At the time, Cameroon’s president Paul Biya was enjoying a months-long pricey vacation in Switzerland. Biya, an octogenarian who has ruled the country since 1982, was criticized for issuing a message of condolence while out of the country, and for not returning fast enough to deal with the national tragedy.
Less than a month after the accident, Cameroon’s government is now deploring the use of social media, labeling it a “dangerous” tool used to disseminate false information and instill fear in the public.
Addressing Cameroon’s parliament on Nov. 10, the speaker of the assembly, Cavaye Yeguie Djibril, called social media (pdf) “a new form of terrorism,” according to a version of his speech uploaded on the parliament’s website. These platforms, according to Djibril, have created a “social pandemic,” perpetuated by “amateurs, whose ranks, unfortunately, continue to swell and who do not have a sense of etiquette and decorum.” Djibril also called on the “appropriate authorities to see the pressing need to track down and neutralize the culprits of cyber crimes.”
Internet penetration in the central African nation has grown from just 5% in 2011 to over 20% in 2015, according to the World Bank. This has given many Cameroonians a space to criticize officials and protest government negligence and incompetence. The country’s 24-million people are among the continent’s most vocal when it comes to using sites like Twitter to demand action from their leaders.
Djibril’s sentiments were echoed by the Cameroon Tribune, the government-owned, lone national newspaper, which published a story calling the widespread use of social media “a threat to peace.” And Biya has already made in his opinion known. In a speech last year, he condemned his online critics, calling them “irresponsible prophets” and “birds of ill omen, dreamers and enthusiasts of virtual calls for destabilization through the social networks.”
In March 2011, just a few months after the Arab Spring protests resulted in the toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, Biya’s government banned mobile Twitter service in response to the call from opposition groups for “Egypt-like” protests against his three-decade long rule. Many now fear that Biya could take similar actions. The possibility that the government might rein in social media users has become even more likely as it prepares for presidential elections in 2018. Cameroon’s media regulator already frequently suspends journalists and bans new outlets from publishing and broadcasting, and the government severely restricts freedom of expression, according to the advocacy group Freedom House.
Weighing the impact of social media is not a debate unique to Cameroon. In recent days, many analysts and commentators in the US have questioned how much of a role social media, as a purveyor of fake news, hoaxes, and misinformation, influenced the outcome of its recent presidential elections. But in a democratic space with free institutions like the US, this has generated healthy discussions about the place of social networks in influencing and shaping political opinions. In oppressive societies like Cameroon, using social media to ask hard questions and agitate for change could mean trouble for citizens.