OPINION: Ugandan police should back off social media

In a controversial initiative by the Ugandan police, social media sites are to be monitored for dissemination of “good” and “bad” information.

Speaking at the 14th East African Police Chiefs Cooperation Organisation (EAPCO) Annual General Meeting recently, Inspector General of the Ugandan Police, General Kale Kayihura, revealed the latest initiative being brewed up within local police ranks: how best to monitor social media sites in response to the modern face of crime.

He told the audience of police officials from countries from the eastern side of Africa that “Social media is a tool that we as police forces must get interested in”, reports the Observer.

However, more alarming is his next statement, conveying apprehension at the extent of freedom of information as passed around on the internet. “Social media is a good thing but can also be a bad thing because it is so quick in terms of dissemination of information,” he said.

Kayihura then went on to invent the concepts of “good” and “bad” information, quaintly conceding that: “If it’s good information that is nice”. 

In a somewhat confused train of thought he added: “If it’s dangerous information like genocide information… somebody tells lies like you remember the Kayunga riots, then you know how much damage it can do.”

While indeed, inciting genocide over social media would be cause for police concern, telling “lies”, as the Inspector General puts it, is entirely unrelated and, honestly, none of the police’s business.

The police head also equates lies with rioting – in particular, “rioters” that wish to challenge the government -, and in a rambling explanation of his logic somehow arrived at social media being used by such “rioters” to influence the unemployed youth, feed them narcotics, and send them on their way to violently overthrow the regime.

“They just get unemployed youths, give them little money and marijuana, intoxicate them, and ask them to set tyres on fire, stone motorists, and fulfil their agenda of what they call African Spring,” he said, with reference to the past years’ civil uprisings in the countries of Northern Africa. 

He added: “This is something we have to think about, these opportunists taking advantage of unemployed youth to use them against the stability of the country.”

It is widely accepted that social media sites were used during the beginnings of the uprisings of the Arab Spring, before outgoing governments moved to block access to such sites. Social media sites are after all, a uniquely efficient way of communicating and disseminating information – and should be praised for encouraging and facilitating global rights to freedom of speech, and freedom of information.

What is less “accepted” – despite the Inspector General’s assertions – is that social media was used as a way to reel in unsuspecting youths before drugging them and sending them out to rise up against the government. This claim, in fact, see’s General Kayihura guilty of his own pet peeve of telling lies.

Yes, social media can be put to inappropriate purposes by unstable or fanatic individuals and groups, and this rightly should be watched out for by the security forces in any country and acted on in appropriate circumstances, such as for the prevention of terrorist attacks.

It will, however, be sad to see the online community of Uganda policed in accordance with an arbitrary concept of what is “good” and “bad” information; and for social media to be used as a tool for government affiliated bodies to prevent political discourse and reasonable protest.

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