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The rise of social media and their effects on freedom of expression in Sierra Leone

October 23, 2017 By  Ishmael Sallieu Koroma


Social media are now a household name around the world. Their influence and regular use have made them irresistible across cultures, nations, and peoples. So much so, that today there are millions and hundreds of millions of users on some of the largest social media sites, such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Grill (2011), states that social media world consists of more than 70 million video posts to You Tube, over 113 million blogs, more than 29 billion tweets on Twitter and more than 200 million active Facebook users. With figures like these, it is little wonder that social media are influencing virtually every aspect of lives around the world.

Like other parts of the globe, Sierra Leone now enjoys abundant flow of information, which leverages on citizens’ creative problem solving abilities. The country’s internet users are already in love with the world’s most popular micro-blogging site; Facebook. Of the 97, 643 recorded internet users, just over 80% are Facebook subscribers (Forna Memunatu, 2015). WhatsApp users are also a significant group, as evidenced by BBC Media Action, which reported that its WhatsApp channel had over 12,000 subscribers (BBC Media Action, 2015). Micro blogging platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp do not just keep families and friends linked; their versatility and the ingenuity of their users have the potential to revolutionize the prospect of emerging economies such as Sierra Leone’s, opening up an intimate range of possibilities-business, research, communication, education, health and politics.

The credentials for social media’s influence on Sierra Leone’s geo-political and democratic future are already well established. Social media networking sites now play important role in helping ordinary citizens and activists set their own agendas, demand change and express thoughts concerning how the country and their communities are run. Social media have sidestepped the mistrust, political bias and vested interests of much of the traditional media in Sierra Leone, to become the people’s political mouthpiece of choice. There is an enormous and inseparable relationship between freedom of expression and social media these days. In other to relate well with these ‘twin concepts, ‘there is an imperative need to understand how they work. This work therefore attempts to explore and understand whether social media are influencing freedom of expression and the extent to which that influence is made.

The rise of social media and their impact on freedom of expression in Sierra Leone

In a democratic state, free speech and the media’s role in holding the government to account cannot be overemphasized. Social media now provide Sierra Leoneans that instant opportunity to disseminate and discuss information while bypassing government restrictions. The flexibility and freedom social media allow for debate are crucial as Sierra Leone prepares for a decisive 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections.

The arguments for social media     

Social media provide the critical means for people to update networking sites from mobile devices with real-time information. By making “on the ground” eyewitness accounts available, social media have expanded access to information in an important new way. Normally, governments would take time to collect and analyse reports before risking dissimulating the information back to the public. However, with social media, both government and ordinary Sierra Leoneans can now monitor sites like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter etc. and collect a wide variety of reports about the situation that paint a general picture of the incident.

They are having tremendous effect on public opinion and the spread of democratic principles such as freedom of speech, and the press (Kamel, 2014).
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Citizens can now generate their own contents, which have the power to influence government policies and in some extreme cases force certain regimes out of power as witnessed during the Arab Spring Uprisings.

Under our present social media age, public opinions and reactions are often swift and critical. Regardless of the form that a particular democratic government takes, however, there is at least the implicit assumption that the people have a right to know, that they should be provided with any information which might help them formulate opinions and influence the policies they wish their government to follow. It is this increasing knowledge and information familiarity that is at the heart of the social media experience.

The call for regulating social media

On the flipside, social media are powerful tools, which also have their negative sides as illustrated on many occasions in Sierra Leone-the naked photographs of the vice president that went viral on WhatsApp, pictures of naked women alleged to have been rapped, bloody pictures and videos of mutilated body parts of victims killed in gruesome road accidents as well as a rampant and systematic circulation of pornographic and other indecent materials-are all worrying trends of the social media experience for a fragile democracy like Sierra Leone’s. These disturbing concerns have provoked a reaction of mixed feelings and questions about regulation of social media are being asked. The conundrum at the heart of the question of regulation is if social media must be regulated, where will the line be drawn between regulation and the protection of free speech as guaranteed by the 1991 constitution of Sierra Leone?

