Left to the landmark judgment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in December 2003, the matter of responsibility for media content and, by implication, hate speech would be considered settled. In sentencing a newspaper proprietor and two executives of the notorious Radio Télévision des Mille Collines, (RTLM), for what they published several years before the onset of genocide, the judges argued that they created the dispositional calculus among the population that underpinned that violence. The graphic representation of their crime of ‘incitement and conspiracy to commit genocide and crimes against humanity’ goes like this: “without a firearm, machete or any physical weapon, you caused the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians”. Transferred to Nigeria, it means any journalists threatening fire and brimstone today, be he a reporter, columnist, editor, publisher or just an accidental journalist, would find him or herself in the same position as the jailed Rwandan journalists in the above story should anything in the nature of what happened in Rwanda happen in Nigeria. It wouldn’t matter what time gap exists between what they wrote and when the ‘violence without machete’ occurred.
Farther away from Africa, Professor Teun Van Dijk has taken a position that sits pretty well with that of the tribunal on Rwanda. A key member of the fascinating scholarly team whose work on relativism of meaning complicated the determination of hate in a speech or text, Dijk, however, says every journalist bears responsibility for the words s/he uses. Dijk who established his intellectual authority in his exploration of racist discourse in the Western media uses an interesting example. He says if you write a sentence containing an expression such as “… waves of immigrants …”, you can be held responsible for racist hate speech because the expression conjures the image of a sweeping, invasive and threatening body of migrants. It has implications because it could trigger a threat-defense posture in the security architecture against the human rights of the immigrants.
With these two examples, the question of who bears responsibility for what the media pushes out could have been the story of a case closed. But the question has not been posed and answered in relation to Nigeria. The implication is that Nigerian journalists might not have seriously contemplated the full implications of some infractions on professional best practices that are common place in the Nigerian media. That is dangerous because a former Editor of the New Nigerian once told this reporter how the tribunal on Yugoslavia wrote to the paper in Nigeria in 1998 seeking for the photocopy of a story published by the paper when the editor was probably still in secondary school. The tribunal wanted that particular story because, as they wrote in the letter to the editor, it had turned up a vital piece of information for their work.
The Abuja based Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development, (SCDDD) was, therefore, raising the stakes again earlier this week in its battle against hate speech at another round of interactions with media operators, this time social media players – owners of online newspapers, blogs and similar media platforms. It was doing so in two ways – reminding the journalists of timeless culpability for incitement if ever so adjudged as well as it was expanding the space for its campaign against hate speech. The interaction produced sharp encounters, lots of light, numerous confessions and several areas of convergence between the members of the centre’s ‘Council of the Wise’ and the media operators.
The first sign of pleasant trouble was when Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais spoke on what constitutes hate speech. His intervention is not free of the drawbacks of essentialist conception of hate speech – something out there, objectively so and provable – but it seemed that watching the 1958 graduate of Barewa College still that organised was so humbling and challenging at the same time as to act a check on those who might have wanted him to clarify. Throughout the over two hours that the interaction lasted, he never dozed off and did not depart before time.
His presentation itself was an exercise in elevated craft. It was nearly half way before one realised that, for each expression of hate speech – ethnic, religious, cultural, gender, disabled and what have you, he had a predicate. Not anticipating this, one missed the first segment but it could be seen where, for him, hate speech is “abusing …; condemning …; discrediting …; ridiculing …”. So, with him, it was not just hate speech as one black box against an identity.
The rest of the members of the centre’s ‘Council of the Wise’ followed Justice Uwais to make prefatory remarks before the journalists started theirs. Alhaji Wada Maida described the interaction as well as the hate speech campaign as confronting the management of diversity through ethical and responsible communication. The domain, he said, had been complexified by the ‘post-truth’ turn, his own polite way of expressing reservation with the current shift from ‘science’ to textuality of reality in relation to meaning. In his view, new and old media confront the same problem. That was the voice of the veteran who gave institutional stature to the News Agency of Nigeria, (NAN) as its Managing Director for about a decade in the same way the late Remi Oyo gave remarkable functional verve to the Media Department of the Villa in Nigeria when she served as President Obasanjo’s Media Adviser.
Jude Illoh, Country Director of OSIWA recognised the social media as a dominant media category but, by his own assessment, the language borders on the caustic and the inflammatory. He is sure the social media exhibits a disturbing level of recklessness, including the temptation to create their own reality. “We may run into trouble the way it is practiced now”, he said, adding that there is something in social media praxis that is a critique of what he called responsible information sharing. He sees that trend to be contrary to the spirit of responsibility to our own country. The microphone moved to a veteran again, Yola based Asmau Joda. She confessed feeling threatened by the avalanche of social media messages and tries to shield herself. Above all, she is put off by the use of language, exemplifying this with the expression “even a woman” that she notices especially in the social media. Her deconstruction of it is that such an expression already creates a second class citizen status for the woman in question as well as women generically. That is the voice of a gender activist of a critical bent as opposed to contemporary Nigerian gender activism led mostly by the wife of the president, governor, minister or local government council chairperson.
Nkoyo Toyo was not the last speaker in sequence but she was the one who raised questions that amounted to laying traps for the journalists. The questions that she wanted the journalists to bear in mind when contributing were, (1), To what extent does history impact on the way we blog; (2), How are we communicating vis-à-vis the survival of democracy which we hold dear and, (3), Are there words referring to hate speech in our communal lexicon?
