There are reports of citizens who have been arrested and detained by the Police for allegedly posting misleading opinions on social media. As expected and perhaps in accordance with their role in the protection of human rights, some civil society organizations and opposition parties have released press statements expressing concern with these developments.
These organizations have lashed out at security agents for taking orders from those in political power to suppress dissent against the current regime. The press statements further sought to establish a connection between reported Police brutality and the state of emergency declared by President Dr Masisi and endorsed by Parliament in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the civil society and political parties have omitted to counsel citizens to express their opinions in the right way specifically during a humanitarian crisis of this nature, paying particular attention to the purpose of the opinion and the language used.
It is noted that in spite of the coronavirus fears that have somewhat drawn citizens closer to each other in a way that trivialized our political and ethnic differences, politics will always be in the air. It was also inevitable that competing political organizations were always going to try to outsmart each other in presenting their version of events in how the government is handling the pandemic.
Thus, we will continue to see familiar politicking play out, albeit cautiously particularly at the official level where the leaders are guarded in their attempts to score points out of the coronavirus pandemic.
Nevertheless, both the ruling party and the opposition block will continue to accuse each other and point fingers to lay blame and question the competence of competitors. Whereas the political leaders are mindful of their obligations to place national interests ahead of narrowly defined party interests, most political activists have not slowed down with partisan politicking using the coronavirus as fodder.
In fact, most party activists have amplified their commentaries possibly because they presently have plenty time at their disposal since a majority of us idle at home owing to the mandatory extreme social distancing imposed by government.
For some activists, social media is a platform to spread playground taunts that are intended to amuse followers and readers and most importantly, validate one’s presence and activism. Many also use social media as a dress rehearsal for higher order freedom square politicking.
While there is nothing wrong in doing so, the challenge is to remain conscious of present circumstances. As is common knowledge, a state of emergency has been declared in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This invariably means that citizens have to change their normal behaviours in order to comply with restrictions that have been specified.
Changing normal behaviours should not be construed as a cessation of rights and freedoms guaranteed under our national constitution but rather a way to adapt to prevailing circumstances and steer clear of trouble.
Yet again, it is the responsibility of citizens to ensure that they continue to enjoy their rights and freedoms and protect the country’s democratic practice. The reality is that in exercising our rights and enjoying our freedoms during a state of emergency, we are truly treading on troubled waters hence we have to take extra care.
Some observers have likened a state of emergency to a loaded gun ready to be triggered. Thus, as citizens we have an obligation to safeguard our democratic culture by continuing to speak against and for the administration while remaining alive to the reality that the present circumstances are not normal.
This obviously presents a complex dilemma that is not easy to navigate. Part of the dilemma is that when speaking against the administration, we need to guard against being overzealous as to present those in charge of the loaded gun with the slightest excuse to pull the trigger. It is hard to know and keep within the limits.
In granting emergency powers to the president, the underlying assumption is that the president will at all times act in the country’s interests and will never easily gets irritable as to be driven by personal agendas when using them. As a measure of some relief, this assumption has held up for us in that it is not the first time a state of emergency has been declared in Botswana and it was strictly used to deal with the specified crisis.
While it is human nature to be pessimistic and consider worst case scenarios, basing on our lived experience, there are no airtight grounds to make a case for a dictatorship except or excessive misuse of emergency powers for reasons of mischief making and the usual desperate politicking.
The one powerful justification for a state of emergency is that government’s available powers are insufficient in dealing with the current humanitarian crisis and that there was need for special powers to navigate the crisis.
Admittedly, emergency powers allow the president to engage in conduct that would otherwise be deemed unlawful. Whereas this is a spine-chilling reality, it is intended to, among others, safeguard the nation against many who are often unfazed by their brazen talent at throwing red-herring without worrying about the potential danger of their actions.
Online social platforms have increasingly become main avenues for people to post and exchange all sort of information. During a national crisis, many people, including party activists propagate their opinions about the crisis on social media.
Relatedly, many more people have come to rely on social media for information that they need to make important life decisions. Opinions expressed on social media have the unique features of travelling fast and reaching a large number of consumers.
Equally significant to note is that social media activists generally tend to hold extremely radical and eccentric views about occurrences mainly due to interpersonal communication on social media and the illusion of security created by the feeling of being unseen or in a remote location.
If it is true that social media has become one of the key platforms for communicating disasters and emergencies, it is only wise that those who make their opinions public about a humanitarian crisis do so in the most responsible manner.
It is a fact that social media offers a more convenient platform for people to express their opinions about entirely everything whatsoever. By extension, social media has become one of the most effective means for community engagement. Social media is a likeable platform and most are without expressed age restrictions.
This unrestricted access has tended to make social media an unregulated industry used by some for misinformation, slander, abuse, subversion and related acts that could undermine decent social relations and social stability. That being the case, government intervention was always going to find traction either as a pretext to follow commentaries on social media with the intention to use it to influence government policy or for restricting abuse for broader societal good.
More fundamentally, the policing of public opinion on social media during a humanitarian crisis becomes imperative for purposes of gauging wider public response to on-going interventions and for initiating tailored interventions wherever possible.
Misinformation, including inaccurate media reports can have negative effects on existing interventions or even cause social panic or widespread resistance. Many political activists have huge numbers of loyal followers who swallow hook, line and sinker stuff posted by these opinion leaders.
If the opinions shared recklessly rubbish government interventions, the chain reaction could be profound and catastrophic. Thus, there is a need to police public opinion during a national crisis but that should be balanced with the need to get feedback from the citizens and/or protect constitutional freedoms. This suggests that government, commentators and political parties have moral and legal duties towards society.
To commentators especially on social media, the basic rule to avoid offending the law is to consider oneself as an opinion leader with loyal followers who hungrily feed on your posts hence the need to be thoughtful and accountable bearing in mind that some witty banter can have unintended disastrous effects. Inform yourselves about the crisis before making a public comment and remember that social media can be a poisoned chalice. To the news readers, let us get the facts about the issue under discussion so that we are not easily misled by opinion leaders.
To the government, in particular, security agents, consider yourselves to be operating under normal legislative environment in order to minimise propensity for undue violence on citizens.
To political parties, bear on activists so that they appreciate that our living space is polluted by fear, anxiety and desperation occasioned by coronavirus and may not be convenient for the usual combative and dirty politicking.