No To Censorship

Why is the government rushing such a vital issue? Is it a deliberate ploy to control and censor social media?

By Mrinal Roy

Censorship is basically a retrograde idea. In an age of freedom, it is regarded as a relic of an oppressive era. In a democracy, people enjoy freedom of speech, writing or opinion provided they cause no evident and immediate harm to others.

Social media censorship. Pic –

Censorship enables those in power to have control over information, limit the people’s freedom of opinion and clamp down on opinions critical of the government narrative and actions.

Social media has significantly enhanced the scope of freedom. It has provided a potent platform for people and a conduit for the voiceless to express their views. It has also empowered women who have found a new freedom. Social media movements such as #METoo has broken the taboo and culpable silence around sexual assault, provided support to women and emboldened them to share their experiences, trauma and views.

It has been a decade since #Hashtag was used on twitter. This small symbol has helped raise awareness and launch global citizen activism campaigns on a vast range of issues affecting people around the world such as #climate change, #BlackLivesMatter or #BringBackOurGirls following the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria in 2014, etc.

Potent force

In 2020, over 3.6 billion people were using social media worldwide, a number projected to increase to almost 4.41 billion in 2025. These include prominent politicians such as former President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the young and mainstream citizens. It provides a user friendly medium for the young and enables them to be more alive to political and social issues and be au fait with local and world news. It enables them to spot and share interesting articles and developments in the world and share their comments. At the click of a button, posts are liked and shared worldwide on an ever increasing scale. This certainly represents a potent platform for interaction and debate and a salubrious force to be reckoned with.

Some politicians and governments whose policies and standard of governance are decried by the multitude are obviously apprehensive of this powerful force that they have no control over.

In the larger world debate there is a running battle between spin doctored official narratives on key developments in the world blithely broadcast on mainstream news channels and incisive questioning by independent commentators. This is best epitomized in last week’s BBC Newsnight edition. The American economist and academic Jeffrey Sachs took the BBC to task for premising a question on collaboration between the US and China on climate change by comments on China’s alleged human rights abuses and being totally silent ‘on the US human rights abuses through the war in Iraq with the UK under false pretences, in Syria and Libya and the continued sanctions against civilian populations in Venezuela and Iraq as well as withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and unilateral trade actions deemed illegal by the WTO. He admonished the BBC for ‘framing the issue of climate change by saying that there is only one party that is terribly guilty and therefore how can we talk to them to address climate change’.

This begs the fundamental question of what is fake news and what is not and who decideswhat it should be.

Hasty proposal

In Mauritius, theConsultation Paper released by the authoritieson proposed amendments to the Information and Communication Technologies Act for regulating the use and addressing the abuse and misuse of social media and provide a legal solution and sanctions to stamp out the problem of harmful and illegal online content provides no valid justification for hastily proposing such an arbitrary clamp down.

The paper avers that the possibilities offered by social networking services to people to express their views can ‘lead to unacceptable abuse of these freedoms’ without providing concrete evidence and examples of such misuse in the country. Instead, the paper lists outa number of incidents reported on the Mauritian Cybercrime Online Reporting System during the January 2020 to January 2021 period relating to hacking, online harassing, offensive content, identity theft, online scams and frauds, cyber bullying, phishing, etc.

Contrived rationale

Instead of providing concrete examples of cases in Mauritius relating to hate speeches or content provoking terrorist acts or which put in peril social harmony and national security or relating to child pornography, etc., the ICTA paper disconcertingly catalogues a series of examples of incidents in Myanmar and various countries across the world to justify their decried and unacceptable restrictions on our fundament freedoms.

In the absence of a material number of objectionable local cases, the uncalled for haste to propose such an unacceptable restriction of our fundamental freedoms when the country is grappling with the dire health and socio-economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, is highly questionable.

Why is there not instead a similar haste in passing a law to guarantee the independence of MBC-TV financed from public funds from abusive and abject government control? Why is there not an equal haste in enacting an arsenal of harsher laws and more severe penal sanctions which, as in Singapore, can eradicate the evil of drug trafficking in the country?

We need to get our priorities right. Government should first and foremost urgently fix the burning issue of securing adequate vaccine supplies to accelerate the stalled programme of Covid-19 vaccination in the country towards swiftly achieving herd immunity and mobilize the best talents and expertise in the country to chart out an innovative economic recovery plan to put the country on a robust growth path.  Time is of the essence.

The widespread flooding caused by the present torrential rains in the country brings into focus the tenor and adequacy of actions taken by the country to help reverse the dire fallouts of climate change and exposes the patent failure of the billions of Rupees sunk in improving drainage systems in the country every year.

Instances of misuse of social media abroadcannot therefore be a pretext to impose arbitrary rules and restrictions over the unalienable rights and fundamental freedoms of the multitude in the country. The rationale used by the authorities to justify their disputed proposals is therefore patently laboured and contrived.

Jumping the gun

This debate has to be also viewed in the larger context of related developments regarding social media in the world. The last decade or so has seen a vigorous debate over the attitudes and responses of social media platforms to harmful speech.  In the US, the overriding view is that in line with the First Amendment of the US Constitution guaranteeing free speech, no opinion should be banned except those that cause harm to others. Countries are still groping their way forward. This process is still very much a work in progress. The government therefore seems to be jumping the gun. Why is the government rushing such a vital issue? Is it a deliberate ploy to control and censor social media?

The overriding consideration which underpins social media freedom is that people should be free to express their views without constraint. This fundamental freedom is also defended by politicians across the political divide. The Florida Senate for example passed legislation this week requiring social media companies to publish standards for use and abide by them when it comes to de-platforming users. Big tech platforms would face fines up to $100,000 a day if they de-platform state candidates.

Red line

Mauritius seems blatantly out of step with these game changing trends strongly protective of social media freedom. No one is willing to penalize the majority who responsibly use social media platforms because of a few bad apples. The authorities seem to want to do the exact opposite, here.

A cohort of pliant MPs cannot decide on behalf of the people on such an important issue. It must necessarily first obtain the approval of the people. In any case this cannot be a priority for the country in the context of the dire health and socio-economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The signs are not good. The mindset of control and censor smacks of George Orwell’s ‘Animal farm’. This is a red line for the people which it would be foolhardy to cross.

* Published in print edition on 30 April 2021

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