By Rafiq Raji, PhD
“Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here”, American president Donald Trump told the Financial Times in early April. That the most powerful man in the world sees his Twitter account as his most powerful communication tool speaks to how much the world has changed. Media, news, and communications will never be the same again. Ordinarily a conservative bunch, African heads of state are moving with the times on this one. It is now normal for the continent’s big men to make policy pronouncements via social media. So yes, African leaders appreciate the power the platform wields. And the threat it poses to their often less than democratic rule. Incidentally, even the established democracies on the continent, South Africa, say, are becoming increasingly irritated by how real and imaginary opponents have been able to effectively make them more accountable through social media. Naturally, more than a few African governments want more control over it. But information technology is evolving so fast, and so easily within reach of the average individual, that having been so empowered, the average African cannot now be so easily fed with government propaganda like in the past. Access to alternative narratives is so pervasive that most African governments feel somewhat enervated. Knowledge and skills required to master internet tools are also within reach of most Africans. That is why programmers trained in Lagos could easily get hired by American software firms and those else where without even the slightest doubt about their competence.
Unsurprisingly, African authorities’ attempts at regulating social media and the wider internet have been met with quite innovative responses. Sooner than authorities block one means, numerous other means emerge. When Egyptian authorities shut down the internet in 2011 to restore order as nationwide protests (“January 25 Revolution”) halted almost all economic activities, the citizens found ways to circumvent them. They used proxy servers in place of domain name servers (DNS) blocked by the government. Since local internet service providers (ISPs) were bound to obey the government’s shutdown order, those who could make long-distance phone calls dialled up ISPs in other countries – the government could not possibly shut down all landline phone access without putting its own national security at risk surely. And in a show of solidarity, some foreign ISPs offered their services for free. Even so, some African governments remain undeterred.
In early March, South African state security minister David Mahlobo revealed the authorities were considering the regulation of social media. “There is a lot of peddling that is going on”, he asserted then about the medium. He was referring to increasing incidents of so-called “fake news” and other unseemly reputation-damaging activities of some social media influencers. But how is that to be curbed before the act with stymieing free speech? Besides, are current laws not encompassing enough to prosecute infractions by social media users and influencers? In a clear change of tact, Mr Mahlobo told the South African parliament later that month that his emphasis is on cybercrimes or crimes that the internet is used to facilitate like human trafficking, defamation, child pornography and so on. Put that way, the proposed Cyber Crime and Cyber Security Bill should pass easily. The potential downside is that the powers that the law would vest in the authorities could easily be used by them for less than noble means. At least, there would be a debate on the issue before the bill is passed. In some African countries, that would not be an option.
Authoritarian African regimes in Ethiopia, Cameroon, Gabon, Chad, Egypt, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere simply shut down the internet at will, especially ahead of elections or when anti-government protests are about. More recently, authorities in Cameroon shut down the internet in the English-speaking Southwest and Northwest provinces (residents of which have been engaged in protests against the government over what they consider official bias against them by a deliberately francophone system) of the country in March 2017, crippling activities in the technology start-ups hub city of Buea. These regimes might actually be a little bemused by all the fuss around the formal enactment of laws targeted at social media in more tolerant African countries. When Ethiopian authorities arrested the award-winning blogging group, “Zone 9 bloggers” – who were increasingly becoming effective critics of the government – in April 2014, they simply charged the six members they arrested with terrorism-related offences. The authorities’ heavyhandedness was widely condemned: In July 2015 and just three weeks ahead of then American president Barack Obama’s visit to Ethiopia, the bloggers were released and acquitted of all charges.
Much ado about nothing
Existing libel laws and regulations governing mainstream media could easily be applied to erring social media practitioners and users. Little wonder it is suspected that the real object of African authorities is to stifle free speech and dissent. This reasoning is not farfetched. Current administrations in Nigeria and Ghana came to power through the usage of social media tools to force transparency on opponents in government and also for their propaganda. Now in government, they realise the same tools could easily be used against them. Being intimately familiar with the power of social media tools, as they are beneficiaries themselves, naturally they seek to control it. But would they succeed? The official position of the Nigerian government is that there are no plans to regulate social media. This much was acknowledged by Nigeria’s information minister Lai Mohammed in November 2015: “We are not about to regulate or stultify the social media”, he said. Mr Mohammed advocates self-regulation instead.
At a gathering of the country’s top social media influencers that he summoned in the same month, Mr Mohammed urged caution on their part, however, saying “We’ll respect freedom of speech, but social media influencers must tread carefully”. And when the legislature proposed a bill to regulate social media in late 2015, the government was quick to resist the move. “The president won’t assent to any legislation that may be inconsistent with the constitution of Nigeria”, presidential spokesman Garba Shehu said in statement released to the press. Had it passed, the Frivolous Petitions Prohibition Bill proposed by Bala Ibn Na’allah, the deputy majority leader of the Nigerian Senate, would have been an unprecedented clampdown on free speech, a basic human right. The part targeted at social media users read as follows: “Where any person through text message, tweets, WhatsApp or through any social media posts any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person or group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2,000,000.00 [US$6,557] or both fine and imprisonment”.
After vociferous protests by all and sundry, the Nigerian Senate eventually bowed to popular will in May 2016 and stopped further consideration of the bill, arguing most of its provisions were already covered by existing laws. And less than a year later, a court sentenced someone to nine months in prison for insulting a Nigerian state governor on social media. While this is proof that existing laws suffice to make social media users accountable, it is also points to potential abuse. Besides, African authorities have also wizened to the wisdom of prevention: it is better to prevent the damage from being done in the first place. So in addition to shutting down the internet when it suits governing authorities, they also employ their own armies of social media influencers, who not only scan social media for articles of interest, but immediately deploy counter-narratives to neutralise those deemed unfavourable. Perhaps then African governments with social media regulation laws in the works are simply trying not to waste a good opportunity.
(An edited version was published by New African magazine in May 2017)