The government of Sierra Leone has expressed concern about what it calls the irresponsible use of social media by citizens, saying it could undermine the country's stability.
Government officials met with media groups and other stakeholders to find ways of encouraging the country to responsibly use social media. The administration on Thursday sharply denied reports that it planned to gag citizens from freely expressing their views on social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
"It has become increasingly clear that some people are misusing the social media," presidential spokesman Abdulai Bayraytay said. As examples, he noted that some people had posted details of accidents before victims' families could be officially notified, and he contended that some people had been blackmailed via social media.
"That is why we engaged the development partners, who are equally concerned at the trend at which the social media is being misused in this country," he said. Some had expressed fear, he said, that social media "might have the potential to create chaos" during elections.
Bayraytay's remarks came after the government launched a media campaign to help discourage the abuse of social media. Some officials said laws could be enacted to heavily punish those who use social media to create tension.
Local media quoted Information Minister Mohamed Bangura as saying the administration planned to train about 24,000 people nationwide to help guide people to use social media responsibly.
"This is not only about the government, it is in the interest of the entire country. … New media, if not properly managed, has the potential to take this country to an unpleasant situation," Bangura said.
"If all this fails, then as a government we will come in, because we have a job to do. … We will come out with robust laws. You can interpret them as clampdown or whatever ... but this country is entitled to live in peace," Bangura added.
Civil society groups have warned the government not to impose regulations on social media, arguing that such measures would contravene freedom-of-speech guarantees in the constitution.
Constructive criticism OK
Bayraytay denied that the administration planned to regulate citizens' use of social media. He said the government supported freedom of speech and had no plans to undermine constitutional protection of it. No arrests had been made, he said, because the government encourages constructive criticism of the government. Democracy, he said, "is a continuous process."
"So, the measure we are talking about here [is] people should take responsibility if they post something that has a disaffection," Bayraytay said. "For instance, there was an instance where somebody posted material fomenting chaos," calling for demonstrations, retribution against nonparticipants, and the lynching of police. "I don't think that is the responsible way of using social media."
Bayraytay said the administration wanted citizens to use social media to expose corruption or any ills in society as part of ensuring the administration is accountable to the people.