Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The role of social media in the Arab Spring, and the risk of fake news influencing political and economic events in SA, were among the questions MPs grappled with when they heard oral submissions on the Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill on Wednesday.

The bill aims to control interactions on social media with a view to preventing social media platforms from enabling hate speech, criminal activity and terrorism.

However, various organisations fear its provisions will compromise the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

MPs on the justice and correctional services committee heard submissions from organisations including the Centre for Constitutional Rights, Freedom of Religion SA, Right2Know and the Digital Law Company.

Karabo Rajuili of Right2Know told the committee that the organisation still had reservations about the bill as its "vague" language opened the door to a government crackdown on social media.

"The bill criminalises false information but has such a broad definition that anything deemed harmful could be declared false, and the national discourse in the country would be shut down.

"In terms of dealing with the pervasiveness of false information, there are more substantive ways of dealing with this, and that is civil education and teaching the public how to scrutinise situations and avoid false information," Rajuili said.

Freedom of Religion SA’s legal council, advocate Nadene Badenhorst, told the committee that while the organisation had no issue with precaution, the bill needed a provision or introductory paragraph with reference to harassment and hate speech legislation.

"We support the bill. It is vitally important that we protect freedom of expression and not go back to government-based thought control," she said.

"Speech that gave rise to the Arab spring would probably fall under incitement of violence and propaganda. Those are covered in hate speech laws." Lizzie Harrison of the Digital Law Company told the committee that the bill was a much-needed intervention to protect people from victimisation via social media.

She said it was particularly instrumental in combating the scourge of revenge pornography.

She recommended that clause 18 be adjusted to ensure that cases of revenge pornography are tried and prosecuted under the Sexual Offences Act, in light of their serious nature and to protect victims.

ANC MPs spoke on the evils of terrorism and how terrorism was enabled by social media, stressing that it was critical to stop those using social media to advance such ends.

ANC MP advocate Loyiso Mpumlwana asked organisations to put their "narrow interest" in rights aside, and to consider what is in the "national interest".

Committee member for the EFF Sam Matiase said fake news became popular with the rise of Bell Pottinger, which used social media.

The Arab spring came about through social media, he said.

Committee member for the DA Werner Horn said rights and limitations were a fine line to balance, asking: "What if fake news escalates to the point where it can affect the outcome of an election? Would that not be an imperative in combating the growth of fake news? When does the limitation clause come into play then?"

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