Social networks are useful platforms
THE Constitution of Lesotho, 1993, provides under section 14(1): “Every person shall be entitled to, and (except with his own consent) shall not be hindered in his enjoyment of, freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference (whether the communication be to the public generally or to any person or class of persons) and freedom from interference with his correspondence”.
However, this freedom is not absolute as the Constitution further provides under section 14(2) (a) and (b) that: “Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of this section to the extent that the law in question makes provision — (a) in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or (b) for the purpose of protecting the reputations, rights and freedoms of other person or the private lives of persons concerned in legal proceedings, preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, …”.
Further, subsection (4) provides; “Any person who feels aggrieved by statements or ideas disseminated to the public in general by a medium of communication has the right to reply or to require a correction to be made using the same medium, under such conditions as the law may establish”.
Freedom of expression is further circumscribed in the Penal Code Act, 2010 by the various sections most notably, under treason, failure to prevent or report treasonable conduct, sedition, expression of hatred or contempt, offences against the Royal Family, breach of the peace.
Provoking public violence, obstruction of the course of justice and officially constituted public enquiries, disrespect for judicial proceedings, definition of publication, definition of unlawful publication and defamation, which are all criminal conduct and invite various criminal sanctions.
Under Private Law, as opposed to public law, the former being a body of rules and statutes governing relations between private individuals, freedom of expression is circumscribed by the law of defamation.
Briefly, defamation is defined as the publication of a statement about a person that tends to lower his reputation in the opinion of right-thinking members of the community or to make them shun or avoid him. However, there are various defences that may be raised in defamation cases for purposes of this article. There are but not limited to: denial of the publication of the words complained of, denial of their reference to the plaintiff, denial of any damage or any connection between the defamation and the damage, allegation that the words were uttered under provocation or in jest, allegation of absolute privilege, allegation of fair and bona fide comment on a matter of public interest published without malice and justification by truth in the public interest.
In the Books of the Old Testament, Isaiah 62:6-7 freedom of expression also has Impeccable Source of its origins wherein it is said: “I have posted watchmen on your walls, Jeru- salem; they will never be silent day or night.
"You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and make her the praise of the earth”.
I am quoting extensively from the Constitution and the other branches of the law and indeed the Holy Bible, in interrogating the fundamental freedoms of expression and information as enshrined in our law and other international covenants and freedoms because proponents of these freedoms who use the social network platforms erroneously think they are absolute, on either side of the political spectrum and because sceptics, mainly the government, also have an erroneous perception that they can curtail these freedoms if and when they like.
Both these views are totally wrong if carried to their logical conclusions. Subscribers to social media network sites on the one hand, seem to think, because they mostly use fake accounts and pseudonyms, they can publish or disseminate whatever information or utterances without any hindrance or legal parameters. The government on the other hand, through its spin doctors, has a flawed view that it can just shut-down social networks as if they were putting-off a light in a room. Both these views are totally unacceptable and in law, frivolous and vexations.
For government to threaten that it will close certain social networks because they do not subscribe to its policies would be unconstitutional as it can be challenged successfully in the Constitutional Court. It cannot, without any lawful justification, willy-nilly deny these subscribers their constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedoms of expression and to disseminate and receive information.it is even more disconcerting when the government threatens to unmask or act in concert with licensed service providers to identify who those fake
subscribers are in order to prosecute them. This would be illegal without a lawful court order. No person, institution or government is entitled to take the law into their own hands. Lesotho is a sovereign democratic Kingdom governed by the rule of law else this would be also a clear case of violation of the right to respect for private life, as enshrined in the Constitution. Furthermore, does the government have the resources, technical, financial or human, to block these social networking sites. The costs that come along with any closure of these sites are immense for a country with meagre resources like Lesotho.
Any closure of these sites would also negatively impact on the relations between the local service providers, as they stand to lose millions of maloti in revenue, and also lose jobs and credibility.
These service providers are the lifeblood of our sponsorship component of the social responsibility aspect of government. They therefore play a huge role in filling the void left by government in this respect.
Moreover, to my knowledge it is only Cuba, China, Iran, North Korea and a few countries on earth that have blocked social networks. It goes without saying that this restriction by these pariah states have come at a huge cost to both their fiscus and international image. It is surely a consequence that Lesotho can ill-afford. Our integrity and credibility on the human rights front has already suffered immense harm in the recent times, needless to say.
Social networks are very cheap and reach an audience that mainstream media, mainly run and strictly controlled by the government, are very difficult to reach. If operated within the parameters of the law as has been the case recently, social networks play a very critical role in any given country regardless of its developmental stage. They reach thousands and in some countries, millions of people at the mere click of a button. The state better be advised to also harness this information technol- ogy to present to the public its side of the story.
It is my humble view that only autocratic governments would want to close social networks. There is surely nothing to fear if the government knows that it is doing is right. Further, state media in Lesotho, such as television, radio and newspapers are so heavily-laden with government propaganda that nobody cares to watch, listen or read them except those that think as the government. It is therefore foolhardy, outrageous and counter-productive for government to close social networks. Government should be aware that the truth is like an anthill that sticks-out like a sore thumb even when it is suppressed. Government should therefore readily give-out information to the nation and the world to pre-empt or circumvent the social networks. Withholding information by government is counter-productive. However, I fully agree with government that there is a need to enact a cyber-law to regulate and control social networks.
As for social networks subscribers, all credit on their part, because after government and
some sections of society berated them, sometimes justifiably, for going into over-drive with their dissemination of information and exchange of ideas, they have reined-in and cajoled their colleagues to operate within the parameters of the law. Indeed, I hasten to add that subscribers ought to respect the privacy and dignity, of public figures, the Royal Family, prominent personalities as well as the national interest and security.
However, they do also have the social responsibility to bring to the fore those matters that mainstream media ordinarily, either through deliberate omission or incompetence, fail to disseminate to this information-starved nation. Social media, at times, acts as an advertising platform which is a commendable innovation. They also provide information to those members of the public and the world that ordinarily could have missed the intended audience. They also provide robust debate, educate and provide exchange of information.
Social networks are therefore, if properly harnessed, very useful in promoting a vibrant democracy and providing the public with vital information. Indeed, any nation without knowledge is destined for failure, so says the old adage. “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge”: Hosea 4:6
GOVERNMENT needs to harness social media to present to the public its side of the story, argues the writer.