Southern Africa: SADC Must Get Tough On Cyber Bullies

12 December 2019
editorial

While imagining a life without authority, police, a Constitution or shared morals, Thomas Hobbes wrote that "the life of man would be nasty, brutish, and short".

He named this imaginary world the State of Nature, where everyone did as they pleased, a world without trust or safety.

Not even human life would be guaranteed.

Hobbes, a 17th Century English philosopher, was a supporter of absolutism, a political system whereby absolute power is vested in a monarch.

He wrote the famous line: "Law is dependent upon the sanction of the sovereign and the government without sword are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all."

We were reminded of the Hobbesian State of Nature this week when we carried a story describing how SADC Executive Secretary Dr Stergomena Lawrence Tax refused to be cyber-bullied on Twitter.

Dr Tax was targeted by cyber bullies after she posted that she would continue "engaging on the removal of sanctions on Zimbabwe and support in the revitalisation of her economy".

Anti-Zimbabwe activists launched a barrage of hateful messages, accusing Dr Tax of supporting the Zanu-PF Government.

Some went as far as accusing Dr Tax of supporting a military coup in Zimbabwe, claims she quickly dismissed, saying SADC was only aware "of change of administration that was extensively celebrated and supported by nationals".

In the 21st Century, the Internet is the new State of Nature.

Individual rights are violated with impunity by those who believe in the absolutism of their own voices.

Freedom of speech is not a right, but a privilege granted to those who do not step on the toes of cyber-bullies.

And they have very long toes. Ask Dr Tax.

The Tanzanian stateswoman was supporting Zimbabwe, but the cyber- bullies -- who happen to be Zimbabweans -- latched on her like pitbulls on steroids.

Dr Tax would have never imagined that supporting Zimbabwe would invite the wrath of Zimbabweans.

Instead, she probably thought she was more likely to step on the toes of Americans or Britons.

This ugly incident serves as a wake-up call for the entire SADC region.

Cyber-bullying is real.

Public officials who avail themselves to public scrutiny to promote transparency and good governance are now the target of abuse by pseudo-activists singing for their supper.

Public officials are sitting ducks for hired guns.

Ordinary citizens are not safe either. Children are more exposed, while women are undressed daily.

For many people trying to exercise their democratic right to free speech, life on the Internet has been "nasty, brutish, and short".

Laws are needed to protect the vulnerable and individual rights.

Cyber-bullying, cyber-harassment and cyber-stalking must be nipped in the bud if Southern Africa is going to use the Internet to promote development.

While the regional bloc has embarked on a number of initiatives to combat cyber-crime, cyber-bullying must be treated with the same weight as cyber attacks.

In Zimbabwe, a law will soon be enacted in line with the SADC model and international best practice.

The Cyber Protection, Data Protection and Electronic Transaction Bill seeks to enhance the harmonisation of computer-related crime laws in the Criminal Law Act.

Such laws should help to enhance free speech, individual rights, as well as promote the participation on social media of public officials who want to engage with citizens on critical issues affecting them.

No single individual should have more rights than others on social media.

All voices matter, including those of activists. No one should be shut out or harassed.

While we support democracy and not monarchism like Hobbes, we believe his fears were genuine. Individual rights come with responsibility. Those who choose to be irresponsible with their rights must lose them.

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