Stella Nyanzi | Has Social Media Gone Haywire? By Nobert Mao
By Norbert Mao — The arrest and incarceration of Dr Stella Nyanzi has grabbed international headlines. Many commentators say she has been sinned against more than she has sinned. The State is now groping in the dark as her international media coverage has turned her into a hot potato.
The government is damned if she is released and also damned if she remains in jail. They have now turned to mental institutions who are now tasked to examine Dr Nyanzi and determine whether she is of sound mind.
That is comical to put it mildly. Dr Stella Nyanzi is not mad. She is simply the personification of the trapped anguish of frustrated Ugandans who feel over-governed and under-served.
Dr Nyanzi’s vitriolic rhetoric brings to mind Francis Imbuga’s play Betrayal in the City where one of the characters says “when the madness of an entire nation disturbs a solitary mind, it is not enough to say the man is mad”.
But the more important issue is the role of social media. More than two billion people have social media accounts. First let look at the pros. Social media connects people and cements bonds of friendships. They share information about events and activities. They even share photos. Through social media people can find people who share their interests and hobbies. Social media is a promotional vehicle for people, ideas and even products.
But social media is overcrowded. There is information overload so those who want to be heard have to unleash a shrill shout that can be heard above the cacophony of competing voices. Therefore, Stella Nyanzi has to use strong language and target powerful people in order to command the attention of her social media followers.
Social media is a major outlet for false and unreliable information. Some people make up information that leads to panic and the distortion of public opinion. Countless times, social media has been the source of false death announcements concerning people who may be sick but still alive.
To those seeking employment, their social media profiles are now a major source of information for potential employers in determining their suitability as employees. This kind of social media pre-screening can lead to bias and discrimination when a personality assessment is made based on social media profiles.
This brings me to the criminal prosecution of Stella Nyanzi. Lawyers are required to carry out at least two tests before they undertake a prosecution of a suspect. First is the prospect of conviction.
Is there sufficient evidence? This test means that an objective, reasonable and impartial magistrate/judge is more likely than not to convict the accused. The second test is whether the prosecution serves the public interest.
In our Ugandan environment where the laws are vague the Stella Nyanzi case will be a landmark case which is likely to send the State rushing back to the drawing board to tighten regulations around social media usage. In other countries, like the UK, there have been several laws enacted and these have been tested through various cases.
Uganda can pick a leaf from there. For instance the 1988 Malicious Communications Act criminalises any action of a person who sends electronic communication which is “indecent, grossly offensive, or which is false, or which the sender believes to be false if the purpose or one of the purposes of the sender is to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient”. The offence is one of sending. There is no requirement for the communication to reach the intended recipient.
Tightening the law is, however, only one step. Eventually, it is the courts of law to give a verdict on whether accused individuals have stepped beyond the line of constitutionally guaranteed free speech. It is likely that the courts will interpret the laws in a manner that expands the boundary of free speech.
In the 1992 case of Sunday Times v UK, the court was more emphatic in its defence of freedom of speech. It said “freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society; it is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also as to those that offend, shock and disturb…”
So as we grapple with the seemingly uncontrollable power of social media the debate will increasingly be about whether prosecution is in the public interest or the silencing of critics of dereliction of duty by government.
Source — Daily Monitor