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Africa’s looming (uneven) struggle for digital rights

African governments have changed the way they approach the digital environment and this has especially marked the evolution of rights in the sector. “Now they see the Internet and the digital space as conflict scenarios for political control”, warns in one of its main conclusions the latest report on the state of digital rights that the organization prepares each year Paradigm Initiative (PIN). That means they struggle to control the Internet because they believe that not doing so can detract from their power. And that struggle is usually not placid.

“Important state resources are being deployed to dominate digital spaces in order to consolidate political domination or deliberately promote a climate of fear,” the document denounces. In other words, African governments not only no longer despise the digital environment but have begun to consider it one of the spaces in which to consolidate their power, so that their will to control has been translated into struggle and conflict. Digital Rights in Africa draws the evolution of Internet freedom in a representative group of African countries, warns of the most used measures to limit rights and advances the main threats to citizens and civil societies.

The fight for digital rights in Africa resembles the punishment of Sisyphus. “Perhaps 2018 was one of the most intense years for his promotion in Africa. As civil society came together to tackle the most pressing problems, it seemed that significant progress was being made. However, 2019 started as if someone had set out to undo the advances of 2018, with internet blocks in Ethiopia, Sudan and Gabon. In fact, the year continued with more evidence of violations of digital rights ”, lament the editors of the report. Sesan ‘Gbenga, executive director of the organization that carried out the research, confirms this dynamic: “In defending digital rights, we are taking one step forward and two steps back, we still have a lot to advance to guarantee them. Civil society has to continue advancing and it will have to be always vigilant, it is the price to pay for freedom ”.

Russian and Chinese models

Case by case

Ethiopia: “Three major power outages have been reported as of June 13, 2019, a three-day outage due to national examinations, an inexplicable internet blackout lasting at least 100 hours due to political violence in Amhara State . (…) Another common Internet censorship mechanism in Ethiopia is the moderation of online content ”.

Nigeria: “There has been a steady increase in arrests of dissident voices in Nigeria between 2017 and 2019. The year 2019, however, was much worse. (…) Digital rights in Nigeria are threatened by a number of laws and policies. (…) The Nigerian government is not slowing down its mass surveillance efforts, as it has continued to buy surveillance equipment.

Rwanda: Despite these advances in the ICT sector, Internet freedom has been reduced due to restrictions on freedom of expression online, content manipulation and violence against journalists and rights defenders humans. This has resulted in an environment in which the information disseminated represents a single vision and avoids criticism ”.

Tanzania: “In recent years, the international perception of Tanzania has gone from being well regarded to being an international humiliation due to the rapid closure of its civic space. In 2016, Tanzania passed the Cybercrime Law, which has been seen as a tool to stifle freedom of expression. The country has taken new steps towards the closure of civic spaces ”.

Zimbabwe: “In August 2019, the Government of Zimbabwe showed increased interest in training the country’s law enforcement and security forces in ‘understanding cybersecurity’. This trend shows the government’s intention to police cyberspace, especially when the government has purchased the Cloud Walk facial recognition software, acquired in China in 2018. “

One of the diagnoses of the research is that during the last year the adoption of the so-called “Russian and Chinese models” has intensified, which imply an increase in the control and surveillance of the Internet by the States, that is, more instruments for exercise that vigilance and “an increase in violations of digital rights thanks to the legislation passed to promote public order,” according to the report. “To be honest,” Sesan ‘Gbenga points out, “the Russian and Chinese way is also the American way, the French way or the European way. I am not saying this to provoke, but because also in these countries they talk about freedom, but at the same time they limit it on the Internet ”.

