BREAKING NEWS

STATEMENT BY PRIME MINISTER MANASSEH SOGAVARE ON THE PROPOSED FACEBOOK SUSPENSION

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare |Photo supplied

Mr. Speaker Sir, Thank you for giving me the floor to make a statement. For the benefit of those who are listening in I am making a statement pursuant to Standing Order 24, which provides that, “a Minister who wishes to make a statement on some public for which the Government is responsible shall inform the Speaker of his wish. Before the beginning of the sitting day at which he wishes to make the statement.” I have informed the Speaker of this wish and today I will make a statement on the Cabinet decision to temporary suspend access to Facebook.

On Thursday, 12th November, 2020, Cabinet deliberated on the whether to temporarily suspend access to Facebook.  This was a not spur of the moment deliberation. In fact, concerns over use of Facebook has always been there.

Since then, there has been a lot of commentary and publication on Facebook on the decision of Cabinet to temporarily suspend access to Facebook. A lot has been said about the reason why Cabinet has made this decision. The Leader of Opposition, Leader of the Independent and the Member for East Are Are have also waded in on the debate media as well. I do appreciate their comments, after all they are simply expressing their freedom of expression, a fundamental freedom that is provided for and protected by our Constitution.

First, let me assure you all that the decision to temporarily suspend access to Facebook was not at any time made with the intention to gag the media or the people who are constructively raising issues against the Government on social media. We are all politicians and getting criticized by the public comes with the territory. This is normal and is never a reason to suspend access to any social media platform. The decision to suspend access to Facebook is not a brazen attack on the freedom of expression as most have made it out to be.

Mr. Speaker Sir, on the outset, it is important to state that there is no legislation in Solomon Islands to govern and regulate the use of such social media platforms such as Facebook. In short the use of social media platforms such as Facebook in Solomon Islands is unregulated. We have always relied on the moral and ethical predisposition of users to use Facebook responsibly. However, sadly this has failed.

The Government has always held the position that the unregulated use of Facebook in the Solomon Islands is a potential threat to public security, public safety and public morality. The unregulated use of Facebook is also a multiplier in the decaying of Christian principles, moral values and cultural norms in our society. This is something that any responsible government must take seriously.

The Constitution and Freedom of Speech

As a starting point the Constitution of the Solomon Islands, which governs all our laws, provides that each and every person in Solomon Islands shall be provided with the security of person and protection of the law, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, amongst other fundamental rights and freedoms.

However, our fundamental rights and freedoms have qualifications attached to it which are prescribed by the Constitution. They are not absolute.

The misnomer that every person is led to believe is that the freedom of speech is an absolute right and persons are able to freely say what they want without the need for respect or verifying facts or ensuring what they say is true. This misnomer is misplaced and is not what the Constitution intends.

The Constitution, whilst recognizing that each person possesses the freedom to express themselves, also provides that this freedom must not be used to, amongst others, defame another person, incite violence, hatred, dislike or discontent against others. It also requires that persons making any statement or exercising that freedom ensure that what they say is the truth. 

Section 12 of the Constitution is clear in its application in that: 

Except with his or her own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, and for the purposes of this section the said freedom includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference and freedom from interference with his correspondence

However, section 12 of the Constitution also provides that (…and I quote) “nothing contain 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-

  1. in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health;
  2. for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons; or
  3. that imposes restrictions upon public officers’

and except so far as that provision or, as the case may be, the thing done under the authority thereof is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.” (end quote)

Public Safety, Public Order and Public Morality 

Mr Speaker Sir, unregulated use of social media in Solomon Islands in recent years has perpetuated an increase in the use of abusive and/or disrespectful language, inflammatory ethnic slurs by its users, racism, threats and inciting of violence against citizens of this country.

Social media postings can be against the law if they discriminate against, harass, bully or racially vilify a person, incite violence or is used to threaten other persons or procure or aide any acts contrary to law.

There have also been instances of harassment and / or bullying reported to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force. However, due to users using pseudonyms, efforts to hold such persons accountable were but in vain. This obstacle to enforcement prejudices the right of others who have been victim to abuse on social media.

Unless, there is a clear legislative regulatory mechanism to protect our own citizens, we as a nation should not allow such unlawful activities to continue.

Therefore, if Facebook, as a platform, is used to further unlawful activities, promote racism, threatening violence, then Facebook as a platform will be deemed a national security issue. 

The recent years have seen the users of Facebook continue to post untruths, threats, defamatory remarks, racist comments, to name a few. Using of abusive language in public is an offence under the Penal Code however, policing Facebook and laying charges against perpetrators in the circumstance have proven to be futile given the prominence of allowing fake accounts online. So how does the Government protect its citizens from the above abuse?

Duty of a Responsible Government

The allowance of Government in sustaining such activities has threatened the morals of society and has raised a number of social and legal issues. The Constitution provides protection to all citizens and it is the duty of Government to ensure that the protection of rights do not prejudice or disenfranchise citizens who are abused without recourse to any remedy under law.

To put it short, there is no accountability whatsoever by users on Facebook in Solomon Islands.

Having seriously considered this, the Government has now decided to temporarily suspend access to Facebook in the Country while policy and lawmakers explore ways to regulate its use so that individuals can be held accountable for what they say in the social media platform. This will also ensure that those who operate pages are also accountable for the comments and postings of others on their pages.

For a Country that professes itself a strong Christian country, the level of abusive language used is not only unchristian, but it is also wrong and has no place in our culture and custom. 

