Why Twitter, Facebook folks should worry about ‘old school’ dissenters

Thursday September 22 2011

By Daniel K. Kalinaki

Some readers might have heard of Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller, a German priest best known for his poem, First they came, which reads:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Pastor Niemöller’s poem was targeted at the German intellectual middle-class who remained indifferent to the growing influence of the Nazis under Adolf Hitler until it was too late. Few people know that Pastor Niemöller, who was anti-communism, initially supported Hitler until the Nazis decided to put the state above religion.

People like Pastor Niemöller are always controversial. Can those who have worked in the belly of the beast ever be trusted when they choose to oppose it? It’s a question often thrown at the likes of Dr Kizza Besigye and, in recent days, at John Nagenda, who has gone from being a fly on the wall to a fly in the king’s ointment.
What we ought to be more concerned about, however, is not the words of the ‘bad’ people (even as they turn into victims themselves), but the silence of the good people.

And so we come to the small matter of a one Vincent Nzaramba who, at the time of writing was still in detention several days after he was arrested over a book he wrote that is heavily critical of the current regime.

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I have not read the book but a colleague who has says it calls for a reinstatement of term limits, urges the President to resign over alleged human rights abuses, argues that social conditions are ripe for a revolution, and – apparently, suggests how a coup could be carried out.

It is the last claim that has put the young man in trouble. One might argue that it is reckless and incendiary to write a political pamphlet that includes a manual on how to conduct a coup. Others will argue that such information, and worse, is readily available on the Internet, and that anyone who needs to read a manual in order to carry out a coup should stay home and save themselves from almost certain death.

Incitement to violence should concern us all but so should the deliberate narrowing of the space for public debate and dissent which will, eventually, turn violence into a legitimate political tool.

Last year Besigye’s sister, Dr Olive Kobusingye, published a critical book that juxtaposed the President’s public comments with his actions. The book did not have a section on bomb-making or coup-plotting (which probably explains why Olive was not arrested), but it was all but banned.

Government actions have tended to contradict its statements. Open-air radio talk shows were banned and CBS taken off air for allegedly inciting violence. No sanctions (other than the financial punishment of closure) were brought against CBS and although the bimeeza remain banned, government now says it wants to start its own versions of town-hall meetings.

This sounds less of an attempt to regulate media and more of an effort to control media as well as the thoughts and ideas of citizens. None of this, of course worries the middle-class intellectuals whose rarefied dialogue takes place on Facebook and Twitter, right?

Well, no. Several weeks ago a little bird told me about a new security surveillance operation set up near the city centre to track comments on social media networks, compile a list of cyber-activists and keep them under surveillance.

For years the government came for journalists and few people cared. Some even said we deserved it. Now they are going after authors and civil society activists and many still remain indifferent. The real story will come the day a blogger or a “tweep” is arrested for something they put online. That is the day we will all realise that we should have been concerned and worried all the time.

Remember Pastor Niemöller? He ended up in Dachau concentration camp, together with many of the communists, trade unionists and Jews whose plight he had been indifferent to. He survived where millions died and was set free at the end of World War II in 1945 because unlike him, someone else cared.

dkalinaki@ug.nationmedia.com

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