Social media is not the problem
IN this edition, Home Affairs Minister, Advocate Lekhetho Rakuoane, has called on Basotho to harness positive energy and not trade insults on social media to foster national unity ahead of golden Independence jubilee celebrations in October.
The minister also implores Basotho to “cease fire” and stop making negative posts about the country on social media. The Popular Front for Democracy leader also said one way this could be achieved was through discussions to ensure the national interest triumphs above partisan considerations.
However, in the same story, Communications Minister and government spokesperson Khotso Letsatsi outlines an alternate view of a clampdown of supposedly “rogue” social media users.
The two ministers’ viewpoints could not be further apart, and it is difficult to envision them coalescing. While Adv Rakuoane is calling for dialogue and diplomacy, his colleague ominously speaks of intentions to “suppress this negativity”.
The word “supress” is hardly used in a positive context and for any social media user it is worrisome. Its synonyms include subdue, repress, crush, quell, quash and squash which certainly don’t correlate with democratic discourse.
The disconcerting undercurrent in the statement by Mr Letsatsi is the use of social media to rally people with common goals together amounts to abuse of social media and that such abuse will be punishable by law or where possible lead to a Chinese-style social media ban.
This may sound like a valid course of action where social media is a tool used to peddle hate speech, defamatory language, and other forms of inflammatory messages.
However, it is a slippery slope since the government, which is also a political player, gets to determine what can be deemed social media abuse. For instance, people calling for government accountability can end up being labelled as social media abusers.
As a result, any social media ban or disruption of internet access under those circumstances amounts to unwarranted censorship and gross restriction of fundamental rights.
On 1 July 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning countries that intentionally disrupt citizens’ internet access. The resolution on “The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet” emphasises the UN’S position on digital rights and reiterates the UN’S stance that “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online,” in particular the freedom of expression covered under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Internet shutdowns are on the rise globally. Last year Access Now recorded 15 incidents of internet shutdowns globally. The year 2016 has seen 20 incidents recorded so far from around the world. This rise is largely due to the central role that the internet in general and social media in particular have taken in the dissemination of information of a political nature. Threatened by this kind of online political discourse, governments such as those of Uganda, Ethiopia, Algeria and Chad have resorted to internet shutdowns and social media blackouts.
These are certainly not the kind of countries Lesotho wants to be associated with as far as freedom of speech and democracy are concerned.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also emphasises that restrictions on speech online must be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose.
Dialogue seems to be a sure-fire way to end the logjam in our beloved Mountain Kingdom. As long as some sections of society feel the authorities are never interested in listening to their concerns, they will always be simmering discontent which cannot be silenced by social media regulation.
Most Basotho are peace-loving people with pertinent issues to raise on social media, with only a few bad apples that resort to abusive tactics. Surely, we can’t throw out the baby with the bath water.