16 June 2017

Namibia: Public Concerns and Govt's Social Media Policy


The Social Media Use Policy of government tabled in parliament recently by information minister Tjekero Tweya makes for interesting observations from various angles.

On the face of it, it is a good thing that government is finally stepping into the 21st century with its communications approach - forcing all departments to establish themselves online on various social media platforms, ostensibly to open up more and use various channels of communication and interaction with the public. This is certainly welcome.

At the same time, the policy seeks to caution public officials on their use of social media, and the policy is a clear indication that how public servants conduct themselves online will be far more closely scrutinised, going forward. This is where we are faced with a double-edged consideration.

When it comes to specific government social media sites, it is important that these are scrupulously factual, up-to-date and responsive in order to provide informed access to the public. But aside from government's official profile online, there is also the question of civil servants who exercise their personal voices on social media.

Like any other organisation in this day and age, it is well and good that civil servants (and anyone else for that matter) need to conduct themselves with decorum - whether in their personal or professional capacities - because they represent the image of government, and they should at all times, when engaging and interacting online, remember to stay within the bounds of decency and appropriateness.

It is just rational that government would take a dim view, as do private organisations, of its representatives and officers taking to social media to vent anger against their departments or bosses, whether administrative or political, and would seek to clamp down on such outbursts or conduct in order to preserve their image and reputation.

The basic rationale is that whatever public servants post or tweet could be attributed to government, no matter how tenuous that attributional link.

Under such conditions, taking a cautious approach is understandable. So, curtailing employees' speech to some extent probably would not be too harmful, and is even expected to some degree. However, nobody's constitutional right to free expression can be stifled by an employment contract. It is important to remember this.

That said, context matters, as it always does.

Threats to police political expression online have come from both sides of Namibia's political aisle in recent times, in a climate in which political office bearers and party cadres deployed in government largely consider themselves above criticism.

So, we have to question the timing and motivation of the introduction and launch of this social media policy. Namibia has entered a sensitive political period, as the ruling party prepares to hold its congress to elect leaders in a few months.

Unavoidably, political friction has spilled onto social media platforms, and it is conceivable that there are as many divergent views about what is happening in the ranks of the ruling party as there are civil servants, and a sizeable proportion of them who make use of social media to comment on political matters, in their private and personal capacities for the most part.

And that they 'like' or 'friend' voices which might be viewed as highly critical of or oppositional to political and government leaders is probably true for a great many of them.

Considered in this light, one cannot help wondering whether the introduction of this policy, at this time, has a lot to do with what is playing out on the political landscape.

Political commentary online certainly is not off limits to anyone. And neither is discussing such issues as corruption and public sector governance and management. These are issues of broad public concern, and outside of their official roles, public servants are also members of the public.

So, the question becomes, regarding civil servants' online conduct, where the line will be drawn between what will be permissible or not in terms of commentary on these and other public concerns. It is a question of where free expression ends and suppression begins (and we have to recognise that there are conditions under which suppression could be justified).

A recent US legal opinion on the issue states: "There is a point at which a person's speech is considered to be entirely his or her own, and not representative of the government. A public employee speaking on matters of public concern is allowed to express his or her opinion." And thus: "A governmental employer being offended by an employee's speech is not enough of a reason to curtail that speech."

Against the backdrop of these considerations, those who have taken more than a cursory look at the Namibian government's Social Media Use Policy have labelled it fair and relatively unthreatening.

However, given the political environment and climate we find ourselves in, the real test of this will of course only come in the application of the policy.

So, let us wait and see.


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