News / South Africa

Yadhana Jadoo
4 minute read
7 Mar 2017
7:01 am

Attempts to regulate social media a step towards dictatorship – experts

Yadhana Jadoo

Experts and organisations said citizens would reject government's attempts to censor the internet.

Minister of State Security David Mahlobo. (Photo: GCIS)

Government’s contemplation to regulate social media is another attempt to censor South Africans that goes against the Constitution in undermining freedom of speech.

This is according to various commentators who are against Safety and Security Minister David Mahlobo’s utterances recently that due to issues pertaining to fake news and scams, a regulation of social media was being considered.

As the #HandsOffSocialMedia hashtag gained momentum on Twitter on Monday, analysts and organisations took to air their grievances on the issue.

“This is a part of an ongoing narrative that government has in wanting to gain some level of control on speech in the online environment. It’s part of a long thread of government to place more control over the internet,” IT commentator Arthur Goldstuck said.

Government was blaming and “looking to beat” social media for opinions aired against it on various platforms, he added.

“Yet the most flagrant example was the ANC, where there was a scandal that hit them, that they paid for misinformation to be shared on social media.”

Earlier this year it emerged through media reports that the ANC had allegedly established a “war room” or “black-ops” campaign ahead of the 2016 local government elections, which sought to discredit opposition parties with methods including fake news and paid Twitter accounts.

Goldstuck said that, last year, South Africa had voted alongside China and Russia against the United Nations resolution on human rights on the internet, which affords privacy and freedom of expression.

“And that shocked the world. It’s in fact a disgraceful track record in negating freedom of expression.

“This goes against freedom of expression, and that’s enshrined in the Constitution.”

The Right2Know campaign’s Mark Weinberg pointed to government trying to censor the internet as a clear indication that it heard the voices of the people but did not want to listen.

“The citizens would reject it; we would be a loud against it.”

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga added that these regulations would lead to a state which thinks it could think on behalf of citizens.

“And it would be the road to dictatorship.”

South Africans were intelligent enough to know fake news when they saw it, he added.

“Fake news is a global phenomenon. This is just an attempt to censor South Africans. If anything, the ANC was proliferating fake news through their ‘war rooms’,” he charged.

“South Africans don’t need protection; instead, this will have more consequences on democracy.”

According to the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), attempting to monitor or regulate social media would have a negative impact on freedom of expression and the free press, resulting in censorship of information by government.

A major concern is the inability of media outlets to freely release verified news without the stories being classified as fake news by government and ultimately taken down, FXI director Tusi Fokane said.

“What would be the checks and balances?” she asked.

Fokane added that FXI would rather propose strengthening the existing self-regulatory mechanisms rather than introducing statutory regulation.

“Trying to monitor social media sites will affect citizens’ and users’ rights to privacy and right to freedom of expression and may lead to censorship.

“We have seen examples of internet shutdowns by repressive governments, particularly in the lead-up to elections.

“No doubt any attempts to muzzle the media and social media users will lead to a violation of the right to freedom of expression. This would also extend to the right of access to information, as this will result in censorship of information by the government.”

It would also be impractical for government to monitor or invade social media accounts in the attempts to curb fake news without invading the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression and access to information.

“People would no longer feel free to express their opinions and share their thoughts with other people on social media.

“We have seen various attempts by the South African government to monitor the flow of information online.

“For example, the Film and Publications Amendment Bill attempts to introduce pre-publication censorship by requiring users to register before they post content online.

“We have also seen how the proposed Hate Speech Bill attempts to criminalise speech online. One key question is around practicality: How will the monitoring even work? Will the government validate every post before it is sent to the intended recipient/s?”

Fokane advocates for a less restrictive approach in tackling the rise of fake news, including more public education on social media.

“Or there should be protocols in place to help users assess whether the information they are receiving is fake or not.

“The uproar on Twitter could be an indication that the regulations will not work and will not be well received by the South African public.”