On November 17, the Solomon Islands’ cabinet proposed restricting its citizens’ access to Facebook, eliciting a fierce reaction from the public, business community, political opposition, and human rights activists.
Confirming the plan to the Solomon Times, Communications Minister Peter Agovaka, who presented the proposal to cabinet, said that the platform would be banned due to the circulation of “abusive languages against Ministers, the Prime Minister, character assassination, [and] defamation of character.”
If enacted, the ban would see the democratic South Pacific nation follow Nauru, Iran, North Korea, and China as the only nations to have prohibited access to the giant social media network.
Facebook has become ubiquitous in the Solomon Islands, a youthful country of more than 750,000 people spread over 992 islands, where telecommunication access is patchy and expensive.
Opposition leader Matthew Wale has vowed to oppose the plan, while Peter Kenilorea, Jr., a senior opposition figure, called the decision a “direct and brazen assault on freedom of expression” – one that violates the Solomon Islands’ constitution.
The decision also drew fire from the rights group Amnesty International. “If the Solomon Islands Cabinet has any respect for people’s rights, it should urgently rethink its decision to ban Facebook,” said Kate Schuetze, Amnesty’s Pacific researcher.
The proposal caps off more than a year of political tension in the country, fueled by four-time Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s controversial embrace of Beijing, and his government’s delivery of COVID-19 economic stimulus.
COVID-19 Response Controversy
As COVID-19 began its lethal spread in February, Sogavare barred all inbound travel to the country, successfully limiting the spread of the disease.
As a result, the Solomon Islands has registered just 16 cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. All cases have been isolated to repatriated citizens in hotel quarantine, and no community transmission or deaths have been recorded.
The closure of borders, however, has had a serious impact on the islands’ economy. It led the Sogavare government to offer a significant economic stimulus for affected businesses, but the rollout of the support has been controversial.
Earlier this month, the anti-corruption group Transparency International called upon the Solomon Islands government to conduct an audit of the $39 million stimulus, alleging that “people without legitimate businesses or projects” were among the schemes’ beneficiaries.
Additionally, controversy has surrounded a $2 million commitment made by the New Zealand government in April, for the completion of the Gizo Hospital in the country’s west, and the Kilu’ufi Hospital in Malaita Province. While the Gizo project has commenced, work has not yet begun on the Malaita project, according to local officials.
Delays in dispensing COVID-19 support have prompted allegations of government corruption – typically unsubstantiated – which have circulated widely on large Facebook groups, such as the Malaita Provincial Development Forum.
Some locals believe the plan to shut down the world’s most popular social media network is merely an attempt to silence dissent. “The government just wants to ban Facebook to hide their corruption,” Hutaiasi Kere, a 21-year-old student in Honiara, told The Diplomat.
Sogavare’s “Pivot to China”
Though much recent online criticism has pertained to the COVID-19 stimulus, vocal discontent with the Sogavare government has been growing since 2019, when Honiara controversially switched diplomatic allegiances from Taiwan, a long-time ally, to China.
The 36-year alliance between Taiwan and the Solomon Islands was terminated after a process marred once again by allegations of corruption.
Proponents of the China switch argued that embracing Beijing would boost the country’s anemic economy. But as a deeply Christian and proudly democratic people, many Solomon Islanders remain fearful of China’s well-documented religious intolerance and autocratic model of governance.
Beyond ideology, the China pivot has had tangible negative impacts for Solomon Islanders.
Taiwan was a chief funder of numerous agricultural development programs, which benefited communities throughout the islands. These programs were disrupted after Honiara switched its diplomatic recognition to Beijing.
Soon after Taiwanese diplomats left the country, a Beijing-based financier, the SAM Group, attempted to lease the island of Tulagi in Central Province, before Solomon Islands’ independent attorney general, John Muria, Jr., struck down the proposal.
More than 100 students from the Solomon Islands were also caught up in the fallout. Studying in Taiwan when the switch was announced, they lost their Taiwanese scholarships and were forced to return to the Solomon Islands. Here they await promised transfers to mainland Chinese universities that are yet to materialize. A 21-year-old Solomon Islander student who lost her scholarship in Taiwan passed away from a short illness after she arrived home in Honiara. Some felt her death would have been avoided had she remained in Taiwan, where she had access to higher quality health care.