The Government firmly believes that to leave this repulsive behaviour to continue unceasing would be irresponsible on its part. As a responsible Government, we must discharge our duty to protect our citizens.

As such the Government has decided to step into protect the rights of its citizens from persons with no identity who seek to advocate for racism, violence and discrimination. Our Constitution provides the protection for our citizens against such acts.

Further, every citizen of Solomon Islands must be held accountable for their action.

The Government believes the unregulated use of Facebook if left unattended will have serious repercussion and will become the norm. It is imperative that Government act now and act decisively before it is too late.

Our society has become one where we no longer respect our Christian principles, moral values and cultural norms. 

Further, the pervasiveness of this behaviour has elevated to a level where such attitudes are no longer frowned upon but encouraged. This is dangerous.

Cyberbullying

Further, cyberbullying on Facebook forums is also widespread.

People have been defamed by users who use false names, and people’s reputation that have been built up over the years have been torn down in a matter of minutes on Facebook. Hence, the use of pseudonyms and the lack of legislative mechanism have made enforcing the above breaches impossible.

Mr. Speaker Sir, in an interview with ABC radio, Tok Pisin Service, the Leader of Opposition stated that the ban of Facebook is really targeting our youths who are 70% of this country’s population and is pathetic, and that the reasons given for the ban are not weighty enough. 

Mr. Speaker, I agree that the temporary suspension to access Facebook is targeting our youths. But not to silence them but rather to protect them from cyber bullying and the vile abusive language that some of the online forums in Facebook is spewing out. This reason is more than enough to justify the temporary suspension of access to Facebook. Our youth are our future and their exposure to an unregulated platform such as Facebook must be regulated.

Compensation for Racial Slurs

The use of abusive language has been occasionally directed at leaders and also recently at ethnic groups. This has also led in the Government having to step in to pay compensation that have been demanded on behalf various parties in order to keep the peace.

Other ethnicities in Solomon Islands have been racially abused and yet because of the use of fake accounts, they have not been brought to justice. This failure has prompted them to continue making further racist comments online. This is unacceptable and Government must act to ensure that they are protected and not discriminated against.

Discrimination occurs when a person or a group of persons are treated less favourably than another person because of a particular attribute they have or do not have. This Government has a duty to protect them.

In addition to those that perpetrate such activity, each and every one of us who reads without publicly condemning such activities is equally guilty of the act. To ensure that such vile comments or acts are stopped, Government must take decisive action before it is too late.

The Government fully understands that such actions are only caused by a minority of users which in turn affects the majority. But it is also incumbent upon other users and moderators of online forums to report the identity of such people who abuse Facebook.  

Restriction 

The closure of this social media platform is temporary while policy and lawmakers explore ways in which this can be regulated so that individuals can be held accountable for what they say in social media.

The Government wishes to make it clear that the right to freedom of expression remains intact and is not infringed upon. All media outlets in Solomon Islands can freely operate and citizens wishing to exercise their freedom of speech can do so through these respective mediums

Let me reiterate once again that the temporary closure of Facebook does not take away freedom of press or speech. Newspapers and Broadcasters will still continue to operate without any interference. In fact, the mainstream media will not be impeded in the practice of their trade. 

This will in turn encourage the development of journalism both in print and broadcast.


Sim Registration

The Government is now nearing the completion of a draft bill to amend the Telecommunication Act requiring the compulsory registration of all sim cards. This is a step towards ensuring that persons using telecommunication services can be held accountable for their actions. Sim registration is vital component of telecommunications in the digital era.

The re-opening of Facebook will be considered after the passage and implementation of this legislation or if circumstances change. 

Transparency in Dissemination of Information 

The Government takes seriously the public demand for transparency in dissemination of information.

Initiatives such as the weekly radio talkback shows, frequent press conferences, the Prime Ministers weekly live address, distribution of Press Releases to stakeholders and the media are some of the testaments of the government’s proactive response to the demand.

The Government believes these initiatives are made in the interest of creating a space for national conversation to take place. Yet despite of these, social media users continue to misinterpret and misconstrue public information to suit their own agendas.

The public is strongly encouraged to make use of both print and broadcast media and other social media platforms such as twitter and Google Plus to exercise their freedom of expression and gather information.

As stated above, the suspension of this social media platform is temporary while policy and lawmakers explore ways in which this can be regulated so that individuals can be held accountable for what they say in social media.

Businesses and entrepreneurs are encouraged to create their own websites or utilise other online platforms to promote their products and services during the temporary suspension period.

The Government wishes to make it clear that the right to freedom of expression remains intact and is not infringed upon. Other social media platforms are not affected.

Responsible use of Facebook

If users of Facebook are responsible there would be no need for the temporary suspension. After it was published in social media about the temporary suspension of Facebook some users continue to use Facebook irresponsibly. This just goes to show that access to Facebook needs to be temporarily suspended so that relevant legislations can be brought before Parliament to regulate use of Facebook.

Government ministries and agencies have met last week and this includes SIG ICTU, RSIPF, Office of the Director of Public Prosecution, Ministry of Communication and Aviation, IT Society, Ministry of Police, National Security and Correctional Service, Telecommunication Commission Solomon Islands and Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Another meeting will be held with service providers in the coming days.

The Government is also in the process of communicating with Facebook to establish dialogue in moving forward in partnership.

I hope this should put to rest some of the issues that some Members may have.

Mr Speaker Sir, with that I resume my seat.

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