Whether or not Papua New Guinea bans Facebook, critics say free speech still under threat

Students in IT class at the Hohola Youth Development Centre. Flickr photo by Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (CC BY 2.0)

Papua New Guinea’s reported plan to ban Facebook for a month has raised concerns about government suppression of free speech.

On 29 May 2018, the Post-Courier newspaper reported on a proposal of the Communications and Information Technology Department to ban the social network in order to analyze its use and protect the safety of users. The article quoted Communications Minister Sam Basil as follows:

The time will allow information to be collected to identify users that hide behind fake accounts, users that upload pornographic images, users that post false and misleading information on Facebook to be filtered and removed…We cannot allow the abuse of Facebook to continue in the country.

Basil even suggested that the government can ask local tech companies to develop a similar platform “that is more conducive for Papua New Guineans to communicate within the country and abroad as well.”

The proposed ban was widely condemned in and outside of Papua New Guinea.

But Basil was quick to deny that the ministry has a plan to ban Facebook and accused the Post-Courier of distorting his statement. The newspaper stood by its story and the reporter who interviewed the minister.

During a subsequent parliamentary session, the governor of the Eastern Highlands province asked about the possibility of regulating and even banning Facebook to stop the spread of misinformation.

Opposition members of parliament accused the ruling party of trying to stifle public criticism. This was what MP Bryan Kramer told the media:

I believe the real intent behind the plan is to silence growing public criticism against the Government in relation to corruption. There is also the issue of prosecuting those who are staunch critics and running anti-corruption campaigns naming high level Government officials.

Kramer also called Basil’s proposal as “dumb” on his Facebook page. After this, Basil threatened that Kramer could be charged and arrested for defamation because of his Facebook post.

Gary Juffa, another member of the opposition, urged his fellow politicians to accept criticism and focus more on debating the other more urgent concerns of the citizens:

Let's debate and act on how our people's feelings are hurt and indeed their well-being is affected because they cannot access the services they deserve rather than be outraged because people have said something about us. Mere words.

The Media Council of Papua New Guinea also released a statement expressing concern about the reported Facebook ban:

While we appreciate that there is available content on Facebook that is classified illegal and deemed detrimental to the future of our people, we feel that any attempt to censor, curb, or restrict our people’s protected right to freedom of expression in any form, is an attack against our freedom as the media.

Facebook ban during APEC Summit?

The opposition also suspects that the government’s Facebook ban could be linked to the country’s hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit set for later in the year. Basil has denied this.

Paul Barker, the director of the Institute of National Affairs, rejected the idea of banning Facebook during the APEC summit:

It would be a travesty if PNG sought to close down Facebook during the APEC month, making PNG seem rather foolish, as it would be both an attack on embracing technology, undermining the information era and mechanisms for accountability, but also damaging business and welfare.

Writer Scott Waide concurred:

It is a highly embarrassing position to be in as members of APEC discuss the region’s economic future with e-commerce and social media being a pivotal focus of the talks.

Any shutdown of Facebook for any length of time is contrary to the spirit of the discussions where wider access to ICT forms the basis of future economic policies.

He also emphasized the importance of Facebook for small businesses and other needs of the community:

In Lae City where I live, Facebook is a primary means of reporting crimes to the police. The Lae Police Metropolitan Command has a Facebook page linked to its crime reporting systems and toll free number. It is an integral part of policing.

Researcher Kasek Galgal is skeptical about the methodology that the government will use in undertaking an in-depth study of Facebook. He gave this reminder:

If the government is serious about protecting its citizens online, then creating an environment where they can safely use the internet should be the goal, not blocking parts of it altogether.

According to news reports, Facebook has reached out to Papua New Guinea authorities to address the concerns of the government.

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