In view of the number of journalists who spoke and in other to tame length, lets summarise what the social media actors said on and about hate speech in the social media;
1. It is not a binary relationship between the social or new and the traditional media. People still go the traditional media to confirm what they have read in the social media just as it is Nigerian newspapers that still have some of the most powerful online sites, (the speaker gave the names of four of such newspapers). So, any strict distinction between the two is fraught with implications for policy
2. Government is to be held responsible for the life of some sensational or fake news on the social media because it is always lethargic in responding to unmake such ‘stories’
3. There is an instrumental reasoning at work in the deployment of fake news in certain cases because the masterminds of such believe that unless the government is shaken, it won’t act. The speaker gave the example of when government brought out a detainee only when the social media reported that the said detainee had died in detention
4. Ownership and control is a factor in social media ‘recklessness’
5. Don’t forget the factor of politicians as elephants in the room when thinking about social media’s units of measurement. In fact, one speaker said “they give us the bad news”
6. It is a mistake to rate social media higher in hate speech prevalence. The traditional media could be worse
7. Commercial survivalism can be deterministic of ‘recklessness’
8. The education of the journalist can be better. In fact, the speaker said “education, education and education”
9. The social media arena can do with a peer review mechanism.
The microphone made its journey back to members of the ‘The Council of the Wise’ but it is Nkoyo Toyo’s comments which now brought the palaver of responsibility for content. She spoke at some length but what she summarised herself to the effect that journalists should not pretend that they are not hurting somebody by the words they use or allow to be used on their platforms; that journalists cannot claim that politicians gave them the marching orders to use certain words and that every journalist should learn to accept responsibility for what s/he writes or publishes. By this, Nkoyo, a lawyer, arrived at the same position that her colleagues in the Rwandan tribunal arrived at over a decade ago. Being a former ambassador and a former federal legislator, Nkoyo’s position must set us thinking. For, would critical discourse analysts accept that the journalist can be held responsible for what s/he writes when the meaning of words are indeterminate?
The meaning of the words we use are indeterminate because the meaning does not reside with the user but more with the reader/viewer/listener. That is the case because, in themselves, no words refer to anything in the world specifically. ‘Good morning’, for instance, only serves the function it serves to the extent that those involved understand it as the greeting sign for a particular time of the day. Otherwise, ‘good morning’ in itself refers to nothing. It could, in fact, mean ‘good night’ as well. Between a quarreling husband and wife, for instance, the same ‘good morning’ could trigger a ‘Third World War’ of a kind. If words do not have static meaning and meaning changes depending on where and when a particular word is used and by whom, then how do we determine hate speech when a same set of words could be understood or have different meanings for the speaker, the reader and even the judge who will decide the case should it become a court case? Some people even question the notion of hate speech. This is done on two main grounds.
The first ground is, how can we talk of hate speech when meaning changes? In Nigeria, Fela’s music was an anathema. It could not be played on state radio because it conveyed words and phrases such as ‘authority stealing’ which were interpreted to be hateful of the state or its leading officials. Today, the same Nigerian State would not mind using that very musical number containing ‘authority stealing’ as signature tune for a state sponsored war on corruption. What was classical hate speech a few decades ago has turned full circle. A similar scenario is playing out or has just played out in Kano. Musicians who were the favorites during a previous governor seems to have lost out and their music have become anathema to rising power. This goes on all over Nigeria all the time involving the changing status of ‘hate speeches’ in relation to context. In many cases, what emerge as hate speech is more of a product of power relations. Where power is balanced, rarely can conflict parties overstretch hate speech. Of course, the other side of it where power is balanced between conflict parties is Mutual Assured Destruction, (MAD). Conflict managers, therefore, tend to de-emphasise claims about hate speech because of the meaning complexity.
The second ground is the claim which implicates anti-hate speech campaigners in the promotion of hate speech because, according to their critics, they block out alternative options by posing the problem in terms of hate speech as a bad thing to be fought. In other words, they are charged for the infraction of convenience analysis in taking hate speech out of its historical context. The historical context under reference is how hate speech today were the ideological vocabulary for the Cold War. So, it didn’t just emerge from nowhere and finding solution to it must connect with that history or the campaign would be confronted by the contradictions of problem solving approach to managing society.
Do these suggest that Savannah Centre is on an ambiguous journey? It would be difficult to find anyone who would say so anywhere in the world. Hate speeches can ignite fire of imponderable proportions even in homogeneous societies. It could be more complicated in our kind of society deeply divided along all manner of fault lines and a haven of contestations in meaning. Hate speeches could thus be a threat and a dilemma. To fight it is to get entangled in the battle of meaning. But not to fight it is to live with a risk that can consume. Where then might the way out of the hate speech imbroglio lie?
Strengthening of inter-subjective space so that less and less become ‘no go areas’ in Nigeria’s public sphere; improvement in the overall quality of education as for the average recipient to be self-supervisory on questions of peaceful co-existence; rousing the regulatory machine to action and making the Nigerian State more and more legitimate with particular reference to the rule of law are some of the ‘answers’ that have been canvassed in response to the syndrome. But the work that Savannah Centre has started has its own uniqueness. That lies in how what it is doing might throw more lights on the limits and potentials of each of these as well as bring out plausible additional options for containing hate speeches with particular reference to Nigeria. The potential for coming up with a Nigerian specificity of how to deal with hate speech means that what is at issue is a case of what this project could contribute to what have been done or what have worked elsewhere. Understood this way, Ambassador Omaki must be right in saying the interactive session was not a probe panel before which the social media appeared as an accused but an exercise in problem solving. The media and the government too must be holding their breath in anticipation of the outcome!