By Hon Cornelius Deveaux, Deputy Minister of Information and Communications
In a recent piece following calls for a street protest, that was widely circulated on social media, I urged Sierra Leoneans to be wary of such calls especially when the organizers of the protest were at that material time unknown and because I remain of the conviction that dialogue is a better option especially when the government has on a number of times proved to be a listening government.
The disturbances that eclipsed a student after sport jubilation couple of days ago are a clear indication of what such a street protest could have degenerated into, especially when the organizers were then faceless and in consideration of reports that a set of people are of the conviction the APC can only be booted out of power through violence and other unconstitutionally means.
It is on this note that the press release issued by CHRDI should not only be considered a balderdash, but a further clear indication that some of the civil society organizations in the country are political surrogates who are surreptitiously bent on undermining the gains of the government and similarly desirous to provoke civil unrest to unconstitutionally unseat the government.
If this is not the case, one wonders why CHRDI would have issued a press release that wrongly castigate the Police when all the Police did was to protect the lives and properties of the greater majority.
The press release titled “CHRDI DEMANDS POLICE COMPLIANCE WITH CITIZENS CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO PROTEST” speaks volumes of the insincerity of certain civil society organizations in the country and specifically CHRDI which in my honest opinion is not just unaccountable to the people they claim to represent but also comprises of card carrying and known members of the opposition SLPP.
The press release refers to the recent increase in the pump price of fuel as unprecedented, forgetting that even at Le 6,000.00 per litre the price is less than US$ 1.00 and still one of the cheapest in the world.
It is but proper, at this point, to state that the Police has not in anyway acted untoward to people who have expressed dissenting views in a very civilized manner through advocacy, radio discussions and newspaper publications; through constructive engagements. Yesterday’s meeting with the organizers, having come out of their cocoon, and some CSOs is a testimony to this fact.
What the Police did was to proactively prevent an occurrence of the violence that characterized the recent student jubilation turned violent that threatened the peace and security of the greater majority and left numbers of innocent citizens writhing in pain and loss.
To say that “the CHRDI is of the conviction that the reaction of the Police to dissenting voices is tantamount to denying citizens the right to protest peacefully”, is completely misplaced, ill conceived and sends a worrying signal that such an organization could give a nod to a street protest organized by faceless leaders.
While I also “strongly believe that peaceful protest is a fundamental civil liberty and that it behoves the Police, who are enforcers of the law, to recognise that right and ensure they provide the enabling environment for citizens to exercise it”, it would have been foolhardy on their part to have sanctioned such a protest, especially when the organizers were at the material time faceless and could not have been identified if things had gone wrong as it was the case of the student jubilation that turned violent thus engendering wanton disregard for the rights of other people and the destruction of properties.
Indeed, the constitutional responsibility of the Police in relation to the right of citizens to protest, stops at keeping the peace, protecting the citizens who want to protest and creating the enabling environment by ensuring crowd and traffic management as the case may be. However, it is also the constitutional responsibility of the Police to protect the lives and properties of the greater majority and in a situation were the organizers of the protest were then unknown, protecting the greater majority takes precedence over any other consideration.
Nobody is denying people the right of assembly in a public place, which “is truly one of the cornerstones of citizens’ freedom”, and the action of the Police should not be interpreted as thus especially when the Police has the responsibility to always guarantee the protection of the peace and security of the greater majority.
The action of the Police is indeed an urgent measure to prevent ill motivated persons who would have hidden under cloak of a street protest organized by faceless leaders from intimidating and harassing the greater majority of innocent citizens in the country. The Police should therefore be applauded and not castigated.
There is indeed an enabling environment for aggrieved persons to address challenging issues that hinge on national development and cohesion. Those who have over the years constructively engaged government would attest to this feat. Above all, the ballot box is the most prudent option. This is why USA President elect Donald Trump refers to street protesters, protesting against his election, as idle people who do not mean well for America.
The meeting yesterday that brought the Police and organizers of the protest in concert with some civil society organizations together and its outcome is a clear indication that the CHRDI press release is misplaced and that there is beauty in dialogue as against the ugliness of confrontation and street protest.
I am currently in Niamey, Niger, attending the West African Internet Governance Forum organized by ECOWAS, at no cost to the government.
One of the topics that generated heated debate across the board has to do with the rights and responsibilities of internet users and in particular the unbridled use of social media.
According to the various speakers, the unbridled use of social media is becoming alarming especially in the light of peoples ignorance of the rights and responsibilities of internet users. It poses a threat to state and global security, intrudes into the privacy of citizens and undermines the usefulness of the social media as a conduit to promote social cohesion, inclusive democratic participation and good governance and socioeconomic growth.
Spreading a false report, invading people’s privacy, sharing of information that would undermine peace and security from an unknown source makes you equally culpable. In this regard, the Police acted right by arresting those who share information on the social media that are intended to undermine the peace and security of the state. Group administrators are also equally culpable.
And we must not be oblivious of the fact that there are existing laws under which one could be prosecuted.