26 years after organized Hate Speech in Rwanda shocked the world in 1994, a similar pattern appears to be emerging on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, following the poorly handled response to a major oil spill.
Known for racial harmony among the five main ethnic groups in Mauritius, any commentary that could inflame racial tension is very rare and strictly regulated by local law enforcement.
However, this past week, things took an unexpected and darker turn on the island nation, famed for its vibrant culture, golden beaches and pristine nature.
A series of shocking commentary, images and videos have been strategically placed on both Facebook and Whatsapp in the past week. These commentary, images and videos were clearly designed to stoke racial tension, and has been widely condemned by the majority of the population.
Facebook’s dominance in Mauritius
Facebook is the largest social media platform in the country, and often the main lead for news. Large Whatsapp groups have emerged for new media organizations to spread news to large sections of the population.
Facebook and Whatsapp were not always the largest social media or messaging platforms, but have strengthened their position in the country in the last few years.
Large Facebook groups have also been the main way that protesters have been using to organize and express their frustration against the Government’s handling of the Wakashio oil spill.
Hijacking of Facebook Groups and Accounts
Last week, in the run up to national protest marches, a surprising amount of activity took place on Facebook to sabotage organizers by removing administrators from the groups and spreading false information through fake profiles.
In spite of these attempts, the march was attended by approximately 5% of the island with over 100,000 watching online in the coastal town of Mahebourg, which was heavily impacted by the oil spill and from where the large stern of the Wakashio can still be seen.
Similar protests were held around the world by the diaspora community, who protested in front of major landmarks and Mauritian embassies.
An intervention by Facebook on 12 September restored the original protest organizers to their administrator roles.
A darker turn this past week
This past week, a new set of tactics appear to have been adopted, one which is insidious in nature.
Images and videos appear to have been selectively released to inflame division against specific racial communities in Mauritius.
By Saturday 19 September, there was widespread condemnation of the use of any form of racially provocative messages from other users of Facebook as well as all the main opposition political parties and organizers of the mass protests – who are not part of the mainstream political parties.
Notably, there has not been any condemnation of the use of hate speech by the current Government.
There are four main institutions within Mauritius that should be responsible for governing the spread of Hate Speech. The Mauritian Police Central Criminal Investigation Department and the Mauritius Police Cybercrime Unit, the technology regulator (Information and Communication Technologies Authority or ICTA), Mauritius Telecom, whose infrastructure provides the I.T. and telecommunication infrastructure that Mauritius operates on (such as cell phone towers and underwater fiber optic cables), and uses a range of brands such as My.T for internet services.
Mauritius Telecom is 40% owned by Orange (formerly France Telecom) through a wholly owned investment vehicle called Rimcom Ltd. The remaining 60% is essentially public funding from various bodies of the Government of Mauritius.
Concerns about security for the national IT infrastructure were raised by protesters on 29 August, who recognized that the traffic camera systems installed by My.T had stopped working just in the region of the protest march.
Unified condemnation of the use of Hate Speech
Mauritius has a form of proportional representation parliamentary system, that means a representative of every major community is present in parliament. It also results in a complex series of political alliances ahead of each election, to avoid the dominance of any one party over long periods of time.
Each political party tends to operate separately in Mauritius, despite periods of coalition building, as is normal under proportional representation systems around the world.
The events of the Wakashio, and now the apparently organized spread of hate speech has caused all major opposition political parties to come together in a unified appeal for calm and have called for a full and independent police investigation into the use of hate speech.
The organizers of the national protests in Mauritius – who are not part of the mainstream political parties – have also been calling for calm and unity.
Police complaints have already been filed this week with evidence of hate speech that had been disseminated on Facebook.
Role of Facebook and Whatsapp under scrutiny
While the national newspapers, radio and television are heavily regulated, the hate speech is being spread most rapidly via Facebook and Whatsapp, the dominant social media and messaging platforms in the country.
Even more concerning has been comments from the Content Moderation team of Facebook.
A series of posts that were clearly offensive and designed to sow division between communities had been flagged by dozens of Facebook users in Mauritius.
