The following is based largely on this article (click) by James Griffiths of CNN International with my own views in italics interspersed.
In May last year, after a short two month public consultation, the Fiji Government passed the Online Safety Act which placed limits on what could be published on social media without the threat of prosecution. Government said the Act was to prevent online postings such as that reported in the Fiji Sun of "hundreds of nude and intimate images of women, mostly USP students" and one of the victims had considered suicide. Postings which causes "harm to the individual" would now be liable to a fine of $9,400 and up to five years in prison. All FijiFirst MPs voted for the Act, and all the Opposition voted against.
Some hailed the Act as a victory for women; others, including rights groups and youth and women's organization, warned it was a potential "trojan horse" for internet censorship. At least half the Fiji population are on Internet, and most of them access Facebook.
James Griffiths, in reviewing the Fiji situation, wrote that a number of other countries "concerned with cybersecurity, fake news, internet harassment and revenge porn (and that several) are pushing towards greater regulation of the internet. However for every well-meaning attempt to protect people online, there is an example of lawmakers seeking to co-opt such concerns to stifle dissent and censor criticism."
The social media issue cannot be separated from the general issue of media freedom in Fiji. Both can expect controls in a dictatorship - or in a fragile democracy such as Fiji. But freedom, as always, should be balanced with responsibility.
According to academic Shailendra Singh there has always been tight control on the media in Fiji, but it got worse after the 2006 Coup. The military government expressed concerns about poor journalistic standards, inflammatory reporting, and political stability.
USP academic Jope Tarai says that as Fiji transitioned back to democratic rule in 2014, online publications and social media groups were very active in covering the subsequent election, and in boosting criticism of the incumbent Bainimarama government, which went on to win by a landslide. Today many Fijians have turned to the social media for alternative news.
But as Tarai wrote in the Pacific Journalism Review last year noting: "Unfortunately, the potential to harness social media use for greater citizen participation and empowerment has often been overlooked. Instead, what prevailed was a largely one-sided, sensationalized obsession on the dangers of vitriolic and mediocre online discussions.
I am not sure who Jope is pointing a finger at —it could be Government or its opponents. I've seen Government one-sidedness but few personal comments or vitriol in the mainstream media. Facebook is altogether a different animal. It is full of personal, uniformed, prejudiced and racist comments by Government opponents. Discussion is usually limited to either two-worded agreement, where two writers agree, or a blast of insults, with little attention to the issue in question when they disagree.
Tarai notes: "By 2016, social media in Fiji had earned a full-blown negative reputation as far as the government-inclined media outlets were concerned. In early 2016, the Fiji Sun began to amplify social media as 'the dark side' and ended the year calling it the 'Year of Fake News'.... These narratives about fake news and so on are utilized not only to push a certain agenda but create more propaganda, anything that is critical can always be dismissed as fake news."
Jope exaggerates. I am no apologist for the Fiji Sun. It is overly pro-Government, and often lacks balance, but there have been several instances of false news, that are never withdrawn or corrected. Think how many times Bainimarama has been dying? And I can't recall when it has been used for more propaganda (whatever that is) or to dismiss criticism.
The major concern with the Online Safety Act, according to Tarai and others, is its vagueness and lack of protections for legitimate criticism and free debate. SODELPA said the law "aimed at muting and chilling freedom of expression online (instilling) more fear in our people."
Tarai's "quick scan" leads him to say more people are now hiding their identity on social media. I have noticed no difference.
He thought there had been a chilling of speech in the wake of the new law. "Online people are discussing being careful about what they say," he said. "A number of people have also asked relatives online not to comment on anything controversial on their Facebook pages."
Tarai's conclusions are rather vague. A quick scan, a number people...
He may be right but I've not noticed any significant difference in Facebook usage.
James Griffiths concludes: It seems that the authorities in Fiji are beginning to see the nation’s thriving social media scene as something of a threat and may be moving to exert more control. This trend in Fiji is apparent elsewhere in the region, with the Nauruan ban on Facebook, moves in Solomon Islands to deregister the Facebook pressure group Forum Solomon Islands International (Galo 14/8/2015) and Papua New Guinea’s discussions on social media laws (Pacific Freedom Forum 14/4/2015).
"Instead of worrying about what is being expressed on social media, the Fiji Government ought to embrace the platform’s open and transparent nature, and recognise that openness benefits the government. It can learn from its critics, whose activities, thoughts and actions are laid bare for all to see. Social media also allows for citizens to freely express their dissatisfaction and to provide checks on government power."
Government openness would benefit Fiji and Government could learn from some of its critics, but the sort of openness displayed by many of those opposed to Government on the social media is questionable. It is often essentially hate speech, intended to keep SODELPA fires burning, and destabilise the political situation.
There are real and potential problems with the Online Safety Act, but an Act is needed. Commentators need to keep a close watch on its use, always remembering that mainstream and social media freedom are especially tender flowers in a fragile democracy.
See also the late Emeritus Professor Ian Shirley's article on Free Speech in Who's Interest?, pn250, to be published this coming Sunday morning, 2nd February.