As political parties and candidates prepare for the commencement of campaigns, the police have warned politicians and their supporters against engaging in hate speech and cyberbullying.
The police threatened to prosecute violators in accordance with relevant laws, adding that they could be charged under the Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act, Electoral Act or even Terrorism (Prevention) Act, depending on the content of the speeches.
The Independent National Electoral Commission, which fixed September 28, 2022 for the commencement of campaigns for the presidential and National Assembly elections, and October 12, 2022 for the governorship and state Houses of Assembly campaigns, had also warned against the use of language that could injure religious, ethnic, tribal or sectional feelings during campaigns, citing Section 92 of the Electoral Act, 2022.
In previous elections, politicians, their supporters and political parties were wont to digress from issue-based campaigns to launch personal attacks on opposing parties and candidates based on religion, ethnicity and other sentiments.
More than what obtained in the past, the cyberspace, especially social media platforms, has increasingly become a potent tool for mobilisation, campaigns and exchange of ideas by supporters of political parties and the different candidates. However, there have also been incidences of personal attacks on individuals on some of the platforms.
In an interview with one of our correspondents, however, the Force Public Relations Officer, CSP Muyiwa Adejobi, on Friday asked victims of hate speech and cyberbullying to report to the police, promising that prompt action would be taken.
He said, “If anyone is reported to have committed hate speech or cyberbullying, we will carry out our investigation and charge the accused based on the provisions of the constitution and various Acts, ranging from the Cybercrime Act, Electoral Act and Terrorism Act, among others, depending on the content of their speeches and the peculiar situation.
“Concerning cyberbullying and threat to lives during the forthcoming elections, we advise citizens to desist from such. These politicians are friends and won’t fight one another over elections; hence their supporters should emulate that.
“Cyberbullying is a crime; however, the police will only attend to written reports. If anyone gets bullied, they should write to the police and we will take appropriate actions. We will not tolerate threats to lives and property. People can submit applications concerning cyberbullying and threats to the designated platforms for the police to take action.”
The Inspector-General of Police, Usman Baba, had in a statement by Adejobi on Wednesday asked members of the public to report all forms of cybercrimes through the Nigeria Police Force Cybercrime Reporting Portal for appropriate actions.
He noted that the portal domiciled at the INTERPOL National Central Bureau, Abuja, provides the Force access to intelligence and data sharing between the 195-member countries of INTERPOL.
Reacting to the threat by the police to charge those who propagate hate speech and perpetrate cyberbullying with cybercrime and terrorism, some Senior Advocates of Nigeria have disagreed over whether or not hate speech could contain elements of terrorism.
Mr Lekan Ojo, quoting from Section II of the Terrorism (Prevention and Prohibition) Act, 2022, noted that the propagation or dissemination of information or information materials in any form calculated to cause panic, invoke violence, intimidate the government, person or group of persons could be an act of terrorism.
He, however, advised the police to exercise caution so as not to be seen as infringing on people’s freedom of expression.
He told one of our correspondents in an interview, “Section II of the Terrorism (Prevention and Prohibition) Act of 2022 was what the police had in mind before making such a statement.
“There are provisions under the Cybercrime Prohibition, Prevention, etc Act (2015), which criminalises the sending of electronic messages on social media, which are offensive and/or calculated to insult, injure or intimidate the person against whom such messages are sent when one knows that such messages are false.
“This means one cannot, under the guise of a campaign, unleash false, insulting and intimidating messages against other persons or candidates of political parties. These laws exist. However, I will advise the police to be cautious in their reaction to such offensive electronic messages so as not to be misunderstood as an attempt to breach or infringe on the freedom of expression of individuals.
“There are some political statements that can be interpreted as terrorism. However, this may not be the case if it has to do with the manifesto of a political party, countering what other people may have said against them.”
‘Cybercrime not terrorism’
Mr Yomi Aliyu (SAN), in an interview with one of our correspondents, queried how hate speech or cyberbullying could qualify as an act of terrorism.
He stated, “Terrorism is generally defined as the act of forcing the will of the minority on the majority by use of arms. How does hate speech and/or cyberbullying come into this? We still have freedom of expression as part of our fundamental rights. The Cybercrime Act prescribes offences under it.