However, an odd set of messages were received back by the users that said that the posts ‘did not go against our [Facebook’s] specific ‘Community Standards.’
The messages, received by multiple Mauritian Facebook users who complained about the hate speech posts, were told that ‘we understand that it may still be offensive to you and others. No one should have to see posts they consider hateful on Facebook, so we want to help you avoid things like this in the future.’
The Facebook message went on to say, ‘Counter-speech in the form of accurate information and alternate viewpoints can help create a safer and more respectful environment.’
Since when is Hate Speech, ‘Counter-Speech’?
Let’s be clear on some of the messages that have been circulating on the Facebook-owned platforms (the most offensive of which will not be shared on Forbes). These include:
- Derogatory comments about women, specifically designed to incite one racial community against another.
- Images of swords being widely shared on large Whatsapp news groups, calling for certain communities to arm themselves. Mauritius is a peaceful country where gun-ownership is not permitted (only in very rare exceptions), so calling a population to arm themselves with knives and swords is extremely incendiary and has been widely condemned.
- National monuments of cultural and religious unity in Mauritius being deliberately vandalized with provocative graffiti written on these (acts that have never occurred in Mauritius’ history before).
- Comparisons of certain communities with animals (in derogatory language very reminiscent of Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines from the 1994 Rwanda genocide). Again, this is highly uncharacteristic in Mauritius where communities have co-existed harmoniously.
- Videos that have been selectively leaked revealing offensive racial jokes being told by certain communities (there is no evidence these were leaked by the persons who filmed the videos, raising even more questions about the state of I.T. and mobile phone security in the country).
This is not ‘counter-speech.’ Not even close.
This bears all the hallmarks of a well-organized campaign to attempt to destabilize a peaceful democracy.
Calls for national unity
One of the biggest threats the current party in power faces has been the national protests that have attracted over 100,000 protesters.
These are protesters from all walks of life in Mauritius, carrying flags of national unity, and calling for greater transparency, accountability and unity for the country.
These are protests that have attracted young children to old pensioners, who have been shocked by the environmental consequences of the deaths of 49 whales and dolphins. These marches are festive in nature, with music and large clean-up operations after to ensure no trash is left behind. There is nothing remotely violent about these protests.
The protesters were also critical of the opposition parties that had been in power before, and called for a fresh start that could unite all communities of Mauritius. This is a spontaneous outpouring of anger against how the environment has been treated, not a political campaign.
Face of the peaceful protest movement: Bruneau Laurette
The face of the protest movement has become Bruneau Laurette, a Mauritian maritime security specialist, who has now emerged as a social activist calling for change and unity.
During his first march on 29 August that attracted over 100,000, the centerpiece was an expose using satellite imagery raising serious questions about the salvage operation of the Wakashio.
This salvage operation is being overseen by the vessel insurer, Japan’s P&I Club, and a series of private sector companies that the insurer has contracted out for the salvage and cleanup.
They have been heavily criticized for the secretive nature of the oil spill and salvage response, exclusion of Mauritians with the appropriate skillset to provide guidance and oversight of the effort, and the nature of the operation that has appeared to lurch from one bad decision to the next, without any form of accountability.
Four members of a Mauritian crew involved in the salvage operation were lost (three confirmed deaths and the captain still missing). 49 whales and dolphins washed up dead on the shores of Mauritius. The front of the large 300m vessel was deliberately sunk in an undisclosed location of the ocean upon widespread international outrage from Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd. These are not ordinary oil spill response protocols, and ‘more of the same’ is not the solution.
This is not an oil spill response that is going well, 8 weeks in.
Protests against Government of Mauritius
The current Government in Mauritius – who were elected in November 2019 – have been embattled in responding to these protests which are now turning out to be the largest since Mauritian independence in 1968. These are scenes that are reminiscent of the popular protests seen in Lebanon in August following the deadly Port of Beirut explosion there following years of mismanagement of the port and other public institutions.