Then, in February this year, leaked documents revealed that the country’s finance minister, Harold Kuma, was in late-stage negotiations with a mysterious Chinese lender, who had promised the South Pacific nation a $100 billion concessional loan, repayable over a century. The Solomon Islands’ GDP is approximately $1.4 billion.
The loan proposal was dismissed out of hand by international observers, but added to “debt trap” concerns among the wider community.
Fervent criticisms of the Facebook ban have come from Daniel Suidani, the premier of Malaita, a province of more than 200,000 in the country’s east.
“It should be plain and clear to the national government and the cabinet that complaints seen on Facebook is a reflection of people’s frustration towards the government,” Suidani said in a statement addressed to his constituents.
Even before the Facebook ban announcement, relations between Suidani and Sogavare had soured due to the government’s switch of diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Many Malaitans remain loyal to Taiwan, which invested considerably in the island’s agricultural sector.
Refusing to deal with Beijing, Suidani has established his own aid and political relationship with Taipei, in overt defiance of national policy.
In March, Suidani sent a close advisor on a clandestine trip to Brisbane, Australia to meet with a senior Taiwanese diplomat, the Washington Post reported.
Soon after, Taiwan dispatched COVID-19 aid packages directly to Malaita, many of which were confiscated by authorities at Honiara’s Henderson Airport. The aid that did reach Malaita, however, was ceremoniously unveiled by Suidani, who offered his thanks to Taipei, while standing in front of an array of Taiwanese flags.
Reacting to Suidani’s freelancing, Beijing’s chief diplomat in Honiara said that the premier’s action had hurt “the national feelings of the Chinese people.”
The Sogavare government believes any formal relationship between Malaita and Taiwan is illegal, and has threatened to use its authority to dissolve Suidani’s government.
One year after the Taiwan to China switch, Suidani pledged to hold an independence vote, a popular proposal among many Malaitans, who have long aspired to their own state. Despite promising the poll “within a month” in September, such a referendum has yet to be realized.
The proposed Facebook ban risks severe political consequences for Sogavare, in that it gives Suidani yet another justification for continuing his campaign for greater Malaitan autonomy.
Facebook Ban to Hit Businesses Hard
Since the announcement on November 17, the Sogavare government has resisted making any formal statement regarding the proposed Facebook ban. “The government will make a public statement on the subject when it so decides,” a media advisor in the prime minister’s office told The Diplomat.
If it follows through, however, the economic impacts could well be dire. One of the Sogavare government’s COVID-19 support initiatives has been to offer businesses training in digital marketing, which has included the use of Facebook and Instagram as tools to engage customers and survive the economic downturn.
The Sunset Lodge, a small tourism operation on the island of Savo, was one business that participated in the program. It used the training to rebrand its enterprise, and marketed new packages and tours directly to audiences in Honiara via Facebook.
“We would call on the Government to reconsider its decision to ban Facebook and consider its citizens who are only trying to keep their business afloat,” Bernard Kamakeza, the Sunset Lodge’s operator, said in a press release issued by the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce.
John Kela owns and operates Kuli Kau Tabu, a small resort on the Ngella Islands. Kuli Kau Tabu provides employment to dozens of youth spread throughout several neighboring villages, who staff the facility on a rotating basis. The unique employment model aims to distribute the economic benefits of the business evenly throughout the surrounding area.
Kela has used Facebook to attract a small number of expatriate and local visitors from the capital.
“Facebook is the only way our clients can reach us,” he told The Diplomat. “We’re not like other big businesses that are already popular. This will greatly affect our marketing.”
According to the Solomon Islands’ tourism peak body, 80 percent of marketing in the country occurs on the platform.
“We urgently request the government’s assistance in reconsidering the proposed ban given the implications it will have,” Josefa Tuamoto, the CEO of Tourism Solomons, told the Solomon Times.
But the economic impacts will be felt beyond tourism.
Lesley Sanga is a farmer from Busurata, a rural village in Malaita. His farm is located more than six hours from the capital.
“I am farming kava, carrots, and taro. I have my customers living in Honiara. I communicate to them through Facebook,” Sanga said via Facebook messenger. “If the government bans Facebook it will really hurt my business.”
Edward Cavanough is a journalist and policy researcher based in Adelaide, Australia.