Social Media "A New Form of Terrorism" Says Cameroon Official

Cavaye Yeguie Djibril (left) and President Paul Biya (right) - img: Africa Presse
A transcript released last week details how Cameroon's government now regards the use of social media by 'amateurs' as being 'a social malaise,' which amounts to 'a new form of dangerous as a missile.' Cavayé Yéguié Djibril, speaker of the National Assembly of Cameroon, made the claims before the country's parliament in the capital Yaounde on 10 November. The comments follow widespread online criticism of the country's President, Paul Biya, for his perceived inaction in the wake of a train derailment in late October which killed over 70 people and injured 600.

President Biya has ruled Cameroon since 1981 and is considered by many to be a dictator. Over the past three decades, his administration is said to have had a patchy record when it comes to the protection of free elections, popular mobilisations and the freedoms of speech and expression. Indeed, this pattern has lately been apparent in the realm of social media. Some have pointed to the government's ordering of telecoms companies to suspend mobile access to Twitter in the run-up to "Drive Out Biya" demonstrations in 2011 as evidence of state encroachments upon the democratic process.

Following the train derailment in October, there was uproar when President Biya chose not to return to Cameroon from a holiday in Switzerland (a country he visits habitually, reportedly spending thousands of dollars each time), and instead responded by releasing a 48-word Facebook status. Although some have continued to support the President through the turbulence, others claim the move is a further justification for the President's unofficial title as Cameroon's 'absentee landlord.'

President Biya's status and polarised commentators - img: Facebook

In response to critical voices, and in an apparent change of heart from the government's prior regard for social media (i.e. that it is as legitimate a platform for political discourse in a time of national tragedy as a physical presence in the country itself), Cameroon's chief representatives are now keen to represent the likes of Facebook and Twitter as destabilising forces in Cameroon's political landscape. Djibril's speech decried the use of such sites by 'amateurs whose ranks, unfortunately, continue to swell.'

The problem, he claimed, is that 'social now being used for misinformation...and [the] manipulation of consciences thereby instilling fear in the general public.'

To readers in the United States and Europe, those words may strike a surprising resemblance to the lamentations we've recently witnessed unfolding within our own public spheres regarding the apparent state of our new, 'post-truth', 'post-factual' politics. What does that similarity imply? For example, is the use of such an argument only legitimate when it's employed by our own mainstream channels, and rendered illegitimate when wielded by a despotic regime? Or does it suggest the forces which suppress  freedoms of expression and speech actually come dressed in many suits?

What is certain is that others are presently inclined to characterise the voices demonised by the leader of Cameroon's national assembly as being merely those of citizens exercising their right to free speech in the very state which Mr Djibril represents.

Freedom of expression is a complex issue anywhere. In 2011, Reporters Without Borders claimed that although 'press freedom is a reality' in Cameroon, media offences are still criminalised and reporters can be 'bought and exploited' by politicians. For example, Pius Njawe, who founded Cameroon's first independent newspaper in 1979, and whom the Washington Post obituarily described as being 'among the most defiant independent editors in Western Africa,' was famously arrested in 1996 for speculating with regards the President's health after Biya collapsed at a football stadium.

Nevertheless, social media seems to be one of many channels employed by Cameroonians to bypass the journalistic media and speak for themselves. As Quartz Africa reports, 'Internet penetration in the central African nation has grown from just 5% in 2011 to over 20% in 2015...This has given many Cameroonians a space to criticize officials...The country's 24-million people are among the continent's most vocal when it comes to using sites like Twitter to demand action from their leaders.'

Although it hasn't arrived in Cameroon yet, many commentators are skeptical about whether any African leaders are likely to block the roll-out of Facebook's FreeBasics service which, although plugged by the mega-unicorn as a means to bring the internet (which Mark Zuckerberg calls a 'basic human right') to countries which lack web infrastructure, is also said by some to be 'an African dictator's dream,' given its potential to provide a two-tier model of access to information.

Whatever the outcome in that regard, it's certain that technology in general - especially social media platforms, which facilitate the decentralised vocalisation of critical voices - is now one of Paul Biya's biggest headaches. Well, that and the new Toblerone shape. You call this Swiss?!

They might as well call it...T_B_E_O_E (img: BBC)

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