“Any person caught in possession of, generating, sharing or passing on abusive, threatening, subversive or offensive telecommunication messages… that may be deemed to cause despondency, incite violence, threaten citizens and cause unrest, will be arrested and dealt with accordingly in the national interest.”
– Public notice from PORTRAZ, the Zimbabwean telecommunications regulator, July 2016
“Any communication that will create misunderstanding between people or unrest is prohibited.”
– Ethiopian Government State of Emergency Command Post, October 2016
“A security measure to avert lies … intended to incite violence and illegal declaration of election results.”
– Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, describing the state-sanctioned shutdown of social media before Uganda’s elections, February 2016
Minister of State Security David Mahlobo has announced, out of the blue, a proposal to “regulate” social media.
This was in a briefing where he also repeated his claims that South Africa is “under siege” from some foreign force that is somehow using the courts, civil society and the media to cause “instability”. Once again he has made these claims without evidence.
First his reactionary views must be addressed: The independent courts, a vibrant civil society and critical media are essential to the democratic process, especially when state entities’ fail to act with integrity, transparency or accountability. It is the executive’s paranoia and abuse of power that undermines democracy and creates instability. R2K has already raised concerns that South Africa’s state-security structures have abused their surveillance powers and shown a disregard for democratic process. Mahlobo’s “regime change” mantra is part of a recycled narrative where members of the security cluster have tried to paint their critics as “threats” that must be targeted.
Now, out of thin air, we have State Security proposing to “regulate” social media. This is a clear move by state securocrats to try clamp down on freedom of expression and increase their powers to censor the internet. It comes on the back of a range of existing, deeply problematic censorship policies, including the Film & Publication Board’s internet censorship regulations, the draft Hate Speech Bill, and the new Cybercrimes Bill, which would ‘hand the keys of the internet’ to David Mahlobo.
Regulation of social media already exists: platforms like Twitter and Facebook have added self-regulation measures, to empower users to take action against online harassment and cut down on the spread of fake news and propaganda. These systems are flawed, and users need to be empowered to engage with content critically and decide for themselves whether to trust the content they access.
Giving State Security any role in “regulation” is a sure path to internet censorship.
Fortunately, we believe the people of South Africa will reject any attempt to give Mahlobo powers to regulate what they say and read on social media. We say: Hands Off Our Internet! No spooks on our Facebook!