An Open Letter to the IGP: A Response to his decision on Shutting down Social Media on Election Day

igpDear Inspector General,

I happen to agree with your decision on shutting down social media. However, not in such times as this. Your concern for security and safety in Ghana is indeed paramount in this election as was seen in your view you put across to Ghanaians of which some of us got to know through social media platforms. I write to you this morning after careful thought and research, obviously not suffering from kpokpogbligbli, to opine why I do not fully agree with your decision.

It is widely attributed to the infamous Idi Amin that “your freedom of speech I can guarantee but your freedom after speech I am not so sure.” Clearly, his methods of meting out judgements to people he found to have committed a crime on such basis was very much of an abuse and very undemocratic. But freedom of speech doesn’t mean careless talk and everyone must be held accountable for his or her views and expression but more importantly, as prescribed by the 1992 constitution of Ghana, the same constitution that gives us the democratic right for freedom of expression.

Just as everything man has created has good and bad effects if not properly controlled, social media is no exception.

Social media have in recent times being used to organise and carry out very violent and disturbing activities. For example, in London on August 4, 2011 a peaceful protest in response to the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan erupted into full scale riot leaving Tottenham in flames. The violence and looting quickly spread across other districts of London. As a result of this, the British government with David Cameron as Prime Minister explored the idea of turning off social media. In a statement to the House of Commons, he stated “[f]ree flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.” He also announced that government was considering “whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.” Another negative effect of social media will be the “flash robs” phenomenon. It is a way of organising young people to ransack stores, a case that has become very spontaneous in the USA in recent years.

On the good side, social media gives the opportunity for people around the world to access the state of ongoing activities in a particular country at real time. A clear case will be the Arab Spring, where many of the North African countries decided to protest against their dictatorship governments. The world was open to the various infringements of Human Rights by governments and regimes on the very people they govern. When the government of those countries decided to shut down social media, people decided to physically respond and also found ways of going round it by calling their family members abroad to post the messages on their behalf, using fax machines and also the technological knowledge of the protestors in using “circumvention and anonymity technology” helped them gained access to social media to make watchdogs across the globe to have sight of what was occurring in their country.

If these examples seem too far away from us, during the annual flooding of Ghana’s beloved capital, Accra, many people were informed to avoid places like Circle as pictures of the flood went viral on social media. Places like Haiti received aid from Ghana when their suffering went viral on social media in January 2011. Individuals and groups organised fundraising and geared support through such media.

The consequences of shutting down social media are far more damaging than beneficial. Not that we hope or pray for violence but since the only thing we learn from history is that history repeats itself, it will be relevant to note the following.

It infringes on the democratic right of freedom of expression of the citizen. It also prevents people from gaining access to information, in that people may walk into places where there is violence without knowing as a result of them not having access to social media.

Shutting down social media also has economic consequences. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported that Egypt had incurred costs of at least $90 million (3–4% of GDP) from lost revenues as a result of shutting down telecommunications and Internet services for five days, accounting for approximately $18 million per day). Looking at the fact that Ghana is now building its hub and name in the telecommunication industry, it would not be a good precedent to deter investors from coming into the country as they will speculate that every election year will have them being shut down and prevented from operating.

It will also prevent international watchdog communities from having information as to what is happening in the country in real time in case of any oppression which will help in judging the credibility of the election.

Instead of shutting down social media, I suggest the following.

There can be partnership between the security agencies and the various social media platforms on particular terms and conditions that can help safeguard the security of the nation. For example Google is in partnership with NSA to help them fight cyber attacks on their systems. In return, they provide NSA with the nature and code of the cyber attack to help NSA prepare against future attacks whiles not infringing on the privacy rights of Google’s customers. It is up to the police to determine what is best in this case.

Also, there must be rightful prosecutions of people who are caught to be spreading false information to the general public. Such prosecutions must be carried out without fear or favour, especially of politicians who openly put out false information just to cause fear and panic.

Every individual is his/her best form of security. Hence, it is prudent for everyone to share information from only verified sources. Far more important, we must also report to the police any suspicious activity being carried out by any individual or group since they, the police, are not omniscient.

To conclude, shutting down social media will tarnish Ghana’s image as a rising model of democracy in Africa. It may also result in future closure of other forms of media be it the electronic media or the print media. The act may also be precedence for dictatorship as information will be suppressed.

It is for the above reasons that I hope you reconsider your stand on shutting down social media as you continue to serve mother Ghana in overseeing the work of the police as you provide us with Service with Integrity.

My name is Kotey and thank you.

References: http://thebftonline.com/business/ict/19176/what-a-social-media-shutdown-on-election-day-means-for-the-business-of-politics-.html

http://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1208&context=njtip

See Raymond Schillinger, Social Media and the Arab Spring: What Have We Learned?, HUFFINGTON POST (Sept. 20, 2011, 3:59 PM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/raymond-schillinger/arab-spring-socialmedia_b_970165.html

Sam Gustin, Social Media Sparked, Accelerated Egypt’s Revolutionary Fire, WIRED (Feb. 11, 2011, 2:56 PM), http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/02/egypts-revolutionary-fire

How Egypt Shut Down the Internet, TELEGRAPH (Jan. 28, 2011, 11:29 AM), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/egypt/8288163/How-Egypt-shutdown-the-internet.html; Christopher Rhoads & Geoffrey A. Fowler, Egypt Shuts Down Internet, Cellphone Services, WALL ST. J. (Jan. 29, 2011)

England Riots: Maps and Timeline, BBC (Aug. 11, 2011, 11:43 AM), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10321233

The Economic Impact of Shutting Down Internet and Mobile Phone Services in Egypt, ORG. FOR ECON. CO-OPERATION AND DEV. (Feb. 4, 2011), http://www.oecd.org/document/19/0,3746,en_2649_201185_47056659_1_1_1_1,00.html

Ellen Nakashima, Google to Enlist NSA to Help It Ward Off Cyberattacks, WASH. POST (Feb. 4, 2010), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/03/AR2010020304057.html

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