil ideas, unpatriotic speech, or any other kind of speech that people might condemn. Generally, however, hate speech is any form of expression through which speakers intend to vilify, humiliate, or incite hatred against a group or a class of persons. (Free Speech and the Development of Liberal Virtues: An Examination of the Controversies Involving Flag Burning and Hate Speech, 1998)

In the United States, hate speech enjoys substantial protection under the First Amendment. This is based upon the belief that freedom of speech requires the government to strictly protect robust debate on matters of public concern even when such debate devolves into distasteful, offensive, or hateful speech that causes others to feel grief, anger, or fear. Under current First Amendment jurisprudence, hate speech can only be criminalized when it directly incites imminent criminal activity or consists of specific threats of violence targeted against a person or group.

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court protected a Ku Klux Klan member’s hateful and disparaging speech directed towards African-Americans, holding that such speech could only be limited if it posed an “imminent danger” of inciting violence. The court ruled in Brandenburg v. Ohio that a state could only forbid or proscribe advocacy that is “directed to inciting imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

In 1978, the Supreme Court upheld an appellate court decision that allowed a group of neo-Nazis to march on the streets of an Illinois suburb housing a substantial Jewish population that included Holocaust survivors. (Collin v. Smith, 1978).

It 1992, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a teenager convicted of burning a cross on the lawn of an African American family’s home (R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 1992).

In 2011, the Supreme Court set aside a civil judgment that punished a church group, the Westboro Baptist Church, for picketing a military funeral with signs displaying messages disparaging the dead officer, LGBTQ persons, and the U.S. government (Snyder v. Phelps, 2011). Many Americans found the signs hateful and offensive, but the Supreme Court’s decision re-confirmed the Supreme Court’s historically strong protection of freedom of speech that does not promote imminent violence.

According to the Supreme Court, we “must tolerate insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide adequate ‘breathing space’ to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.” (Boos v, Barry, 1988).  Tolerance of hate speech not only protects and upholds everyone’s right to express outrageous, unorthodox or unpopular speech; it also allows society and the targets of hate speech to know about and respond to racist or hateful speech and protect against its harms.

Is Hate A Crime?

Hate itself is not a crime. For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Hate crimes, which can also encompass color, or national origin, are overt acts that can include violence against persons or property, violation of civil rights, conspiracy, or certain “true threats,” or acts of intimidation. The U.S. Supreme Court had upheld laws that either criminalize these acts or impose a harsher punishment when it can be proven that the defendant targeted the victim because of the victim’s race, ethnicity, identity, or beliefs.

Hate Speech As A  Failure Of Communication

Hate speech can be considered as failure of communication. It is intentionally provocative and aims at harming an individual or a group. Depending on national laws and on how hate speech is defined, it is nowadays a criminal offence in many western countries at least.

Hate speech has become a serious problem in the western world where freedom of speech has been a cherished value and where modern technology permits citizens to express themselves more or less freely on the Internet. While the possibility for everyone to participate might be considered a positive development in a society; promoting democracy, for instance, the negative tendency to increase hatred is challenging and requires sufficient moderating on public discussion boards. Allowing anonymous comments seems to be particularly risky.  As a non face-to-face form of communication, computer mediated communication lends itself easily to misunderstandings and to non-intended interpretations by the recipients. Verbal aggression also seems to have developed into a special kind of risky humour or sport on the web, thus giving birth to phenomena called trolling or flaming, for example, that are particular to this form of communication.

From a linguistic point of view it is hard to define the specific characteristics of hate speech. Evidently, it often makes use of negatively connoted nouns and adjectives that serve to categorize and make negative judgments on people. Irony is often used too. One characteristic of this kind of discourse is that it makes strong claims and does not take into account various points of view. Therefore lack of moralization is often a feature of hate speech.

Report has it that the concept of hate crime entered the legal arena in the United States as recently as 1978, when California became the first state to introduce Legislation that specifically addressed crimes motivated by prejudice against a victim’s perceived group membership. (Grattet, Jenness and Curry 1998).


Journalists or media practitioners should ensure that they analyze, balance and disseminate information that is hate free to the public. They should continue to educate the masses on the need to avert the pitfalls of hate speech in the society. Media practitioners are duty bound to always commend government on areas that it performed better, and as well criticize her on where she got it wrong. Government should ensure that its policies are friendly to the citizenry, ensure equitable distribution of common wealth and see the protection of lives and property of its citizens as priority, at all times.

By Blaise Elumezie

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