Is Social Media a human right?

28th March 2012

A student protest on Monday drew 1,000 people to Mbabane; the protestors expressed distrust in the Swazi government and economic system, demanding widespread access to democracy and education in the kingdom between South Africa and Mozambique. More protests organised by student labour unions are planned over the next few weeks.

But the Minister of Justice, Mgwagwa Gamedze, has proposed a plan that would make it illegal to critique King Mswati III on Facebook and Twitter. A Times of Swaziland online report, dated March 23, 2012, describes the sites as "social media internet chat networks that have millions of subscribers internationally and have gained a lot of popularity locally. Subscribers post any kind of information about anything or anyone for the reading and commentary of multitudes of people".

User comments to the article and legal suggestions drew a range of responses.

"I totally respect what they are trying to do, and I think it's great," wrote sakhile dlamini." It sounds to me that they are trying to protect the name of the king, which is really great, but I'm not sure if they do consider the fact that people say what they say because they care about their welfare and they know that they have a right to talk."

"I'm happy that our politicians have now waken up from their slumber," Banele countered. "… If all is well in the country, no one would have thought of going to social media to spread the dirty linen of the country. Find ways to resurrect our economy because this is the beggining not the end of trouble in the country."

The article goes on to state Gamedze "had noted that the good reputation of the country and that of the King was being tarnished, hence something needed to be done," and addressed concerns of slander initially raised by Senator Thuli Msane by referencing "international laws which can be enforced to bring such people to book."

He may want to review those laws. The UN Economic Commission for Africa, established by the Economic and Social Council of the UN in 1958, aims to "promote the economic and social development of its member states, foster intra-regional integration, and promote international cooperation for Africa's development". This includes several services and modalities to support its member states as well as supporting sub-regional activities-two of which are technical assistance and communication and knowledge sharing; as an ECA member state, Swaziland is entitled to this support.

The ICT Master Plan for the Kingdom of Swaziland, published in October 2010, focused heavily on improvement of legislature as a means of allowing for growth and, amongst other recommendations, specifically said the following:

"There is a need for effective training aimed at raising awareness within Parliament on practical benefits of ICT for good governance and for improving democratic processes, developing and strengthening the capacity of staff to access information, automate documentation and package knowledge."

The sub-recommendations in this report include, "Empowering MPs on such new technology issues as cyber-law, Internet governance, intellectual property rights (IPR), e-security, e-governance through other relevant training programmes; Designing and implementing an interactive parliamentary website/resources with high access speed and information integrity" (allowing, therefore, "for a legislative process and parliamentary proceedings that are transparent and subject to closer public scrutiny"); and Participating in e-Parliament initiatives at the sub-regional, continental and international levels."

With the Arab Spring and KONY 2012 still at the forefront of public conscience, the use of social media as a tool for democratic and economic growth has been the ethics issue of the year. But the ever-changing media landscape leaves its effectiveness open for debate. The Arab Spring may have toppled a dictator in Egypt, but the country's economy is currently a shambles. As of February, the nine-month treasury bill stood at 15.802 percent, while failure to lure investments still threatens the democracy citizens fought to ensure.

The Swazi economy is no stronger. Following a series of meetings with politicians in February this year, The International Monetary Fund reported the government has failed to make any progress in keeping the country from bankruptcy. Government officials vowed to use the money to pay public servant salaries against the IMF's recommendation that the money be used to pay off its debt to the Swazi central bank, cut the wages bill by at least E300 million and aim for a surplus of E919 million for the 2012-2013 budget. Recent student protests were roused as a result of The University of Swaziland's decision to close its doors this semester, citing the need for E22 million a month to cover administration costs-the latest in a series of misgivings for a country with 69% of citizens living below the poverty line, the world's highest HIV rate and an economy that continually fails to meet monthly payroll, fund government programs and meet the requirements for receipt of international aid.

Compared to the country's economic and public health crises, a Swazi ban on social media may seem small, particularly considering that a mere 6.9% of the population uses the Internet. And the case study of Egypt proves that youth in revolt may cause economic regression before progress can occur. But for a country with a King that has already been called up on countless human rights violations, a ban on social media would b
e yet another – legally impinging on the rights of citizens to use their voices in cyberspace to say what they cannot in public. If the ECA is to extend this right to free media speech to the citizens of member states, it is their ethical duty to enforce it.


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