“Thus, it is the relevant law to cyberbullying and not the Terrorism Act except in one’s campaign, one uses words that support insurrection or encourage war against the state.”
Similarly, human rights lawyer, Mr Femi Falana (SAN), said the police would be acting against the provision of the constitution by equating cybercrime with terrorism.
He said, “Cyberstalking is the use of the Internet or other electronic means to stalk or harass an individual, group or organisation. It is a crime under the Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention) Act. It has nothing to do with terrorism. The police and other security agencies should stop labelling every Nigerian a terrorist. Meanwhile, terrorism sponsors and terror suspects are not charged before the Federal High Court by the Federal Government.
“The threat by the police to charge politicians with cyberstalking has become tragic news that should be condemned. As far as I am concerned, politicians are not a special breed of citizens. Therefore, let them be made victims of reckless repression. That may force them to adopt immediate measures to repeal all anti-media legislation.”
Also, Mr Babatunde Ogala (SAN) said it would depend on the action involved, adding that the act must contain terrorism threats before it could be considered as such.
He added, “Cyberbullying depends on its content. If somebody is saying he will blow up somewhere or detonate bombs, that is terrorism. So, it’s a function of what the law provides, whether terrorism is through the cyberspace or actual or carrying gun, by writing or even by what you say. My advice to politicians is to be conscious of the provisions of the law.”
Mr Ifedayo Adedipe (SAN) called on politicians not to engage in uncivilised acts during campaigns, including cyberbullying. He said the police could charge anyone found guilty of cyberbullying, but that it would be wrong to accuse anyone they did not like of terrorism.
He added, “There is nothing wrong in what they propose to do, but I hope before they charge anyone to court, they will get will sound legal advice, possibly from the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, or the Director of Public Prosecutions, because left to our police, it will be another opportunity to extort money from the citizens.”
Ahead of the campaigns, the Inter-Party Advisory Council has advised politicians to desist from heating up the polity.
The Chairman of IPAC, Yabagi Sani, in an interview with Sunday PUNCH, said, “We urge all political parties to engage in a decent campaign devoid of hate speech. It must be something that will unite this country and make us peaceful.”
Warn opposition – Keyamo
The spokesperson for the All Progressives Congress Presidential Campaign Council, Festus Keyamo (SAN), expressed optimism that none of the party’s supporters would engage in cyberbullying. He said the warning should be directed to members of the opposition parties, whom he claimed were inevitably guilty of such infractions.
He added, “We in the APC campaign are very temperate with our language. This warning should be directed more to the Peoples Democratic Party and Labour Party supporters.”
PDP respects rights
The presidential candidate of the PDP, Atiku Abubakar, asked Nigerians to respect the choices of others without verbally attacking them.
His Media Adviser, Mr Paul Ibe, told one of our correspondents in an interview, “There is no need to resort to hate speech. The only way you can woo somebody is by ideas. Present your position within a democratic culture, with decorum and mutual respect. That is very important.
“The security agencies are saddled with the responsibility of maintaining law and order, and the police have a mandate to ensure that anybody in breach of the law is punished. When the campaign starts, people have to respect other people’s rights.”
Obi targeted – LP
The Labour Party, however, claimed that the threat by the police was targeted at the supporters of its presidential candidate, Mr Peter Obi.
In a telephone interview with Sunday PUNCH, the National Publicity Secretary of the LP, Abayomi Arabambi, said, “We know that statement was targeted at the Labour Party. The police should mind their language because they are not members of the APC. They should know that this regime will come to an end.
“Where was this Act when the APC made Nigeria ungovernable for (former) President Goodluck Jonathan? The police should go and investigate the police commissioners in Kaduna and Ebonyi states, who used tear gas against ordinary Nigerians in ‘Obidient’ rallies. Doing a simple fitness walk is what the police now term as something best known to them, coming out with all manner of laws.”
On the recent claim by Keyamo that Obi was allegedly planning his own assassination attempt, Arabambi said he expected the police to invite him (Keyamo) for questioning on the basis of hate speech and terrorism.
“I expected the Inspector-General of Police despite the petition to have invited Mr Fesus Keyamo over his claim that our presidential candidate wants to kill himself. When you make such a claim, the burden of proof is on you,” he added.
‘NNPP decent party’
The New Nigeria Peoples Party says it is a decent party and that it will act within the law.
