The proposed Facebook ban. Muddling Government priorities

We are living in unprecedented times as we hear of nations around the world losing more lives to the COVID-19 global pandemic, and adjust to a “new normal” that a deadly virus has now imposed on us.

Just the other day, the Central Bank of Samoa [C.B.S.] warned of the pandemic’s effect on the national economy in an economic update report, and said the worst is yet to come as exports dropped and economic growth contracted.

There are families who are doing it tough right now, as the economic downturn struck closer to home, with a family member working reduced hours or even asked to exit employment as increasing losses force companies to lay off staff. 

Amid growing uncertainty over what the future holds for ordinary citizens and the communities they live in, the Government announced last week that it is revisiting its 2018 plan to ban the social media site Facebook.

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi told a media conference he is tired of people using the online platform to spread hate speech, bully others and promote false and defamatory claims against the Government.

“The suggestion came from members of the public for the Government to consider this and we are entertaining the idea, similar to other countries," Tuilaepa said. 

“This is a result of defamation which continues to be a huge problem.”

It is bizarre that the Government – whose main economic drivers like tourism now lies in tatters due to the pandemic – is prioritising an issue due to concerns "from members of the public" over public image as well as the scrutiny of the administration’s track record.

Don’t get us wrong, we don’t condone anonymous unsubstantiated defamatory attacks targeting individuals, including leaders as well as organisations, using social media platforms. And we agree with Tuilaepa on the need for those who feel aggrieved by such online publications to consider legal action.

But we don’t believe now is the time for the Government to give priority to this issue, when citizens are in dire straits, and wondering where their children’s next feed will come from or be in a financially viable position to pay their bills and overcome the challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Not to mention the problems associated with the implementation of its quarantine policy – which a number of incoming passengers from New Zealand have shot to pieces in recent weeks with their drunken antics – consequently endangering the lives of the wider community.

If there is a list of priorities we could draw up for the Government today, considering the development challenges that currently face Samoa including the pandemic, banning Facebook would not even make the Top 10.

And you can be rest assured that other governments around the world would think differently about social media, especially at this juncture in world history, where critical communication targeting the public is vital as a pandemic continues its global onslaught with fatalities going past the half-a-million mark.

Ironically, the Prime Minister’s Office – through the Government Press Secretariat – has been the biggest beneficiary of Facebook. 

Thanks to the availability of the social media platform, Tuilaepa’s weekly media briefings are now livestream on Facebook, enabling citizens here and abroad to hear first hand his Government’s plans and vision for the nation. 

The Government of Samoa Facebook page has a wide following with its posts and videos getting viewed and shared thousands of times, and is one of few Pacific Island governments to maintain an active social media presence.

It is good to see the Government harnessing the potential of technology to reach out to the people. As a democratic state, criticisms of public policy in Samoa should be a given and is considered a sign of a healthy democracy. 

What about the hundreds of Samoan Facebook users, who use the social media platform to contact their loved ones abroad, due to the cheap data rates on offer from telecommunication companies? 

Not forgetting a large number of churches in Samoa, who used Facebook to livestream their Sunday services into the homes of their congregation members, during the state of emergency [S.O.E.] when the ban on church services was in full force.

Does the Government have a similar cheaper alternative for the public now that it plans to close the site?

Ultimately, accountable and transparent governments would always seek feedback on public policy, and if it has had the desired outcomes, in terms of impacting positively on the lives of the people. Facebook, as a social media platform that promotes free expression, can connect a government to its people. 

But any moves to ban it, due to its use as a platform to question the Government’s current policies and track record, would amount to censorship and does not augur well for democracy in Samoa.

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