Kgathi gives Internet trolls a big Christmas present

10 Dec 2017

The much-anticipated Cyber and Computer-related Crimes Bill that President Ian Khama promised in his last state-of-the-nation address will not be coming during this session of parliament. That basically means that a digital, ever peckish creature of prey called a troll will continue prowling the Internet, claiming the scalps of often helpless victims both night and day.  Ever helpful in explaining new phenomena, urbandictionary.com describes a troll in the following terms: “A mythological internet being that lives under an internet bridge. Loves to hunt for innocent netizens. Common tactics: antagonizing other netizens by posting racist, [tribalistic, sexist] or offensive comments. Weakness: being outwitted or unable to antagonize others.” In the United States where it originated, trollery has led to some victims committing suicide.

Khama has himself been a victim of a troll and one of his last legislative acts will be the Cyber and Computer Related Crimes Bill which he announced last month in his address. 

“The advent of technology and increase in the use of cell phones and computers has had a negative impact in some areas whereby technology applications such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter have been used to abuse others, which necessitated the need to review legislation,” he said.

In order to enable victims to seek redress, the president said that “a new Cyber and Computer Related Crimes Bill” was on the way. Bills are drafted at the Attorney General Chambers, and after approval by cabinet and publication in the Government Gazette, are presented to parliament by the relevant minister. In this particular case, the relevant minister is Shaw Kgathi whose portfolio is justice, defence and security. Wherever it is at the moment, that bill will certainly not make it to the floor of parliament during the current session, which ends next Friday. So far, three bills that parliament has yet to debate are lined up and it is highly unlikely that there will adequate time left over for the Cyber and Computer Related Crimes Bill.

The bitter-sweet irony of this happening is worth pausing on. With Khama having been unable to deliver his Christmas present to the nation, it is Kgathi who is passively giving such present to trolls who, taking advantage of a legal gap, will continue to heap insults on their victims. Khama’s victimization by a troll, took the form of him being depicted wearing nothing but a “mankini” – a male version of a bikini. The troll’s age happened to be less than half that of the president. In indigenous (not just Setswana) culture where age is revered, the offence extended way beyond insulting a sitting state president. With no cybercrime legislation having been promulgated, the mankini picture can be republished and once more, the police wouldn’t be able to prosecute the culprit. Bitter for Khama, sweet for the trolls but flavour reversal could occur in just four months.

The next parliamentary session is in February next year and a substantial amount of it will be dedicated to debating the 2018/19 budget speech. As the state-of-the-nation address, the budget speech imposes duty on all MPs to say something about developmental needs in their respective constituencies. Only after it has disposed with the budget, can the house move to any other business. If the bill has made all the necessary stops at the Government Enclave, then it will come to the floor in the final days of the session.

However, there is still no guarantee that even the bill will gain smooth passage. It is hard to imagine the government passing up the opportunity to adulterate it with anti-press clauses that are likely to be resisted by opposition MPs. The press is itself compromised with regard to trollery that rises to the level of criminal defamation - that includes the government’s own Botswana Press Agency. Despite what the government would have members of the public believe about the private press and even in a financially challenging environment like the current one, newsrooms of the latter have various levels of editorial gatekeeping. Mistakes happen but that is a statement of fact.

Ironically, editorial content that has been subjected to rigorous gatekeeping protocols generates libellous commentary when uploaded it is uploaded on Facebook walls. In the hard copy version, this commentary would be treated like all letters to the editor and thoroughly edited to comply with all applicable laws and journalistic standards. That doesn’t happen with reader comments that are posted online and is problematic in one very important respect. At the end of the day, media houses are publishers and must take responsibility for content published on their servers. Interestingly, the government is also responsible for the media’s failure to police its websites. It would itself be hard put to explain why its own official Facebook wall is plastered with vulgar language.

Well-financed media operations in other parts of the world police their websites round the clock and waste no time in weeding out offensive content. The New York Times’ has a very strict Facebook policy that reader comments must be polite. “A few things we won't tolerate on our Facebook wall: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes) and commercial promotion. While most comments will remain posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective.” Generally, Botswana newspapers don’t have such policy and “Terms” (meaning terms of use) on their Facebook walls is hyperlinked to Facebook’s own terms – not their own. However, even if they had such policy, enforcing it would be prohibitively expensive because the government plan to cripple the private press financially is actually working. With the money it is purposefully withholding from the private press, the government should have been able to hire a moderator but you will find as much vulgarity and libel on its Facebook wall as you will on those of private newspapers.

Sunday Standard is a late-comer to the Facebook game and did so after both internal and external requests. The editor, Outsa Mokone, says that he was initially very reluctant to construct a Facebook wall for the paper because he feared that valuable real estate in the form of digital editorial acreage would be turned into a trash heap. The results are mixed. Some of the feedback – which can sparkle with searing wit and humour - is very useful and greatly enriches the journalism. On the other hand, there is also a whole platoon of keyboard commandos whose commentary is largely limited to industrial amounts of personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes) and commercial promotion.

Word in the corridors of the National Assembly is that having themselves been subjected to defamatory trollery, MPs on both sides of the house are eager to pass a bill that will nip this problem in the bud. A bill becomes law after presidential assent and as he did with the electronic voting legislation, Khama can be awfully quick to assent to bills that he personally feels strongly about.

When it comes about, the Cyber and Computer-related Crimes Act will be very helpful in redefining freedom of speech for a largely conservative African society in the Internet age. Most importantly, in instances when trollery becomes the subject of a court case, that would present trolls with an opportunity to explain to both the court and society at large, how having access to an Internet-enabled ICT device gives them the right to insult others.