“The use of social media has its both positive and negative effects, which is why people begin to talk about regulation. When the use goes beyond the normal and there are excesses, then we begin to call for the system to control those excesses and definitely there are several issues regarding the negative aspects of social media,” says Frances Sowa, Lecturer at the Mass Communication Department Fourah Bay College. He points to issues around unjustified intrusion into privacy; grief and shock, state security, damage to the reputation of others are all critical concerns provoking the debate of whether to regulate or not to regulate social media.

Proponents of social media argue that any attempt to regulate social media in Sierra Leone will be an infringement of the constitution. National Coordinator Human Rights Education, Amnesty International ,Emmanuel Sattie argues that, “any movement either by government or other people to stop citizens from expressing their views and opinions via social media in any form, or by any means is a violation of human rights and free speech.” Emmanuel noted that one of the causes of the eleven-year civil war in the country was that citizens did not have the platform to express their views or challenge government excesses. The denial of that space, Emmanuel continued, to asked government questions and demand justice made disgruntled segment of society resort to taking up arms and ammunition.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai of Society for Democratic Initiative, a civil society working on human rights, thinks that “there is no need for any other law. Every other law that covers the media in speech covers social media. If you put social media in publication, the public order Act covers that.

The law of defamation covers publication whether written with pen on the wall or on social media or broadcasted on the radio that’s publication. Why do we they need any special regulation?

Saffa Abdulai however thinks that people should learn to read what they post. He warns that “if you publish something that is critical of the government, you have the right to do so because it is your right to demand answers from your leaders. But if you publish something that talks badly about individual which is not true, then there is a problem because you and I will not want anybody to defame us or post something of us that will reduce us to ridicule.”

However, Deputy Minister of Information and Communication, Cornelius Deveaux, says that “like any other media platforms, there will always be the need to check the excesses of people exercising the right to free speech for societal good.” He points out that even international human rights instruments; whether it is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on civil and Political Rights, all of those documents have put limitations or restrictions in place to the enjoyment and exercise of free speech to protect people’s private lives, public health, safety and public morality.

To this day, ordinary citizens fear that the effects of regulating social media in the country will have serious consequence on the country’s democratic future. The fact that social media provide citizens with what Jürgen Habermas termed the ‘public sphere’ where people come together to express their views, make them indispensable to upholding the constitutional provision of freedom of speech and expressions.

In May 2016, the Chairman of Sierra Leone’s Independent Media Commission (IMC), called for social media to be regulated. “There is need for government to put laws and mechanisms in place to regulate social media in the country to avoid trouble.” The IMC Chairman fears the manner in which people use social media in the country.

But, how then do we describe ethical use of social media? Where do we draw the line between what is morally and ethically acceptable without compromising the constitutional provision of free speech? Globally, there is a difficulty in reaching a definition on the ethical use of social media. This is even more complicated when one considers that the idea of privacy varies across societies and even between different individuals (Bezboruah Dryburgh, 2012).

There has been serious debate on the issue of freedom of expression and the social media, whilst it’s very difficult to underscore issues that breach free speech as it is said that: With great power, comes great responsibility. Social media can be used for internet bullying, which in some cases is worse than the traditional verbal bullying. Online gossiping and social media platforms allow the bullying to continually exist–a problem for both the bully and the bullied. This communication scholar and Lecturer Francis Sowa states: Social media has promoted bad governance in Sierra Leone, people know things are wrong but they go on a social media campaign defending what ought to be defending making it a tool used to suppress others.

In the face of all these challenges, experts and human rights groups frowned faces at any attempts to regulate the social media platforms, which are today citizens’ political mouthpiece of choice. Indeed, there is no denying that Sierra Leone’s democracy is heavily enhanced by social media through the unlimited space they provide for political participation and citizen’s determination to request better service provision. Any attempt at this point to hinder or regulate social media will not only militate against the provision of freedom of expression, but will dent the country’s democratic strides seriously.

This Article was written as part of a journalism fellowship with the U.S. Embassy in Freetown. All opinions expressed in this article are those of the journalist and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Embassy.

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