Sierra Leone Telegraph: 21 November 2016
A twenty-three year old female student – Theresa Mbomaya, was last weekend arrested and detained at the maximum security prison in Freetown, for sharing a WhatsApp message she herself did not create.
According to the Koroma government, she committed a crime against the state, after receiving and passing on a WhatsApp message calling for an all out street protest by students.
Since the government’s decision last week to remove the subsidy it pays on fuel as well as introducing a thirty-percent increase in tariffs on household electricity and water utilities, the costs of basic food items and transportation have more than doubled.
The withdrawal of subsidies comes, following years of poor financial and economic management. This has been compounded by a 60% fall in export revenue since 2014.
The government has run out of cash. Senior ministers are becoming very desperate, hypersensitive and less tolerant towards anyone criticising or calling for public protest against the massive cut in public spending and the economic hardship that is now unfolding in the country. It seems senior ministers and ruling APC grandees have become bully-boys.
Theresa today appeared in Court in Freetown to answer to the charges brought against her for sending a Whatsapp message she herself had received calling for a student protest.
Sources close to the young woman’s family say that Theresa had been tortured while in custody, so as to set an example to students across the country that the government will ruthlessly crush any sign of civil disobedience.
But the minister of information and communication – Mohamed Bangura, issued a statement yesterday, 19th November, defending the arrest and detention of Theresa. This is what he said:
“The attention of the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC) has been drawn to concerns being made especially on the Social Media that the Government is clamping on free speech following the arrest and charging to court of Ms. Theresa Mbomaya. (Photo: Protesters outside the Court in Freetown).
“The Ministry wishes the general public to know that Ms. Mbomaya was arrested and subsequently charged for the offence of “incitement contrary to law and publishing false information contrary to the Public Order Act of 1965”.
“It is therefore disingenuous on the part of a cross-section of the media, especially the multitude of WhatsApp fora, to categorically state that Ms. Mbomaya was invited to the CID because of her participation and “activism” on the Social Media.
“The public would recall that prior to her arrest, Ms. Mbomaya and others through a Press Release allegedly associated with them had seek to threaten public safety by threatening to set ablaze any vehicle found plying the streets across the country and by ordering all mini buses (poda poda), taxi and other private drivers to stay off the streets on the night of Thursday, 17th November, 2016. “The Release also issued specific threat to the families of our Law enforcement officers by threatening to use them as shield in the event the Police try to stop them from carrying out their threat. (Photo: Protesters in outside the Court in Freetown).
“Whilst the Government continues to respect, uphold and promote the fundamental human rights of the citizens as provided for and enshrined in the 1991 Constitution of our country, the public is also reminded that whilst these rights remain sacrosanct, they also come with responsibilities as provided for same in the very 1991 Constitution.
“It is on this basis that the Government has absolved itself from the issue as the Sierra Leone Police and the Judiciary are now handling the matter. It is against this background that the Ministry of Information and Communications wishes to once more reiterate Government’s commitment to respect for Free Speech, the rule of law and the independence of it institutions to carry out their functions as enshrined in the 1991 Constitution whilst at the same time executing its onerous responsibility to protect the rights of the general public free from acts of lawlessness with the potential of loss of lives and property. (Photo: The detained student – Theresa Mbomaya).
“Government will continue to recognise the importance of the Social Media, especially if it is used responsibly in continuing to promote good governance, democracy, the rule of law, peace and stability and NOT to foment chaos that would compromise the hard-won peace and democracy we all as Sierra Leoneans dearly fought for.
“The Government, through the Ministry of Information and Communications, wishes to assure the general public that there is peace and tranquillity throughout the country and that the general public should go about their normal businesses without any let or hindrance.”
This is the Whatsapp message alleged to have been received and passed on to friends by Theresa, that got under the skin of the minister of information who has for a long while been threatening to clampdown on the use of Facebook and Whatsapp in Sierra Leone by students and young people, afraid it might be used to promote an ‘Arab Spring’.
