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‘Govt must harness social media’

 

Roman Catholic Church Arch Bishop Tlali Gerard Lerotholi
Roman Catholic Church Arch Bishop Tlali Gerard Lerotholi

Motsamai Mokotjo

SOCIAL media platforms are here to stay and government needs to adopt a proactive rather than reactive approach to dealing with them, analysts have said.

Since its formation in March, the seven-party coalition government has been grappling with the spread of rumours about the security situation in the country through such social media networks as Facebook and WhatsApp among others.

In July, a rumour spread on Facebook claiming that government had imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, while another linked Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing with an alleged plot to assassinate Archbishop Tlali Lerotholi of the Roman Catholic Church. The social networks rumour mill also alleged that Mr Metsing had bribed members of the SADC Commission of inquiry into Lesotho’s instability to ensure its findings would portray him in a positive light.

Mr Metsing vehemently denied the claims saying they were the work of his political opponents bent on tarnishing his image.

In response, government threatened to hunt down the people behind the rumours and shut down Facebook. Communications Minister Khotso Letsatsi also said he would table a law to crackdown on computer and cyber-crime.

However, analysts, who spoke to the Sunday Express recently, said while there was need for regulation of social networks, a wholesale ban would not only be unconstitutional, but infringe on basic human rights.

The Constitution of Lesotho (1993) provides under section 14(1) that: “Every person shall be entitled to, and (except with his own consent) shall not be hindered in his enjoyment of, freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference (whether the communication be to the public generally or to any person or class of persons) and freedom from interference with his correspondence.”

However, the freedom of expression has its limits as articulated in section 14(2) (a) and (b) that:  “Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of this section to the extent that the law in question makes provision – (a) in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or (b) for the purpose of protecting the reputations, rights and freedoms of other person or the private lives of persons concerned in legal proceedings, preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, …”.

Media Institute of Southern Africa, (MISA) Lesotho, National Director, Tsebo Matšasa, said while social media needs to be regulated, government should not go overboard.

“The people writing false stories on social media sites should be traced, but government should not emulate such countries as China, Iran and North Korea which have totally blocked them,” Mr Matšasa said.

Social media reports, he said, should be taken with a pinch of salt because the writers are not bound by any journalistic ethics.

“On social media, people say what they want without even verifying it,” said Mr Matšasa, adding that journalists can use social media to get news tips.

“News emanating from such platforms is not credible, and most people still wait for mainstream media such as the Lesotho Times and Sunday Express to ascertain whether the claims are true. Conventional media works with sources unlike social networks.”

Echoing similar sentiments, Limkowking University of Technology Media lecturer, Tawanda Mukerenge, said the upsurge in rumours on social networks was a result of the dearth of information.

He said Basotho were “hungry” for news and needed to be constantly updated on the goings on in the country.

Mr Mukerenge said: “Since we don’t have a daily newspaper, people are hungry for information. They have found an easy way of disseminating information on social media.”

However, he urged social media users to be responsible to avoid peddling falsehoods that could destabilise the country.

“Not everyone is a journalist, and most of the stories found on social media are just rumours, and people end up circulating them,” the lecturer said.

Rather than blocking social networks, Mr Mukerenge said government is better off establishing its own presence on the platforms to dispel any false rumours.

“So far, the authorities have been reactionary on the social media issue and ended up on the back foot,” he said.

“While I concede that it would not be easy, the best way for government to counter these rumourmongers is to be active on social media.”

 

 

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