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Pacific nations out to limit Facebook political chatter

Papua New Guinea and Samoa propose blocks on the social network

In the South Pacific, ordinary citizens have been expected to remain on the sidelines of decision-making, but Facebook is changing that, much to the consternation of the political elite.   © Reuters

AUCKLAND -- There is little chance Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will turn up in Papua New Guinea, Samoa or Fiji to defend his company's handling of political issues the way he recently did in Washington and Brussels. Yet South Pacific leaders see Facebook as an even greater social threat than do their Western peers and are not waiting on Facebook to address their concerns.

Papua New Guinea, the region's largest economy, was in uproar last month when a cabinet minister suggested the government wanted to suspend Facebook for a month to study its impact on society and consider whether it should sponsor a local alternative. Authorities in other Pacific states are tightening laws to be able to go after critics on the social network.

Facebook is proving revolutionary across a region where ordinary citizens have been expected to remain quiet and on the sidelines of decision-making, which remains largely in the hands of traditional elites, even where trappings of democracy exist. Elite older males unaccustomed to public criticism have found the social network unsettling; while gossip, known here as the "coconut wireless," has always been present, its power has been magnified by the sharing of posts across scattered communities at home and overseas.

In January, Nauru President Baron Waqa lifted a three-year ban on Facebook, saying he had created a safer nation and a more transparent justice system in the interim. He called the effects of social media "very powerful," especially in a country of 13,000 people. "The power is to disrupt, embarrass, destroy one's reputation and to create instability," he said.

Facebook's political potency in Papua New Guinea comes despite only 1 million of its 8 million people having internet access. Communications Minister Sam Basil in May said the planned one-month shutdown "will allow information to be collected to identify users that hide behind fake accounts, users that upload pornographic images [and] users that post false and misleading information on Facebook to be filtered and removed."

Basil added that "a lot of people" had suffered from threats and defamation. He previously expressed concern about the privacy of Papuan Facebook users in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and talked of joining court action against Facebook over the leaks.

Amid an angry reaction from legislators and with his government hosting Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summits this year, Basil has since backed off talk of an imminent Facebook cutoff.

According to the country's biggest digital news service, Loop PNG, O'Neill on Friday told a business audience there is no intention of blocking Facebook, particularly as Papua New Guinea is to connect to Australia with a new high-speed undersea cable.

Loop's report has not been confirmed. On the same day, O'Neill's government declared a state of emergency in the large Southern Highlands Province after armed gangs began an extensive rampage. The ongoing drama is playing out on Facebook with large numbers of photos and videos that show burning aircraft and buildings as well as heavily armed men.

facebook3 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 11.   © Reuters

Parliamentarian Gary Juffa said raising a ban while hosting APEC would be a shock to member nations, representatives of which would see "a country that is deliberately moving to snuff out or stop the opportunity for its people to dissent."

Facebook's role was underlined by blogger Scott Waide. After a 7.5 magnitude earthquake in the Highlands in February, Waide said the first pictures of damage and death were posted on Facebook and that they showed up within 20 minutes.

It took the government two weeks to acknowledge the national disaster.

In Samoa, 73-year-old Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele faces almost daily accusations from powerful but anonymous critics on Facebook on the page of O le Palemia, Samoan for "the prime minister." The posts are mostly defamatory, alleging that a range of politicians are engaging in sexual affairs and financial corruption. The prime minister on June 13 named two overseas Samoans who he said an investigation had identified as the page's key authors.

In March, Tuilaepa threatened to ban Facebook. "Those behind the social media posts are driven by the devil," he said. "Their hearts are filled with hatred, and I'm certain they don't rest at night as they continue to make up fabrications."

Samoan writer Lani Wendt Young, who has also been assailed on Facebook, said the country's overseas workers are a key factor. Since these workers send home so much of their wages, they believe they are entitled to hold the authorities accountable. "When privately called out for their abusive comments and posts, most Samoans respond with an apology and embarrassment that a real person has been hurt by their attacks," she said.

In Fiji, half the populace uses Facebook, in part for information they cannot find in the mainstream media, which has been under heavy government pressure. Pictures and videos of police torture have appeared on Facebook pages, for example.

Last month, parliament passed an online safety bill that threatens those whose posts cause harm with prison sentences of up to five years. Government officials say the law is intended to protect women and children. Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama on June 8 said people are using fake Facebook profiles to "tell disturbing lies about what has happened to them." He called it "sick behavior ... [that] needs to be condemned."

In Vanuatu, police on May 31 raided the offices of the company managing a Facebook group called Yumi Tok Tok Stret, which means "street talk," demanding data on Facebook posters involved in a discussion of the alleged poor performance of the country's national social security fund. Lawyer Dane Thornberg wrote to police, saying, "The search warrant is misguided in all its forms" and threatens free speech.

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