What is needed to free Africa’s in­ter­net

Gov­ern­ments are en­act­ing laws to re­strict In­ter­net ac­cess and out­law crit­i­cism of of­fi­cials

Business Daily (Kenya) - - FRONT PAGE - KIZITO BYENKYA AND ALEX HUMPHREY Project Syn­di­cate.org Byenkya is a se­nior pro­gramme spe­cial­ist at the Open So­ci­ety Hu­man Rights Ini­tia­tive. Humphrey is a pol­icy as­so­ciate at the Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tions.

Much to the dis­may of the gov­ern­ment in Ad­dis Ababa, “Zone 9” has be­come a house­hold name in Ethiopia. Since 2012, this small group of jour­nal­ists-turned-on­line ac­tivists has used so­cial me­dia to cam­paign for po­lit­i­cal free­doms and civil lib­er­ties in their coun­try.

The group’s suc­cess — mea­sured, for ex­am­ple, by the flood of likes and com­ments on its Face­book page — has come in spite of gov­ern­ment ef­forts to si­lence the writ­ers, in­clud­ing the ar­rest of six mem­bers in 2014 on trumped-up ter­ror­ism charges.

Ethiopia’s gov­ern­ment is not alone in seek­ing to con­sol­i­date po­lit­i­cal power by re­strict­ing what cit­i­zens say on­line. Across Africa, gov­ern­ments are en­act­ing leg­is­la­tion to re­strict In­ter­net ac­cess and out­law crit­i­cism of elected of­fi­cials. Dig­i­tal cam­paign­ers face myr­iad cen­sor­ship tac­tics, in­clud­ing “Bor­der Gate­way Pro­to­col” at­tacks, “HTTP throt­tling,” and “deep packet in­spec­tions.”

The irony is that cen­sor­ship rarely qui­ets the dis­af­fected. Rather than quelling dis­sent, gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion only in­spires more peo­ple to take their griev­ances to What­sapp, Face­book, Twit­ter, and other so­cial me­dia plat­forms, where Africans are in­creas­ingly chal­leng­ing cor­rupt gov­ern­ments, ex­pos­ing rigged elec­tions, and de­mand­ing to be heard.

At the mo­ment, how­ever, few of Africa’s lead­ers are lis­ten­ing. Lead­ers in nine of the 18 African coun­tries that held elec­tions in 2016 placed some level of re­stric­tion on the In­ter­net to limit dis­sent.

Four days prior to Uganda’s pres­i­den­tial vote in Fe­bru­ary, Pres­i­dent Yow­eri Mu­sev­eni cut ac­cess to mo­bile pay­ment ser­vices and so­cial me­dia sites. In Au­gust and Septem­ber, Gabon’s pres­i­dent, Ali Bongo, seek­ing to project an at­mos­phere of calm to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, shut down In­ter­net ac­cess overnight.

Then in De­cem­ber, of­fi­cials in the Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of the Congo or­dered an In­ter­net shut­down the day be­fore Pres­i­dent Joseph Ka­bila was sched­uled to leave of­fice, thereby quash­ing on­line dis­sent when he re­fused to step down.

In­ter­net black­outs like th­ese vi­o­late peo­ple’s hu­man rights and un­der­mine demo­cratic pro­cesses. Last year, the United Na­tions Hu­man Rights Coun­cil ap­proved a res­o­lu­tion af­firm­ing that, “rights that peo­ple have off­line must also be pro­tected on­line, in par­tic­u­lar free­dom of ex­pres­sion.”

Most African gov­ern­ments try to jus­tify In­ter­net em­bar­goes by ar­gu­ing that the re­stric­tions are nec­es­sary to en­sure pub­lic safety and se­cu­rity. Mu­sev­eni, for ex­am­ple, claimed that block­ing In­ter­net ac­cess was the only way to pro­tect vis­it­ing heads of state dur­ing his swear­ing-in cer­e­mony. But he pre­sented no ev­i­dence link­ing so­cial me­dia ac­ces­si­bil­ity and se­cu­rity in Uganda, or any­where else.

Ac­cord­ing to Ac­cess Now, an in­ter­na­tional ad­vo­cacy group for dig­i­tal rights, peo­ple typ­i­cally feel less se­cure without the In­ter­net, be­cause they can­not ac­cess in­for­ma­tion or con­nect with friends and fam­ily in times of un­cer­tainty. With sev­eral key African elec­tions com­ing up, In­ter­net shut­downs are again on the hori­zon.

In Zim­babwe, where Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe, 93, is ex­pected to run for his eighth term in mid-2018, a gov­ern­ment-led crack­down ap­pears in­evitable. For decades, Mu­gabe has re­lied on in­tim­i­da­tion and vi­o­lence to sti­fle po­lit­i­cal dis­sent. It is not sur­pris­ing, then, that he has al­ready be­gun tak­ing a hos­tile ap­proach to on­line ac­tivism.

Last year, his gov­ern­ment shut down the In­ter­net in the mid­dle of po­lit­i­cal protests and vowed to ar­rest any­one caught gen­er­at­ing or shar­ing “abu­sive or sub­ver­sive ma­te­rial on so­cial me­dia.” But cit­i­zens are not help­less.

While gov­ern­ments is­sue orders to cut off In­ter­net ac­cess, only telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies have the abil­ity to hit the “kill switch.” That is why Africa’s blog­gers and on­line ac­tivists must work more closely with in­vestors and share­hold­ers of com­mu­ni­ca­tions firms to con­vince them to stand up for democ­racy and hu­man rights by re­sist­ing il­lib­eral gov­ern­ment di­rec­tives.

More­over, civil-so­ci­ety groups, the African Union, and the UN should do more to con­demn na­tional leg­is­la­tion that aims to nor­malise re­stric­tive In­ter­net poli­cies. Just as it launched a model law on ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion in 2013, the African Union should pro­vide new guid­ance to states on how to safe­guard the right to as­sem­ble and ex­press views on­line.

Fi­nally, new con­ti­nent-wide mea­sures are needed to en­sure that Africans’ on­line rights are recog­nised and re­spected by their gov­ern­ments. Although the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil’s res­o­lu­tion to pro­tect on­line free­doms is not bind­ing, it of­fers a start­ing point for en­sur­ing that gov­ern­ments al­low cit­i­zens to use the In­ter­net as a tool for maximising po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Such in­ter­ven­tions are needed now more than ever. The Kenyan, Zim­bab­wean, and Ethiopian leg­is­la­tures are cur­rently con­sid­er­ing laws that would per­mit sig­nif­i­cantly greater gov­ern­ment con­trol over In­ter­net ac­cess. Last year, Tan­za­nia adopted leg­is­la­tion that has al­ready been used to charge in­di­vid­u­als with crimes who have crit­i­cised Pres­i­dent John Magu­fuli on so­cial me­dia.

Whether gov­ern­ments bar cit­i­zens from gath­er­ing in pub­lic, sign­ing pe­ti­tions, or ac­cess­ing the In­ter­net and post­ing on so­cial me­dia makes no dif­fer­ence. All such mea­sures are de­signed to strip cit­i­zens of their rights. The bat­tle for free­dom, as Zone 9 has shown, is no less real when the pub­lic square is the dig­i­tal do­main.

Last year, Tan­za­nia adopted laws used to charge those who crit­i­cise Pres­i­dent Magu­fuli on so­cial me­dia In­ter­net black­outs vi­o­late peo­ple’s hu­man rights and un­der­mine demo­cratic pro­cesses...”

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