The party’s National Chairman, Prof Rufai Alkali, said, “The NNPP is a decent party with highly decent leadership at the national and zonal levels, and our presidential candidate is a man of peace. Since we started this journey, we have been conducting our affairs within the confines of the law.
“We as a party are offering Nigerians something that is fresh and there is no way we will engage in any act of violence and cyberbullying. We have educated our youth leaders, women leaders and executives across the board to conduct themselves peacefully, and we also pray and hope that other political parties should follow the same path. We also want to call on the media to exercise all lots of restraint.”
Also, the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Party, Adewole Adebayo, in an exclusive interview with Sunday PUNCH on Saturday, said, “Well, the SDP has a culture of only talking about issues so that we are not bothered. A good political party will not interfere with the police enforcing the law, because the aim of our party is that rule of law should apply. I think the police are not just posturing, if they are really serious about ensuring that cyberbullying and all of that is not done, they should be holistic about it.”
Special police protection
Meanwhile, the police said they had made adequate provision for the protection of presidential candidates and other candidates of the various political parties in the coming elections.
The Force PRO said the IG had ordered the immediate completion of a new office complex opposite the police headquarters for the Force Intelligence Bureau, noting that the new complex would be fitted with state-of-the-art gadgets for contemporary intelligence gathering.
He noted that the presidential candidates and other politically exposed persons were qualified for police security, but that applications being received would be assessed accordingly.
“Concerning the 2023 general elections, politically exposed persons are by virtue of their personalities and their social status qualified and entitled to police protection,” Adejobi stated.
Asked the number of applications received so far, he said, “We can’t specifically state the total number of applications that we have received because it’s not everyone that sent their applications to the Force headquarters. Some politicians across the country applied to state commands for police protection of their property, person or institutions.
“Although we can’t give personal police protection to every individual, there are provisions for politically exposed persons, businessmen and women, royalties and members of the diplomatic corps. For personal reasons, some politically exposed persons don’t even like requesting personal police security, but if they are under any threat, we will surely give them protection as citizens of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
‘Escort, IG’s prerogative’
He explained that the only request for police security that was granted by only the IG was the request for escort.
“This is because police commissioners can only grant requests for issues under their jurisdiction, and people who require escorts usually travel interstate, hence the police commissioner in a state will not be able to account for the officers if they are not in that state,” he added.
Nigeria safe – Police
Following the apprehension generated by the recent attack on Senator Ifeanyi Ubah, during which five persons, including policemen were killed, Adejobi gave an assurance that the country was safe enough for peaceful elections in 2023.
He described the attack as an isolated incident, adding that no politician had reported any threat to the police.
“Our country is safe and peaceful enough to conduct the 2023 general elections. We have people applying for police protection very often, and for those who apply, the police will assess their applications and treat them accordingly,” he added.
Parties on protection
The African Action Congress has said that the need for special police protection for presidential candidates is a reflection of the level of insecurity in the country.
The party’s Publicity Secretary, Mr Olorunfemi Adeyeye, stated, “As of this time, even the police are not safe. The recent brutal murder of policemen guarding Senator Ifeanyi Ubah is a clear indication of the fact that all is not well. We, however, reiterate that it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that everyone, not just contenders, is safe and secure during this electioneering.”
On the issue of hate speech, he said, “For us in the AAC, our stance in respect of human rights is very clear and the records of our presidential candidate, Mr Omoyele Sowore, remain untainted. It is true that we have decried long before now the use of vitriolic diatribes by supporters of some candidates; caustic words that can pit the oppressed against one another – the ploy of the ruling class.
“However, we maintain that no Nigerian must be denied their freedom of expression under the guise of offences code-named by the state as ‘cyberbullying’ and ‘hate speeches’. The greatest bullies and peddlers of hate speech, fake news and religious/tribal bigotry are the ruling establishment and politicians who have continued to mess with the lives of our people for decades; dividing the oppressed through religious and tribal incitements.”
Also, Keyamo said the APC candidate, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, would not prioritise his own security over the security of the nation, saying, “He realises that we have a leader in President Muhammadu Buhari, who has promised to secure everyone during the campaigns and he (Tinubu) has implicit faith in that promise.”
The PDP spokesperson, Debo Ologunagba, however, referred inquiries to the police.