Returning to the diagnosis on the African continent “it is very bad news that governments are resorting to control and surveillance”, laments the Nigerian activist. “The opportunity of this pandemic was to demonstrate the possibilities of the Internet,” he says. “The governments that block the network are not realistic because it is the same Internet that they need to use and dominate for their countries to be competitive,” he reflects. “It seems stupid,” he continues, “that during a pandemic like this you block the internet. And we see cases like Ethiopia that has made a really stupid decision, to block it with the excuse of stopping the expansion of violence. The head of the Paradigm Initiative is clear that the Internet is synonymous with “economic opportunities, for the education of children, to communicate with grandparents or parents when they cannot be physically visited; and all depend on openness and accessibility, they are opportunities linked to a reliable and affordable Internet ”.

Governments that block the Internet are unrealistic because it is the same Internet that they need to use and master in order for their countries to be competitive.

Sesan ‘Gbenga, Nigerian activist

During 2019, the main tools of control and censorship on the Internet were selective blocks during elections, protests or social crises; laws that, under the guise of fighting cybercrime, restrict fundamental rights or help intimidate cyberactivists; and economic obstacles in the form of taxes to hinder access.

The last one is the most recent and, for Sesan ‘Gbenga, the most worrying: “Governments know that Internet blocks are not a definitive solution, just a specific resource, that is why they develop other measures: pass laws, impose fees and carry out stricter surveillance. More and more countries are using the formula of imposing fees. Zimbabwe is the most recent case and has applied them to devices such as smartphones or tablets ”. “Precisely in some of the countries that are limiting the space of civil society the most, the Internet continues to be very expensive, as is the case in Central Africa. An expensive Internet in repressive environments, that is the combination, “says the activist, who also warns of the danger of” the false dilemma between rights and security. ” “If you start talking about rights, they tell you if you are a friend of the terrorists. But obviously it is not contradictory to speak of security and fundamental rights ”, he recalls.

In the same way, ‘Gbenga poses a striking problem as well. “Many of these countries, like Ethiopia, can apply Internet blocks because the laws that come from the times of dictators protect them. The same in the Gambia, or in Sierra Leone. Laws against sedition remain in force. We need these to change and that the new proposals contemplate respect ”.

The report reviews in depth the situation in thirteen African countries that project recurrent situations of restriction of freedoms, repression of activists and violation of basic rights. But for the director of the Paradigm Initiative, the most worrying scenario is one in which there is a lack of awareness of violations, as is the case in Rwanda. “I am concerned about a repressive environment, in which people celebrate the person who applies the repression. That is a situation of lack of awareness in terms of rights.”

Consistent with that analysis, Sesan ‘Gbenga sums up: “The biggest threat is ignorance. You can’t fight for something you don’t know. You can’t win a match because of something you don’t understand. We have begun to see a very high level of sophistication in governments, institutions, and repressive bodies; and we do not have the capacity to invest in resources, in people, in talent, or in funding for civil society and research. The clearest example is that there are hardly any academic institutions on the continent with the capacity to conduct research on the impact of digital rights. I can count them on the fingers of my hand. We need to have our own research, reports, narratives, studies on the evolution of digital rights and prices in Africa, research that shows us the why. And we need this capacity to be better distributed. The first thing we have to fight against is ignorance ”.

But the diversity of the continent also exists here. “In some countries the Internet is becoming freer, more reliable, faster and more accessible,” says Sesan ‘Gbenga. “We can find good practices like those of Ghana, Mauritius and Botswana. Where openness processes have been initiated through the Internet, citizens are extremely active and governments receive a lot of pressure to respect rights and respond appropriately. We cannot speak of worse or better countries, but we can speak of situations such as those that occur in Ghana or Botswana where beneficial laws are being implemented and respond to the demands of citizens ”, he explains. ‘Gbenga.

Along with these good practices, the most positive conclusion of the research is that the awareness of civil society continues to increase. “People have started to realize that issues related to digital rights are not just a discourse but have a direct impact on life experiences. When a woman loses a child because there is an Internet blackout and she cannot communicate with the hospital, for example. People are realizing that opportunities improve and have a direct reflection on business, the economy and lives, “he concludes.

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