The response of the current Mauritian Government has appeared to only inflame the situation. Some of the biggest criticisms to the handling of the oil spill ship, the Wakashio, so far has been:
- Suspending parliament for two months until November. At a time when the public and opposition are demanding accountability, the suspension of parliament is unusual and a very serious act to have taken. Parliament in Mauritius is foundational to democracy and accountability in the country. There has been widespread condemnation of this decision to suspend parliament, which was called ‘a holiday’ by the Government, where even the opposition members have been calling for parliamentary sessions to be held.
- Denying journalists the ability to attend press conferences. Journalists from the largest newspapers in the country have been denied entry into the Mauritian Prime Minister’s Press Conferences after criticizing the Government’s response to the handling of the Wakashio incident and oil spill. The Prime Minister has since stopped all press conferences, delegating this responsibility to other Ministers.
- Relying on an army of unaccountable international consultants. The use of unaccountable international consultants is causing deep disquiet in the country. Mauritians and the diaspora have the required capabilities for a full investigation into the oil spill. The use of international consultants has been an attempt to keep Mauritians knowledgeable about oil spill responses away from asking the hard questions.
Serious questions will need to be asked about the Japanese P&I Club, who are the vessel insurer and have funded and selected the international consultants in Mauritius, such as SMIT Salvage, Polyeco and Le Floch Depollution. They have been unresponsive to Forbes’ outreach since the beginning of this crisis on the specific clean up techniques being used, amid concerns of harmful algae blooms being seen in Blue Bay Marine Park on 5 September since the oil spill, and suggestions that there is not full transparency in the cleanup operation.
Representatives from the Governments of France, Japan and Panama have also been on the ground and questions are being asked about their roles and actions amid a series of contradictory announcements.
Such secrecy and lack of accountability is causing many journalists, NGOs, opposition members and civil society to wonder what is really behind the motivation of these international groups in Mauritius, and whether their actions in the country are inflaming what was once a peaceful and harmonious tropical island paradise destination.
The IMO and oil industry group ITOPF have also been singled out for particular criticism given clear failures in their roles to be applying best practice oil spill responses in the country, and endangering the oil spill response effort.
All of these organizations are present in the country and working with the Government of Mauritius when there are clear national protests on every mainstream media outlet. There has not been a single unified press conference with all of these organizations since the Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned ship crashed into Mauritius’ shores.
It is 8 weeks (56 days) since the grounding of the Wakashio and there has not been a single coordinated press conference by any of the international organizations present in the country. That is not normal. Such conduct would have been unacceptable if the oil spill had occurred in a US National Park, the center of London or Paris, or in the heart of Tokyo Bay. This leak has happened in the heart of an important cluster of biodiversity and historic natural park reserves in Mauritius. How can the lack of transparency being shown by all the international organizations present in Mauritius, be acceptable there?
There is only one planet – not two tiers.
If a darker specter of hate speech tools are now being deployed, this goes far beyond any oil spill response, and the actions and responsibilities of international bodies and companies potentially complicit in keeping the oil spill response highly secretive, and which has aggravated the local situation, will have to be looked at very carefully indeed.
The Social Dilemma
This is also the week that saw the loss of the highest profile and most respected US Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg or RBG as she was most affectionately known. She was a strong advocate for the first amendment of free speech, but did raise questions about how to judge if such speech is causing offense.
This weekend also saw the release of Tristan Harris’ The Social Dilemma. In this docudrama on surveillance capitalism, he highlights how the tools of social media and technology giants can be used to influence populations and spread hatred. Given what has been seen in Mauritius, it may be more documentary than drama series for the population of Mauritius caught up in the ongoing Wakashio nightmare.
A new set of strong and independent institutions
Covid-19 is putting pressure on Governments around the world, and revealing both national and international systems are no longer fit for purpose for the challenges being faced in the second decade of the 21st Century.
Urgent change is needed. Hopefully it does not come at the expense of peace and stability in one of Africa’s leading economic and political beacons.
The scope of the inquiry into the aftermath of the Wakashio appears to be getting wider and wider as more concerns are raised, and the consequences of these serious actions are explored.
Forbes first contacted the media team of Facebook 8 days ago on 11 September 2020 but no official media response has yet been received on the widespread reports in the Mauritian press of disruptions to the Facebook platform and hate speech being disseminated in an organized manner.