Write by: Jolibois Julia
On social medias, some Haitian officials block or restrict the comments section preventing the public to comments on their contents. A recent public disagreement with their politicians, that take part in a scandale started from X, formerly named Twitter, lead to Facebook, these leaders have found themselves to be in the middle of such controversial argument. Ariel Henry who is the current Prime Minister of Haiti and Nesmy Manigat who is the Minister of Education and Vocational Training, have been some of those to name a few, that had been limiting their comment sections on social medias.
Some individual do enjoys their privacy on the internet, in other words, accounts created on platforms like X or Facebook can be set to be private. According to Gotson Pierre, coordinator of the Medialternatif group and editor in chief of the online agency Alterpresse, “we understand that anyone using social medias has the right to regulate their account, especially if it’s been used for personal purposes. To choose to accept a friend request or to follow each other on social network, is an unilateral choice. However, senior officials who perform public functions, that is, who work on behalf of the republic, do not use their account for personal purposes, but as public figures to inform the population about their achievements or to share information regarding the public interest. These accounts are in the public domain and imposing restrictions such as blocking comments, could be judged as an abuse of power,” he explains.
Ministers or civil servants acting on behalf of the State have an official account which serves as a channel for disseminating information affecting national life. For example, meetings with national and international partners, agreements signed, decisions taken by the ministry, among others are information that should be readily be there to the public’s opinion. Lawyer Godson Lubrun, founder of the legal column “Legally Speaking“, explains that good governance lies in a crucial element which is transparency. The creation of an official account by an elected official allows you to interact with citizens on everything that concerns national life.
“The Twitter account or any platform used by the authorities in the service of the Republic belongs to the Haitian State,” affirms Godson Lubrun. According to him, everything in the possession of a grand registrar is taken care of by the state. The social networks used by civil servants are intended to communicate with the people, because they are at the service of the republic. As a result, utility managers or government officials who choose to make their account a government communications tool cannot restrict their account as an individual would.
Take the example of journalist Guillaume Tatu who filed a complaint against the President of the French National Assembly, Richard Ferrand, for blocking him on Twitter. Currently, Guillaume Tatu no longer has access to the content published by Richard Ferrand, according to him, because he was blocked by Ferrand. This blocking prevented him from collecting information from the X. Which was the subject of a trial in which Guillaume became a civil party in, on March 2019.
Another relevant example is that of the decision rendered by federal judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, on May 2019, who considered that Donald Trump was to give American citizens the opportunity to react to his tweets, as required by Freedom of Expression protected by the First Amendment to the American Constitution, according to the French Newspaper Le Parisien. These examples effectively prove that the communication networks used by state agents do not belong to them, but are available to any citizen wishing to obtain information or express their opinion.
Beyond this right of Freedom of Expression, the approach according to which these official accounts are means of the state to communicate with the public on the activities of the state, shows that they do not have the right to do restrict the public of any part of public servants account, says Gotson Pierre.
Taking this aspect into account, the Quebec jurist and columnist Pierre Trudel, writes the following tittle to an article: “The right to block” published in the online newspaper Le Devoir, specifies that an elected official can obviously delete or block content that contravenes the law or which is clearly offensive. It is reasonable to ensure that no insult, defamation or proven lie is tolerated. But the simple fact that a commenter expresses a contrary opinion does not constitute a sufficient reason to block them or delete their comments.
When it comes to our authorities restricting access to their accounts, Gotson Pierre shares this same point of view. “A public official in a democracy who decides to use a public means of communication cannot decide what type of opinion should appear on his account. On the other hand, certain comments are unacceptable in these public spaces, such as defamation and insult. In short, psychological and verbal violence are condemned by law. As a result, elected officials have the right to intercept these slanderous comments and delete or report them,” explains the Alterpresse journalist.
“Blocking comments from journalists or citizens on social media is a political strategy used by authorities to limit their interaction with the press or anyone with contrary opinions that could harm the government in place,” says Berrick Estidore, president of the National Online Media Network. Which amounts to saying that individuals’ criticisms of those in power can be considered defamatory attacks on the part of the authority reading the comments. It is true that the line between insults and criticism is very thin. This will depend on the sensitivity of the person reading the comments and may served as an excuse to block people with contrary opinions.
How does it work for Haiti?
In the case of Haiti, there are legal rules regarding the freedom of the people to inform themselves and express their opinions on any matter in any public space. Indeed, Freedom of Expression is guaranteed by the Constitution of 29 March 1987 amended in May 2011. Article 28 of the said constitution provides that every Haitian has the right to freely express his opinions, in any matter by the way he chooses. According to Article 40, the State is obliged to give publicity through spoken, written and televised press, in the Creole and French languages to laws, decrees, international agreements among others.
This means that citizens are allowed to express their opinion without constraint. “Restricting comments is a violation of a citizen to Freedom of Expression“, says Godson Lubrun.
Elected officials always tend to block journalists who criticize their bad governance. “Personally, I have been blocked or deleted by ambassadors and other people with positions of responsibility who consider my opinions as a threat to the power in place,” adds Gotson Pierre. “It is a violation of freedom of expression.” Even if there are no legal provisions that apply to cyberspace in Haiti, the international conventions ratified by Haiti complement Haitian legislation. Citizens can always file a complaint, because there is retention of information.
Two judgments of the United Nations Human Rights Council on the promotion and protection of human rights on the Internet. “The same rights enjoyed by people offline must also be protected online, in particular Freedom of Expression, which is applicable regardless of borders and regardless of the media chosen, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” Based on these rulings, a journalist who does not have access to the comments sections, to the accounts of those public agents on social medias can still file a complaint.
Furthermore, if the fact that Ariel Henry does not provide access to the comments sections, harms a citizen, he or she can file a complaint. “Any act whatsoever of a person, which causes damage to others, obliges the person through whose fault it happened to repair it, article 1168 of the Haitian Civil Code,” underlines Godson Lubrun, drawing attention to this provision of the Civil Code.
The Haitian podcaster and radio host living in New York, Ford Amosky, also commented against the dictatorial behavior of our Haitian leaders. Note that he was the first to notice this anomaly in the accounts of certain public figure. Finally, several experts and personalities known on social medias were approached to obtain more information.
Among these people is Altema Jean Marie, the former general director of CONATEL (National Telecommunications Council). Recently questioned on the subject, he preferred to get ahead by writing a letter to Ariel Henry, in order to express his disagreement “concerning the Prime Minister’s decision not to accept comments on the official accounts of the social networks Facebook and X.” This article from MagHaiti does not particularly target a head of state, but rather all social media accounts with state function with state resources, that are restricting access to the comment sections.
Translated by: Moise Lena Jean Louis
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