Combating Incitement to Violence while Protecting Free Speech

On 23-25 November UNODC’s Country Office in Nigeria (CONIG) hosted, with the support of the European Union, a workshop in Abuja on incitement to terrorism through the media, which was attended by a diverse group of Nigerian media and national security professionals.

With over 103 TV stations, more than 40 nationally distributed newspapers and 277 radio stations, the volume of information disseminated through Nigeria’s numerous media platforms can be quite overwhelming.

In addition to traditional media, there are an estimated 81 million internet users in Nigeria, 85% of whom are active on WhatsApp, 78% on Facebook, 53% on YouTube, and, until the platform was suspended by the government, 30% on Twitter. 

While media outlets and online platforms can be effective mediums for disseminating timely and accurate information and commentary, they can of course also be used to spread destabilizing narratives, to promote fake news, and even to encourage the commission of terrorist acts and extremist violence.

Terrorist groups like JAS and ISWAP frequently use both online and traditional media platforms spread their messages, to intimidate members of the public, drown out moderate voices, and to attract new recruits, all of which pose a difficult challenge to the state institutions charged with the protection and preservation of national security.

Incitement to terrorism through the media raises specific concerns because it contains elements of political declaration and self-expression, as protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

While the right to freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a robust democracy, it is not an absolute right. International human rights law permits limitations on free speech so long as any such limitations are provided by law and are necessary for the respect of the rights or reputations of others, or for the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals.

Furthermore, Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights specifically prohibits “propaganda for war” and “advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence.”

The United Nations has been increasingly active on the issue of incitement to terrorism, passing several resolutions related to the issue, most notably Security Council resolution 1642 (2005), which makes specific reference to the legal prohibition of incitement to commit terrorist acts.

Nevertheless, it must also be acknowledged that such restrictions can be open to abuse, and finding an appropriate balance between protecting the public and protecting the rights of individuals can be a challenge for any country facing terrorist threats. The UN Human Rights Council has emphasized that any restrictions placed on freedom of expression cannot put the right itself in jeopardy and must remain an exception to the norm.

To help member states navigate these complex issues, UNODC has developed a publication on The Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes.

In this workshop international experts came together with representatives from the Nigerian justice and human rights community (Nigeria Police Force, Department of Public Prosecution, Legal Aid Council of Nigeria, National Judicial Institute, Nigerian Bar Association, Nigeria Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, the National Human Rights Commission) and the Nigerian media (News Agency of Nigeria, Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria and Nigerian Broadcasting Commission) to discuss the dangers of defining incitement overbroadly, the importance of a robust independent media, the crucial relevance of legal concepts such as intent and causation, the technical challenges to proving incitement charges in court, and of collecting electronic evidence from social media platforms.

The UNODC facilitators set out to deepen participants’ understanding of the role that criminal justice instruments can play in addressing the abuse of media and social media platforms as a means of inciting terrorism, but also to strengthen the capacities of participants to apply fundamental human rights safeguards to any measures intended to prevent incitement.

On completing the workshop, participant Ifeoma Nnovu, a journalist with the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, reflected: “As a journalist and judiciary Correspondent, the workshop has broadened my knowledge on the Terrorism Prevention Act and its usage in prosecution. Journalists can not only help to distribute information but also counter hate-speech and create an environment of balanced opinions. For the media, it could be problematic to find a balance between preventing harm caused by careless speech and protecting individual expression. Therefore, responsible journalism should be factual [and] devoid of sensationalism in its reportage.”

Tom Parker, UNODC’s Project Coordinator for Counterterrorism Programming in Nigeria, added: “The issue of incitement to violence, and especially of incitement to terrorism, is an extremely complex one, in which striking the right balance between protecting the public’s freedoms and protecting the physical wellbeing of the public is a critical yet challenging task. It is our hope that the participants in this workshop will take back new information and perspectives to their parent organizations that will enhance ongoing efforts to counter the criminal activities of violent extremist and terrorist groups online.”