Social Media Watch

South Africa beware – Big Brother is coming!

Minister David Mahlobo - Big Brother?
Mahlobo een.jpg

Are South Africans about to entering the dark world of “Big Brother” that George Orwell described in his classic book, “1984”?

If the Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo, is to be believed, that is indeed the case, and I’m is not, as they say in the classics, “just kidding you” – even though government’s plans to  regulate the internet and social media would be a violation of freedom of speech and would probably never be allowed. 

Ten days ago, during a question and answer session following a press briefing by the cabinet’s Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster (JCPS), Minister Mahlobo unexpectedly, revealed that government is considering, among other things, to regulate the internet and social media.

The reason, according to him, is government’s concern for a growing tendency to use and abuse social media to spread fake news, scams and photo shopping to create fake scenes.

Irony

It is ironic that it is the same minister who recently had to do a bit of an egg-dance around controversial news regarding himself. He gave the country contradictory, many would say, “fake information” regarding his relationship with the activist student leader Mcebo Dlamini.

His subsequent floundering in explaining his relationship with Dlamini, which compelled a columnist for News24 to write: ”It appears being liberal with the truth, is a trait a bit too dear to the minister.”

The lobby group Right2Know posed the question whether the minister can be trusted and, in Parliament the opposition labelled him “a threat to national security.”

The minister’s reputation and credibility took a further knock with revelations by a self-professed criminal and poacher of Chinese origin, Guan Jiang Guang, from Mbombela, Mpumalanga, about his close relationship with the minister.

Guang, the subject of an investigation by the Hawks, after he featured in an Al Jazeera program, and after minister Mahlobo’s vehement denial of “having a relationship with the man” (taking a leaf from former President Bill Clinton’s book who once famously said:” I have no relationship with that woman”), has meanwhile disappeared and his whereabouts is unknown.

More sinister

Government’s announcement of plans to investigate the possible regulation of the internet and social media was, expectedly, met with total disbelief and outrage. It almost immediately sparked the (trending) hashtag #HandsOffSocialMedia.

Considering that South Africa last year voted alongside China and Russia against the United Nations resolution on human rights on the internet (which affords privacy and freedom of expression), government’s plan should not be all that much of a surprise.

 Many analysts and commentators expressed serious concern that the announcement came from the minister of State Security and not the minister of Communications. It suggests that State Security is driving the initiative.

Minister Mahlobo was also responsible for the signal-jamming fiasco two years ago, during the State of the Nation address, which became the interlude to scenes of violence and mayhem never witnessed before in Parliament.  

Legal and media experts and NGO’s, including Right2Know, all agree that in the face of a myriad of legal constraints and, for being unconstitutional, plans to regulate or restrict the internet and social media, will never see the light of day.

Examples

However, if the ANC-government is serious, they have the examples of China, North Korea, Iran and even Zimbabwe, as to how to become authoritarian and to infringe on the freedom of speech.

It could be logistically and constitutionally impossible, or at the very least, extremely difficult and a titanic waste of state resources to attempt to enforce such regulation.

However, Dr Julie Reid, media analyst and Unisa academic in a Daily Maverick article raised another possibility, warning that what minister Mahlobo suggested is: “A tactic. It’s preparing the ground for other clampdowns in future.

“It’s threatening one thing to prepare the ground for slow encroachment. It’s an empty threat, but there will be attempts to regulate speech in other ways.”

Scape goat

Murray Hunter, spokesperson for Right2Know, remarked in an interview with The Times: ”When governments lose control of their political powers, they clamp down on social media.”

Most of the responses thus far support the remark of Hunter and consider the announcement as nothing else but political grand standing by a government on the back foot, looking for scape goats to cover its own incompetence and mistakes.

IT commentator, Arthur Gold  was quoted in The Citizen as saying:” Government was blaming and ‘looking to beat’ social media for opinions aired against it on various platforms.”

He highlighted the hypocrisy of the government: “Yet, the most flagrant example was the ANC, when there was a scandal that hit them, they paid for misinformation to be shared on social media.”

Earlier this year it emerged through media reports that the ANC had allegedly established a “war room” or “black-ops” campaign ahead of the 2016 local government elections. It sought to discredit opposition parties with methods including fake news and paid Twitter accounts.

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga added that the regulations minister Mahlobo alluded to, ”would lead to a state which thinks it could think on behalf of citizens. And it would be the road to dictatorship.”

“Fake news is a global phenomenon. This is just an attempt to censor South Africans. If anything, the ANC was proliferating fake news through their ‘war rooms’,” he said.

Taking a cheap shot to exercise censorship to gag a critical public will not help. It would be much better for the Zuma government to clean up its own act, take responsibility, and prevent fiascos such as the social grants debacle from happening.

Also read: State capture about to become complete?

                 Can SA parliament fend off creeping autocracy?

by Garth Cilliers

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