“We the students of this country are calling on all Poda poda Drivers, Taxi drivers, Provincial drivers, Private drivers, vehicle owners to stay off the streets on Thursday night 17th November 2016. This is as a result of the continuous hike in fuel and other commodities costs. We want the Government of Sierra Leone to know that we the citizens are not happy and wants a redress of the situation. Stay off the streets.
“Any vehicle found plying the streets of the country will be set ablaze. We m repeat ANY VEHICLE FOUND PLYING THE STREETS OF SIERRA LEONE WILL BE SET ABLAZE. We are tired and want an immediate redress. Thank you for your understanding and cooperation.
“Note: We want the Sierra Leone Police to understand that we are not afraid of them and we will be using their children, wards and relatives as shields in case of any attempt to distort out activities on this day.”
But there are serious doubts by some security analysts in the country as to whether this Watsapp message was truly written by students to incite such violence.
Condemnation of the government’s decision to curtail civil liberty in Sierra Leone has been swift.
Responding to the ministry of information’s clampdown on the use of social media in the country, the Campaign for Human Rights and Development International (CHRDI) ‘strongly condemns the move to monitor and possibly block access and usage of social media and considers the order as unjustifiable, unlawful and inexcusable’. (Photo: Lawyer Francis Ben Kelfala – left, and Alie Kabba – right, in Court today to support the release of the detained student).
CHRDI issued this statement:
“We call upon the government to recognise that the 1991 constitution makes parliament the sole law making body in the country and that no law exists in our law books that regulates the use of social media.
“Therefore the issue of an executive order on the use of social media by an ordinary appointed Ministry official without the consent of parliament is unlawful and in excess of the powers given to the Executive in the 1991 constitution.
“We also wish to remind the Sierra Leone Communications Commission of its mandate to provide an enabling environment for access to the Internet and not work in the contrary.
“We believe that the attempt to order mobile networks to block social media when there are no justifiable circumstances that warrant it is aimed at curtailing Internet freedoms. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights clearly states that; ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ (Photo: Alie Kabba in support of the family of the detained student).
“The above should be read in line with the 1991 constitution of the Republic of Sierra Leone under Chapter 3 section 25 that provide Protection of Freedom of Expression and the Press, (section 25-1): ‘(1) Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, and for the purpose of this section the said freedom includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference, freedom from interference with his correspondence, freedom to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions, and academic freedom in institutions of learning’.
“This Political interference in the use of the Internet is unjustified and an unlawful. Any behaviour seeking to control the use of the Internet now will have terrifying effects on how citizens use the internet and exercise their online freedoms in future.
“Any action intended to protect national security has got to be justified without necessarily using national security as a conduit to undermine the enjoyment of online rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.
“The United Nations Human Rights Council resolution affirms that internet freedom is a basic human right and that people have the right to freedom of expression on the internet.
“Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world and falls within the category of countries who still need to do more to create access to the internet for a huge chunk of its citizens through the establishment of the necessary infrastructure and online security.
“In pursuance of our avowed goals of ensuring that Human Rights are not unduly violated, Campaign for Human Rights and Development International wishes to make the following specific recommendations:
1. Refrain from impeding the rights of citizens to enjoy their constitutional right of freedom of expression and to enact measures that promote the use of Internet and privacy of citizens online.
2. Enact a privacy and data protection bill into law to prevent further cases of data misuse
3. Government should investigate cases of inhuman and degrading treatment of online activists and ensure errant officers are punished.
4. Government should desist from compromising the independence of state institutions.
5. Bridge the knowledge gap by making Internet accessible to all including women, young people and the rural populace.
6. Bridge the rural-urban digital divide through connecting rural areas and strengthening the national backbone.
7. Strengthen the independence of the Judiciary and avoid any perception of interference in the work of the judiciary.
Campaign for Human Rights and Development International (CHRDI) is a Rights based social-policy advocacy Organisation. We Draw attention to the responsibility of duty-bearers to uphold human rights, and seek to support rights-holders to claim their rights. CHRDI is in Special Consultative Status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council and accredited to many UN Agencies.