With the world’s highest internet growth rates, the African continent is experiencing a surge in social media use. However, along with this growth has come numerous government attempts to limit, monitor, tax, or block access to social media sites. East African states in particular have recently enacted a series of measures for controlling and muzzling online spaces for discussion.
In 2016, Sierra Leone appeared poised to introduce restrictive measures to curtail social media use. A series of meetings were held between the National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM), lawmakers, and state security professionals to propose legislation to govern ‘irresponsible use’ of social media. With regard to what the legislation would regulate, the Director of Consumer and Corporate Affairs at NATCOM stated, ‘We are talking about incitement. We are talking about immorality and all of it.’ The Deputy Information Minister reiterated the seriousness of the government’s approach when he explained, “If it causes us to use the China way, we will use it,” a reference to the blocking of Facebook in China.
In the midst of these ongoing discussions, Theresa Mbomaya, 20, was arrested forforwarding a message in a student WhatsApp group that, while promoting a forthcoming demonstration, implied that any vehicle trying to disrupt it could be set on fire. Having been charged under the 1965 Public Order Act with incitement she was detained for five days. Students protested around the courthouse to call for her release, media (both local and international) criticised the government response, and a volunteer coalition of 32 lawyers successfully negotiated her release.
The lawyers who came to the defence of Theresa did so citing the provisions of the right to freedom of expression set out in Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution. Soon after this incident, the government seemed to reconsider their plans for legislating against social media use. In an interview with a senior official from the Ministry of Information and Communication following the arrest of Mbomaya, the importance of donors and external relations in the plans for legislation were cited, ‘we do not want the international community coming in and saying we are harassing people’.
Instead, the monitoring of WhatsApp groups became the preferred approach adopted by those in power. From fairly informal arrangements — in which members of WhatsApp groups report back to the government on what is being discussed online, and in some instances are asked to respond with counterpoints or to share specific information — to more serious suggestions that a systematic approach to oversight was being used by the APC government – in which people were employed and paid, to spend their days acting on behalf of the government online.
Some WhatsApp users are cognisant of the likelihood of ‘spies’ in online discussion groups but many users of the platform in Sierra Leone believe it to be the most secure and safe messenger platform; one where they can share information more readily than on Facebook or Twitter where their profile makes them more identifiable. However the approach to monitoring social media is less about catching out users in order to pursue criminal prosecutions — as very few arrests have been made — but to keep a pulse on the online discussions. Still, there are risks involved in engaging in online political discussions, as demonstrated by the 2018 arrest of a third year student at Fourah Bay College for sharing a rumour on WhatsApp that discredited the security services and alleged that they were being paid by the APC to help ensure their electoral success.
Discussions about the use of social media and its potential political impact was reignited in Sierra Leone in the run-up to the March 2018 elections. The impact the proliferation of information that circulated across social media had on the outcome of the vote is hard to measure, but it was certainly a key space for the sharing of news – fake or otherwise – and a platform for wide ranging political discussion. In response, the government appeared to briefly shut down the internet a few hours after polling stations had closed across the country during the second round of voting.
The government, at the time the All People’s Congress (APC), claimed that the internet blackout, which lasted around 12 hours, was due to a technical fault with a fibre optic cable, installed in the last five years to improve connectivity speeds. However, it is widely believed that this was a government initiated blackout aimed at disrupting the results tabulation phase of a closely fought election that the ruling party feared they could lose. This fear became a reality when results were announced on 4 April 2018, with the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) candidate Julius Maada Bio winning a slim victory – 51.8% to 48.3%.
The new SLPP government was actively engaged on social media during their election campaign and will be very much aware of its growing importance in the country’s politics. Yet, how the party will approach the monitoring and regulating of the use of social media in Sierra Leone is not clear.
For Professor of Mass Communications at Fourah Bay College in Freetown Tonya Musa, legislating against, or controlling, the use of social media is not the democratic approach to tackling abuse, “we should instead be focused on encouraging the use of social media platform in a more sensible and informed way.” Rather than seeking to control the operational space a more effective and positive strategy, which has been advocated by local civil society organisations, would be to improve digital literacy and understanding. WhatsApp provides a space where citizens can offer criticism of the government. It is also a platform that can be harnessed by civil society activists to further improve accountability between citizens and the state.