We should not allow blocking of social media in Zambia

[By Gregory Kaputula]

Social media is all things digital and has the attention of everyone in one way or the other.

Social media reaches everyone, it is participatory, versatile, and an immediate two – way or more kind of communication. It is an undeniable fact that social media is the fastest and probably the most dominant medium of communication in the world today. Zambians are using and utilising social media for almost everything.

Apart from being a good source of breaking news from all sectors of life, social media is also a good platform for politicians, job opportunities, advertising, business opportunities, health and medical matters, family matters, spiritual matters, agriculture, technology, innovation, education matters, automobile, sports, empowerment schemes, and even for relationships and friendship. Social media has made life easier by bringing societies, families and friends closer.

And despite social media being associated with high levels of abuse and as a carrier of ‘fake news,’ the number of Zambians using social media has been growing exponentially. This is because social media has proven to be reliable and convenient, it can be accessed at any time of the day anywhere. Communication with family and friends whether locally or abroad is now instant when using social media. Social media is also economical, user friendly and efficient. Simply put, social media is loved by all.

With the coming of social media on the scene, very few Zambians have kept the tradition of buying hard copy newspapers or listening to television and radio news. Social media is now the main source of news for most Zambians. They get breaking news updates from social media. And interestingly, social media has become one of the main sources of news for traditional media outlets. Newspapers and broadcasting stations are tapping news from social media outlets. In fact, some broadcasting stations have employed a skeleton number of journalists because they depend on social media for news.

Politicians, businessmen, community leaders, innovators, researchers, scholars, and many other news makers are also relying on social media for delivering their statements and announcements. Former US president Donald Trump is a good example of a news maker who used social media effectively. Mr Trump used social media to appoint and disappoint members of his government.

With the aforementioned positives associated with social media, it will be folly for Zambians to allow blocking of social media by the State. We appreciate the fact that some sections of our society are concerned with the high levels of abuse associated with social media and moral degradation, but blocking it in Zambia should be the last thing on the mind of the State.

There are strong indications that social media may be blocked in Zambia, especially as the country is slowly approaching the month of a general election, August 2021. Social media is seen as an important campaign tool for the opposition, so in the name of national security and stability, the State may decide to block it for various political reasons.

During the Arab uprising, social media played a significant role by facilitating communication and interaction among participants of political protests. Protesters used social media to organise demonstrations (both pro- and anti-governmental), to disseminate information about their activities, and to raise local and global awareness of ongoing events. Online revolutionary conversations often preceded mass protests on the ground with social media playing a central role in shaping political debates. Governments also used social media to engage with citizens and encourage their participation in government processes.

In the Arab uprising, Egypt cut off access to the Internet, as part of the government’s attempts to prevent the uprising. Early this month, Myanmar’s military government blocked social media platforms in a bid to quell dissent after detaining the country’s elected leaders and seizing power in a coup. Social media, which is used by about half Myanmar’s 53 million people, has emerged as a key platform for opposition to the military coup. The Myanmar Ministry of Communications and Transport said in a statement that: “the people who are troubling the country’s stability are spreading fake news and misinformation and causing misunderstanding among people by using social media.’’

In Uganda, in the run up to the actual day of their January 2021 election, the government ordered Internet service providers to block all social media platforms and messaging apps in the name of national security and stability. As expected, this action did not sit well with the Ugandan opposition political parties and human rights groups. The action of blocking social media ignited strong rigging suspicions.

In his address to the nation on the second session of the 12th National Assembly on the progress made in the application of national values and principles, President Edgar Lungu observed with great concern that national morals have deteriorated over time and that the country had witnessed a growing trend in the abuse of social media.

And recently, in a meeting with the clergy in Mafinga district of Muchinga Province, President Lungu expressed disappointment over the high levels of abuse of social media and said; “we will engage ZICTA to see how people that insult others on social media can be brought to book. America has shown that those who abuse social media can be blocked from accessing it. The President of the United States of America was blocked on social media for abusing it. Zambia should learn from the USA that those that abuse social media can be barred from using it. I challenge ICT experts to explore ways in which social media abusers in Zambia can be blocked from accessing it just like the USA President was blocked when he incited violence.”

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a simple statement. This is a loaded statement. Zambian civil society organisations, human rights groups, opposition political groupings and the ruling party in particular should not support the idea of blocking social media in an event that the idea is tabled by authorities.

Blocking social media in Zambia will be purely for political reasons and not national security and stability. Unfortunately, it will also be a strong signal of dictatorial tendencies on the part of the State. Access to social media before, during and after the August 2021 general elections will add credibility to the holding of a free, fair, transparent, and peaceful election. It will also build confidence in all electoral stakeholders. We should therefore not allow blocking of social media in Zambia. However, as things stand today, anything is possible.

The Author is a development activist, freelance journalist and social commentator.

Views expressed in this article are personal.

Email: gregory.kaputula@gmail.com

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