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Hate Speech or Censorship? Civil servants redeployed over social media comments

By Prince Osuagwu (Hi Tech Editor) & Charles Kumolu (Deputy Features Editor)

The decision of one of government parastatals, to start monitoring the activities of its employees on the social media is spreading fears of censorship of the media and its practitioners.

But the parastatal on the other hand appears to be respecting the government directives on hate speech.

However, many Nigerians have said the directive is more of censorship than guarding against hate speech.

Hate speech is speech which attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability or gender. In the law of some countries, hate speech is described as speech, gesture or conduct, writing or display which is forbidden because it incites violence or prejudicial action against a protected group.

Censorship, in the other hand, is the suppression of speech, public communication or other information, on the basis that such material is considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or ‘inconvenient’ as determined by government authorities or by community consensus.

Meanwhile,the development at the parastatal, which was followed by an order to stop commenting on issues that border on national interest has not only created an atmosphere of anxiety, it is sending wrong signals in the polity.

The letter signed by the Executive Director of Admin and Training of the organisation, reads in part: “The unguarded and unethical manner, in which online publication concerning sensitive and topical national issues are being embraced, canvassed, patronised and shared by members of staff to the embarrassment of the management, has come to the notice of board management. Management has decided to put a stop to this reckless and unethical behaviour.

Threatened Civil servants

“The Director-General therefore expressly mandates you to inform all members of staff in your station to steer clear of any publication (online or otherwise) that could impact negatively on the corporate existence of Nigeria and to the embarrassment of the organisation.

President Buhari

“Any member of staff caught in this fast spreading serious act of misconduct will be made to face the consequences of his/her action in line with the civil service rules.”

Hi-Tech  gathered that fear is now the word among the staff of the parastatal, and other agencies where the order is active.

Long before  the letter barring its staff from engaging in national discourse on the social media started trending,  Hi-Tech learnt that three members of staff had been redeployed over their activities on the social media.

Sources at  organisation revealed that one of those redeployed was fsaid to have made comments considered offensive against an aide of the President.

Another person was also said to have criticised the President  on his social media page while the third person made comments on a topic the authorities found uncomfortable.

Hi-Tech further learnt that apart from redeployment to other departments, the fate of the affected staff is still uncertain given the manner the new directive is being carried out.

Meanwhile, many people, particularly human rights activists, who spoke to Vanguard on the issue believe that what the organisation did is contrary to Section 4 (1)  of the 1999 Constitution which states that: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.’’

Executive Chairman, Centre for Anti-corruption and Open Leadership, CACOL, Mr. Debo Adediran  said: “This is the beginning of despotism for such an organisation because its staff are no longer free to express themselves. What the organisation has done is breaching the constitution.  It is now asking for the wrath of the people by that action. Another effect is that the organisation has commenced de-marketing itself because people will begin to have  negative impression of them.

Gagging Staff

“This is even not the first time such is happening in that organisation. We are aware of this because we are in the social media era where there is unfettered access to information. This directive is an affront to the freedom of expression and the fundamental human rights of the people. It is a step in the wrong direction which should be corrected quickly. I expect the Ministry of Information to ensure that this parastatal rescinds its decision. It is wrong to gag their staff.  There are laws in our statute that take care of incidents that happen on the social media.’’

Similarly, National Coordinator of Committee for Advancement of Accountability and Social Equality, CASE, Mr. Deji  Fagbemi said: “Nigeria is back to the dark ages. We warned the media when they supported the government in power  now but they were carried away. We were consistent in our calls that there would be repression of inalienable freedom but our pleadings made no meaning. I am not surprised that the media is paying for the choice made in 2015.

With this directive, the parastatal is interpreting a script from a higher authority. The media should see this as a challenge .  Freedom of expression is a natural right that should not be repressed in whatever form.”

Some of the staff, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confessed to performing their duties in an uncertain atmosphere, saying that all their activities are now being monitored by government spies.

Freedomof expression

One of them said: “We are no longer free to air our views on the social media and even outside it because the government has eyes on us. They are monitoring all we do so that they can identify those who will speak against them. The fate of those staff is unknown. Their crime is that they exercised their freedom of expression as enshrined in the constitution.

One commented on the social media handle of a Presidential aide. They made findings about him and discovered where he works. I am sure that the letter that was sent us was as a result of that. That letter was supposed to be an in-house memo but it was leaked.

Another person said: “Since I don’t have another job, it is compulsory that I obey the order. We are all adhering to the order. There are government spies everywhere now so we are being careful not to lose our jobs. It is a sad development because the situation means that we can’t express our views on the state of the nation.’’

Hate Speech

The parastatal appeared to be test running the order the Minister of Defence, Mansur Dan Ali, issued to government and security agencies recently, asking them to “tackle the propagation of hate speech through the social media, particularly by some notable Nigerians.”The order means that some prominent Nigerians should be monitored and tracked down if they make statements that could be described as hate speech.

However, this decision is not going down well with many Nigerians. A digital rights group, Paradigm Initiative, described the order as government’s latest attempt to curtail free speech and vowed to challenge it in court.

Already, members of the National Assembly, Senior Advocates of Nigeria, the People’s Democratic Party, labour and other notable Nigerians had reportedly criticised it, saying it justifies the opinions of some people that the present government is allergic to criticisms.

Right to Privacy

Although some people admitted that governments all over the world have at one point or the other monitored people for specific reasons, they however, said it was not done by fiat without passing through relevant channels that would look at the implications and approve that it was safe and could not overtly violate people’s right to privacy.

Boye Adegoke, a Digital Rights Program Manager at Paradigm Initiative said, “we are deeply concerned that free speech, particularly, online, continues to suffer sustained attacks from agents of government under this administration.

“This order advances the restriction of access to 21 news websites including Naij.com. It is one of the several attempts by the government to curtail people’s rights, online and could further negatively affect the digital space.”

He added: “As Nigeria heads for a general election in 2019, we must not allow the government to trample on constitutionally guaranteed rights such as free speech. Paradigm Initiative, on its part, will continue to challenge any anti-free speech policy or posturing by the government. Digital rights like privacy and freedom of expression are important features of modern societies and must not be allowed to be abused by people who are afraid of criticisms.”

In his twitter handle, former Minister of Aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode, argued that the present government’s posture will only strengthen hate speakers.

He said: “Threatening to arrest ‘prominent people’ that speak out against President Buhari on social media changes nothing. It will only swell our ranks and strengthen our resolve. To resist evil and oppose tyranny is a divine obligation and sacred duty. Every true leader must honour it. No fear,” he added.

Recall that a few months ago, Director of Defence Information, Major-General John Enenche, publicly announced that the military now has “strategic media centres that monitor the social media to be able to sieve out and react to all comments that are anti-government, anti-military or anti-security.


Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.