When President Ernest Bai Koroma announced the date for the general elections for next year, there was a collective sigh of relief that could be felt around the four corners of the country and even beyond. To say that this announcement was eagerly anticipated would be an understatement. But Sierra Leoneans have traditionally been treated to a waiting game, each time a major announcement is expected by the president. We saw that throughout his tenure with his cabinet re-shuffles. An atmosphere for rumour merchandising was always generated, and as if by magic, the news is always received like a bombshell. The general elections has been slated for 07 March 2017; one mystery solved. The country can now turn to the other mystery: Presidential flag bearers. Who is going to lead which party? That is the currency that is traded on the political stock exchange today. This is a different set of the guessing game. Already, there have been accusations and counter accusations that some of our political parties would subject their respective constitutions to serious last minute bypass operations to fit the bill. To all intents and purposes, if these perceived surgical machinations are to come and pass, there will be a lot to be desired for the rule of law. Tweaking any political constitution at a time that is so close to elections would leave a bad taste in the mouths of many. That in itself, will constitute a threat to our fledgling democracy.
But the greatest threat to our democracy today is the freedom of speech. It will appear paradoxically ironic that Freedom of Speech, which is supposed to be one of the foundations of democracy, is now threatening the very concept it is meant to protect. This is especially so for our embryonic democracy and more glaringly so for our forthcoming general elections. The days when the press, the 4th Estate belonged to a protected species are long gone. The privilege to entertain, educate and inform used to be in the hands of “a few good men”. Today, the power to do so have become a universal phenomenon and it’s no longer the sole property of the society for self-preservation. With the advent of information technology, the new breed of self-proclaimed journalists, writers, columnists and moral commentators is growing by the day. All it takes to be one is a smart phone or a lap top. Those in positions of power, authority and influence have come to realise, accept and embrace the power of social media; as the fastest growing industry since the end of slavery. Outlets like Facebook, Whatsapp, snap chat, LinkedIn, and many more have saturated the media today. The social media has become the fastest mode of information and communication to the largest audience.
Despite the above, social media has proved to one of the most unreliable sources of information. This is principally because the level of regulation or self-regulation is non- existent. Talk is free and cheap; disguised as freedom of speech. Like we saw in the 2008 and 2012 elections, Barack Obama used the power of social media to connect to a large section of the populace. He used it well to preach his sermon of the Audacity of Hope. But in the recently concluded US elections, we saw the ugly side of social media; the peddling of FAKE NEWS. The irony is that, Donald Trump and his cohorts made good use of this new found but ill desired tactic to trick his way to The White House. He is now struggling to live with the consequences. In the UK today, those who supported the country’s divorce from the EU stand accused of misleading the populace into sleep walking into a doomsday Brexit.
As we prepare to go to the polls, come March 2018, there can be no greater danger to our democracy, that the threat of FAKE NEWS. The APC government had made attempts in the past to muscle in on these types of misinformation. Unfortunately, the manner in which this was carried out was interpreted as an attempt to muzzle freedom of the press and free speech. But we cannot deny the inherent dangers that lurk within the entrails of free speech. We have to recognise that free speech and freedom of the press is not a privilege, but an organic necessity in a great society. Equally, we have to acknowledge that it comes with a sense of responsibility. Freedom of speech does not give me the right to falsely shout “fire” in a packed cinema hall. Every right comes with a responsibility. Any attempt to disregard those rights will be tantamount to destroying the very fabric of those rights.
So as we prepare for our general elections, it will be helpful to be cautious about the kind of news stories that we expect to be breast fed on. We do not have the facility to fact check stories instantly. If anything, there is little that fact checking can do, once the false story has been put out there. In most cases, the damage would have been done, and not many would be interested in seeking the truth. In our country today, where “den say” and “poda poda talk” is the currency of our communication, the threat of FAKE NEWS is becoming glaringly scary. As a people, we should not demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought; which we seldom use. But when that right is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered. One of the paramount responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people. As citizens, we also have the responsibility of preventing ourselves from deceiving ourselves.
We have to recognize the public’s right to know. How can people have an opinion if they are not informed? But if everybody lies, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. So when the credibility and independence of a free press is damaged, the public can also exercise its freedom not to read or believe it. Every freeman has an undoubted right to express what sentiments he pleases before the public: to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequence of his own temerity. That is the kind of dynamics we should expect between the public and those that profess to have the right to inform, educate and entertain us. Freedom of speech is unnecessary if the people to whom it is granted do not think for themselves.” Before you digest a piece of news, article or story, starting with this one, THINK.
So as we prepare to embark on one of the brickworks of our democracy; the right to choose freely and fairly the people in whose hands we are going to bestow our destiny, we should all endeavour to contribute in any way possible; to make it what it is: a DEMOCRACY. It starts with the right information, and there can be no greater responsibility on our shoulders than the right to inform and be informed; freely. Nevertheless, we should be wary of the threat of FAKE NEWS; the greatest threat to our society today. The world is now is now knee deep in digital literacy; which is the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the internet. It is no small accomplishment that social media like Facebook, has a very REAL IMPACT on society and people’s lives today.. But if we are to master this set of technological, cognitive and social competencies, it is crucial that we treat the digital world as an enhancement for humanity rather than another privilege, to abuse and misuse.
There are a lot of people out there who are ready to manipulate and exploit our psychological frailties. Perhaps the cure to eliminate fake news will be to stop reading 140-character tweets and start reading 600-page books.” Don’t believe everything you read.
Don’t forget to turn the lights off before you leave the room.