Monday, January 30, 2017
The battle to control social media in Sierra Leone
By KEMO CHAM in Freetown
[First published on www.africareview.com] In November a magistrate court in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, arraigned two youngsters as part of an ongoing crackdown on social media activism.
The accused, including 20-year old university student Theresa Mbomaya, were held for posting “inciting statement” on Whatsapp. The case prompted mass protests and condemnation.
The Sierra Leone Government say a growing trend of misuse of social media has posed a national security threat and it wants to regulate its use.
But rights groups are questioning the intention.
Facebook and Whatsapp are the most used social media platforms in the country and are especially popular among the young, hence concerns over the exposure of children to pornographic and other unprintable images, officials say.
However, in spite of its expressed motive, official pronouncements backed by constant threats of prosecutions suggest a deep-seated feeling of disdain within government over the growing influence of the social media phenomenon.
Much of the concern is on Whatsapp; and almost all of the cases that have been prosecuted so far had to do with postings concerning politicians.
In November 2014 a man was charged for libeling former Vice President Samuel Sam-Sumana on whatsapp. The case was later thrown out of court as Sumana appeared set to lose his Vice Presidency in a political battle that would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.
In April 2015, another man was jailed for merely sharing a comment calling President Ernest Bai Koroma a “wounded beast” on whatsapp.
More recently, another case before a Magistrate court involved a radio presenter accused of incitement and defamatory libel against a cabinet Minister on whatsapp.
Last week, the weekly press briefing organised by the government was transformed into a lecture session on the influence of the social media phenomenon on the mainstream media. Deputy Information Minister, Cornelius Deveaux, catalogued more recent incidences of abuse bothering the government.
Earlier in the week, he recounted, someone had photoshopped an accident scene in Nigeria making it look like it happened in Sierra Leone. In another incident a picture of a Nigerian ritual killer was superimposed to an image of a Freetown police station, he added, noting that such acts painted negative image of the country.
In September, a “national consultative” conference with the goal of mapping out rules for bloggers was convened; stakeholders were drawn from the telecoms industry, including operators, lawmakers, and the security sector. The outcome was to be presented to cabinet for eventual formulation of legislation.
Under the plan, government will set up an internet exchange point, for the first time ever, to monitor social media users.
The National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM), which hosted the conference, also claimed it had received assurance from the managements of facebook and whatsapp to help track down culprits.
Within the last few months almost every opportunity any government official has had to address a section of the nation, the issue of social media has featured.
President Koroma, as part of his State opening of parliament address in December, blasted bloggers who use social media "as weapon" for “spreading ill-will" and creating division.
“Being a public official is no license for your character to be falsely smeared; having a smart-phone is no license for you to infringe upon the privacy and dignity of ordinary citizens,” he told lawmakers, reaffirming calls for regulation.
Hardliner officials are advocating for draconian measures.
One of them, Deveaux, even suggested the Chinese approach.
Both facebook and whatsapp are banned in China.
Deveaux, himself a journalist, was quoted recently saying: “if it causes us to go the China way we will use it.”
He has also threatened to pull the plug on negotiations for the repeal of the contentious Criminal Libel law due to the spiraling abuse of social media.
Critics say the government’s plan is aimed at disarming opponents ahead of elections in 2018.
The power of social media to rapidly mobilse anti government sentiments is well documented across Africa.
And even at home, there have already been strong demonstration of this.
Social media proved a reliable rallying point for people calling for protest against the government’s decision to increase fuel pump prices in October. Mbomaya and her co-accused were detained as part of the crackdown on that incident.
Social media was also used to coordinate demonstrations in the mountainous northern district of Kabala a little earlier in August. Images of bullet ridden bodies of rioting youths circulated on whatsapp were blamed by government officials for fueling public anger against trigger-happy police officers deployed to foil an unrest sparked by grievances over lack of development.
Kabala, situated in the northern most part of Sierra Leone, is thought to be the most deprived region in the country. The youths were opposed to the government’s decision to relocate a project to establish a youth village to nearby Makeni, home to the president.
Emmanuel Saffa Abdullai, Executive Director of the Society for Democratic Initiative, described as futile the government’s attempt to control social media use. He also dismissed suggestions that facebook would cooperate with the government to track down defaulters.
“I think it is small mindedness… People think that because they control
Sierra Leoneans in the manner in which they have been doing they can just control anything,” he said in an interview.
But the human rights lawyer was concerned that the government’s announcements could instil fear in the masses with the effect of derailing the gains the country has achieved in its democratization journey.
Government, he said, should be thinking of repealing the criminal libel law, rather than thinking of imposing another legislation to muzzle free press.
But there is indeed genuine cause for alarm over the abuse of social media in Sierra Leone. One major concern is the rise in the trend of fake news.
Both sides of the political divide are guilty of this. And it becomes complicated as some section of the largely compromised mainstream media is fed through such 'news' sources.
A recent example happened after the failure of an ECOWAS delegation to prevail on Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh to step down. Someone wrote a story claiming that Jammeh had told off President Koroma, one of four regional leaders who flew to Banjul, citing several of his alleged undemocratic credentials, including the sacking of his former VP.
Last week another report emerged on whatsapp accusing the President of masterminding the murder two weeks ago of a former head of the Sierra Leone army.
“Such fake news could have the propensity to throw the state into chaos and panic,” Deveaux lamented in an interview with the Africa Review. “That could be a security threat.”
While admitting that social media does have its downsides, Abdullai argues that it has also broaden the political landscape and civic participation.
And indeed there are a few good stories to share.
The government itself makes good use of it for dissemination of public notices.
Both the President and Vice President have strong representation on social media.
Whatsapp groups have organized lifesaving events through financial contributions making possible surgeries for patients battling life threatening ailments.
Very recently there was the case of the 17 year old girl with a rare case of enlarged breast. Her story was first reported in the mainstream media, but it only got the needed attention when it was circulated on social media. She was eventually operated on.
Soon, however, the story turned sour when photos of the girl in the operating theater appeared on whatsapp.
The case is under investigation by the police and the Sierra Leone Medical and Dental Council.
The government, says Deveaux, wants social media users to regulate themselves or face the law.
The focus is more on whatsapp.
The Ministry of Information in a statement recently warned whatsapp administrators to consider themselves as editors as they would be held responsible for any post deemed as offensive.
The government was also working on rolling out a New Media Literacy project to encourage the self regulatory approach, Deveaux said.
“There are existing laws which protect the rights of privacy, integrity, and reputation of individual citizens.”