19 Nov 2020

Solomon Islands Facebook ban under attack

10:48 am on 19 November 2020

A ban on Facebook in Solomon Islands has been described as "stupid" and against people's constitutional rights.

A file photo of the Facebook logo on a desktop computer

Photo: 123RF

The government is putting a temporary ban on the social media platform until it can bring in new controls.

Facebook is a major means of communication in Solomon Islands, according to Ruth Liloqula of Transparency International and a ban was "one of the most stupid things the government could do".

"They're not thinking about the fact that we've got this pandemic ... we have positive cases that we still have to deal with," Liloqula said.

"Facebook is all over the country."

About 20 percent of the population of 650,000 has access to the internet, according to Georgina Kekea of the Solomon Islands Media Association.

The government has been using Facebook to broadcast speeches and share information on Covid-19.

It is also used as a forum for public discussion and connects expats with family back home.

"Facebook is the main medium they use to get information and also share what they know," Kekea said.

It was concerning to the association when people's voices were being suppressed and it was against their constitutional rights, she said, although she said people could bypass the ban using other platforms..

The government should have been more proactive rather than reactive, she said, given the new undersea cable linking the country to Australia.

"They should have prepared the laws already."

Ruth Liloqula

Ruth Liloqula Photo: RNZ Pacific/koro Vaka'uta

Transparency International executive director Ruth Liloqula questioned the timing of the move when scamming and other abuse of Facebook had been going on for a while.

She believed the government just couldn not take the heat of adverse reaction to its recent economic stimulus package.

"A lot of people are really pressing the government to make an explanation why some constituencies are getting $3 million and why some are just getting $600 and why the economic stimulus package has to go through members of Parliament at all," she said.

More education needed

Instead of a ban on Facebook, there needed to be more education around social media use, she said.

"And work with other countries that have got legislation in place to fast-track bringing in some legislation to deal with what we are seeing coming into the country.

"Currently a lot of people are being scammed of their money by these scammers from all over the world."

The local chamber of commerce said the ban was a threat to many businesses and would bring negative press on the world stage.

Spokesperson Natalina Hong said many were already struggling in the pandemic and they depended on Facebook to link with their customers locally and overseas.

Solomon Islands was not an easy place to do business, she said.

"A lot of opportunities come through this sort of platform," Hong said.

"We see this as our link to the world. This will be cutting out a bridge for us to grow as a country (and) have people have confidence in doing business or investing in Solomon Islands."

Thousands of fans of the national sport of football would also miss out, according to Siaosi Tafoa of the Solomon Islands Football Federation.

He said all its domestic competitions were streamed live on Facebook .

"We rely mainly on Facebook to market our players overseas and also we don't want to lose our followers who are following the games live from around the region.

"I think a ban on Facebook would not only affect the marketability of the game and our players but also cause a lot of frustration from fans who are following the games."

A ban would put the Pacific island nation alongside just four other countries in the world where the social media platform is not allowed - China, Iran, Syria and North Korea.

Official responds

31 March 2019 - Peter Shanel Agovaka awaits his turn to speak at a political rally just days out from the election on 3 April. He was subsequently re-elected for a fourth term as MP for Central Guadalcanal.

Communications Minister, Peter Shanel Agovaka Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

Minister of Communications Peter Shanel Agovaka told RNZ Pacific that Facebook had been grossly abused in Solomon Islands.

He cited character assassination, unsavoury posts and the need to protect the vulnerable as reasons for the ban.

"Coming with freedom of expression and freedom of the media is a lot of responsibility. You don't just go out and say things out of the ordinary to your neighbours.

"It's about using it wisely, share information and so on, not to abuse people."

Agovaka said the ban was only temporary until laws could be brought in to better control and govern the use of Facebook.

"We are behind other countries in putting [out] legislation," he said.

Cabinet was also looking at banning the Messenger app, he said.

"We are ensuring the use of the media, particularly Facebook, is for the good of the people."

With Solomon Islands under a state of public emergency because of the pandemic, Agovaka expected the ban to be brought in as soon as possible and draft legislation put out in the new year.