A Foundational Right

Back in the middle of June, when all the jubilation and hope was in full gear, Fitsum Arega, chief of staff at the Prime Minister’s Office, tweeted that access to 264 previously blocked websites, blogs and TV stations has been opened. It was part of the political opening up, heralding multiparty democracy.

“Freedom of expression is a foundational right that other rights depend on,” Fitsum had said back then.

He was right. The internet has become the greatest tool for communication in human history, revolutionising the broader public’s engagement in a nation’s politics. Social media is the climax of direct democracy and providing full access to it amounts to ensuring that everyone gets to have a say.

But how can the government uphold this, in Fitsum’s words, “foundational right,” when the going gets tough? How does the government take hold of the narrative and halt the spread of misinformation? How can authorities ensure that social media platforms are not used for indoctrinating purposes, turning citizens against each other?

On Monday afternoon, after a protest on the streets of Addis Abeba following the unfortunate and cowardly attack on innocent civilians in the town of Burayu, mobile data was turned off. Mobile users, all of which are customers of Ethio telecom, were not just unable to access social media sites but the internet. This continued until mobile data returned on Wednesday.

It should be said that not many users were annoyed by the blackout. There was a general sense that “we deserved it.” People had been unrestrained on social media this past couple of months, trading insults, spreading uncorroborated information and attributing every single episode to some grand design. We have shown less responsibility than fourth-graders left home alone.

We have been an unruly public for the authorities to manage effectively. Our ignorance, immaturity and general lack of direction have been on full display. It had gotten to a point where we believed the brief time out we had received this past week was deserved.

It may have been deserved, but it was not constructive. Fitsum said it best when he claimed that freedom of speech is a foundational right.

An authority’s decision to allow its citizens freedom comes out of the belief that they are rational, and that the space afforded them will help them pursue their right to happiness and prosperity to a maximum degree. It also comes out of the belief that the government will be able to fend off challenges that such freedoms will bring by taking charge of the narrative and using its monopoly of violence and state resources to thwart physical harm that may come to citizens.

The freedom to move, organise and speak is similar to other public goods that the government provides and ensures. It is a crucial component of the social contract.

Think of it as traffic. The government builds roads, provides public transport and allows people to drive vehicles on it. Evidently, if traffic is not appropriately regulated and the law enforced, the system will fall into disarray. There have to be traffic lights and signage, pedestrian crossings, speed limits, weight limits and rules of the road. Most importantly, there have to be traffic police willing to punish offence, lest there be repeat offenders and a sense of impunity.

And when car accidents are a significant problem, as is the case in Ethiopia, the government does not deny its citizens access to the roads. It changes its strategy, brings new leadership to the fore, invests and reassesses its policies. This is important because not allowing drivers on the road, would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The same goes for access to the internet. It should be obvious that anything that provides as many benefits as the internet will pose significant socio-political threats too.

But restricting access should not be the answer. The government needs to broaden its communication capability to wrestle control of the narrative from those that mean to do us harm, and the law enforcement bodies need to better anticipate attacks.

Ethiopians, like any other human beings, deserve the foundational right of access to the internet. The government just needs a better capability and means of managing the system.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian (christian.tesfaye@addisfortune.net) is Fortune’sOp-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.

Published on Sep 22,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 960]



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