Thursday, 2 June 2016

Debate Over Shutting Down Social Media On Election Day

Once again, a social media sensation on an arrest of political person has divided the country along partisan lines, nothing new really in the country-context, except that the issues it raises are very fundamental to national security, press freedom, professionalism and the future of the social media here. The social media can be described as an unstructured press and usually anonymous news leaks monger. It is in its finest operation, an important adjunct for mainstream media which would ignore it at its own loss. However, the traditional media need not become its appendage as seems to be becoming in this country where they appear prepared to crawl on broken bottles to carry what the social media report wholesale in flagrant breach of an absolute professional ethic which is check the story. It is this very pragmatic routine lapse becoming regular that has alerted national security to worrying and on collision course with the advocates of press freedom and or indeed free speech right.

However, that dispute actually deflects broader implications, given the politics and the social media the megaphone and largest audience and readership respectively. That then demands that the content of what is reported must be verifiably true. There is grave urgency about that both ordinarily and particularly in terms of electoral purposes. It becomes clearest from that duty that it is the responsibility of traditional and social media to ensure reporting avoids anything that would stir up trouble which might slip into disturbing the peace. It is a situation that defines the scenario which would necessitate a clamp down on the social media. But it normally depends on how that media pan out. The trend would seem to predict a shutdown as one better option against censoring which the law interdicts anyway.

The IGP's contention in this regard in respect of temporary closure of the social would be justified. But this had thrown up differences in interpretation of free press and of speech. There has been an enduring divide on how free is the right of the press. For an academic exercise, it is enlightening and fine. The theoretical and practical truth at the end of the day is that freedom of the press is relative and it and another like assembly, religion and choice are not absolute. The law says so. It is important to emphasize that Ghana is not unique confronted by the problems the social media can cause when it goes menacing. The practice dealing with that when it occurs or was likely to, is to pre-empt, putting it on hold for a limited period of exceeding a total cut out because social media is by character a fugitive when it becomes an offender. That character and the importance of news or information being expected to be verifiably truthful as against the law insisting that it is no longer a case of publish and be damned because information that is not true is ephemerally embarrassing but permanently endangering of from state through persons and individual to that very freedom itself. It would be a sad and undesirable development for the nestling democracy here. The country seems to be being pushed presently by apparently, politics in eager electioneering into the difficulty about accepting, rejecting or tolerating the social media as illustrated in the ferment of partisan lines of opinion.

One for instance takes a view that extols and holds social media as untouchable on the basis of freedom of the press and the other suspects its tendency to rip apart the country when that social media looks like in political mischievous mood, as they read to interpret. However, the real concern must be the real value of social media, very difficult to draw now because it is in embryonic stage, having overtaken the social commentator brigade hitherto.

BY PROF. NANA ESSILFIE-CONDUAH, A POLITICAL HISTORIAN AND CHAIR OF JOURNALISM AT THE AFRICAN UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF COMMUNICATIONS.


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