The African Declaration is Key to Reach a Common Understanding of Online Rights Policy

By APC |

“A fundamental challenge in need of urgent resolution in the digital age is how to protect human rights and freedoms on the Internet, and the African continent is no exception.” This is the introduction to the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, an initiative joined by a diversity of organisations and individuals from the region to protect human rights in the context of the internet and digital technologies.

To know more about the Declaration and what is at stake in terms of internet rights in the region, APC talked to Ashnah Kalemera, programme officer at the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), an organisation that works in promoting effective and inclusive ICTs in Africa.

Does having an African Declaration make a difference in protecting human rights online?

Tools such as the African Declaration help build consensus towards a common understanding of online rights policy and how to advocate for these rights. The declaration is a key reference tool for policy makers in drafting progressive legislation or amending regressive laws. For civil society, it is good for advocacy and awareness raising for increased citizen understanding of their rights. Even for other stakeholders like service providers and telcos, the declaration has the potential to inform their commitments to data protection for instance.

Who is responsible for ensuring that internet rights and freedoms are enjoyed on the internet?

Many stakeholders have a role to play. While governments need to ensure the right legal and regulatory frameworks are in place, service providers should ensure transparency of their operations while protecting their users’ privacy. For users, they need to ensure responsible online activity – refraining from hate speech or involving themselves in cybercrime-related activities. Meanwhile, the media and civil society must actively play roles as watchdogs and infomediaries for promoting the rule of law, raising awareness and demanding accountability.

Access to the internet is considered to be an integral part of realising internet freedoms and rights in Africa. Where are we and how can we ensure universal access in the region?

There is ongoing debate on whether Africa should prioritise the internet over other development needs. Indeed only 21% of 1.2 billion Africans have access to the internet and this is due to various reasons, including the high cost of accessing and owning ICTs, acute shortages of electricity, poor infrastructure, low literacy levels, and gender inequalities. Access is an integral part of realising internet freedoms because even for the few that are online, they are faced with limited localised content and government policies and practices that limit users from enjoying the full benefits offered by the internet.

Thus, to ensure universal access in the region, policies and practices should support fair competition, and ensure that universal access funds are prudently invested, local content and services relevant to the needs and livelihoods of ordinary citizens are created, and there’s increased affordability of internet-related services, e.g. by slashing taxes on mobile phone handsets and services. Additionally, the regulation of communications and media should encourage more citizens and journalists to embrace technology without fear of surveillance or reprisals for critical opinion.

Considering that many fundamental rights are not respected in the region, is it realistic to think that that these same rights can be realised online?

Online rights are no different from the offline rights. There is a direct link between the extent of fundamental human rights (expression, assembly, access to information, privacy, etc.) enjoyed offline and the realisation of the same rights online in most African countries. There can’t be sustained enjoyment of rights online when there’s no enjoyment of rights offline. It must therefore be understood that advocating for online rights does not relegate the offline ones. Rather, because the internet and related technologies are enabling more citizens to realise rights which are otherwise not upheld in the physical world, it is important that online rights be protected and promoted, especially in Africa where governments often curtail rights in both spheres through legal and extra-legal means. Moreover, promoting online rights is directly a way of promoting offline rights.

We have been hearing a lot about the Forum on Internet Freedom in East Africa, as a key space to promote freedom on the internet in the region. Who is it aimed at?

The Forum on Internet Freedom in East Africa, which is convened under CIPESA’s OpenNet Africa initiative, is aimed at sparking multistakeholder conversations on promoting online rights throughout Africa. It is committed to advancing an understanding and upholding of internet freedom and the impact on media freedom, freedom of expression online and privacy for a range of civic actors such as journalists, human rights defenders, sexual minorities, women, political actors, and bloggers. While similar conferences are held elsewhere (in Asia, America, Europe), it is expensive for Africa-based actors to attend, and for some of them only bits of the agendas are relevant to Africa.

Since its inauguration in 2014, the forum has served as the launch of the Annual State of Internet Freedom in East Africa research report series. The research documents internet freedom under specific themes. The 2014 report focused on policies and practices affecting internet freedom in the region, while in 2015 the focus was knowledge and perceptions of internet freedom and the effect of information controls on the online behaviour of journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders.

What were the main outcomes of the Forum?

Last year’s Forum sparked debate on the many facets of internet freedom, including promoting access to information, digital safety, media freedom, online violence against women, regulation of the internet, freedom of expression online, cybercrime and the online economy. The first day of the Forum coincided with the internationally celebrated Right to Know Day (September 28) and also served as a platform to recognise the tenth anniversary of the Access to Information Act in Uganda.

With an audience of over 200 individuals from 19 countries, the event drew up a set of actionable recommendations that will inform onward engagements on advancing internet freedom in Africa by CIPESA and its partners, and hopefully for other actors in this space. For instance, calls for more research and documentation into the growing phenomenon of online violence against women, counter speech to combat hate speech and misinformation particularly during electioneering processes, localisation of digital safety tools, among others, were made.

How was technology-related violence against women approached?

It was on the agenda of the 2015 Forum. The issue is pertinent not just in Africa but across the world. Gender inequalities, sexual and physical violence against women are challenges that continue to persist and technology has compounded these challenges. Ending violence against women online should be on the agenda of all stakeholders because it exists in several forms, including stalking, sexual harassment, surveillance, “revenge porn” [private, sexually explicit video or images that are published without express permission or consent], public shaming and use of images or videos to manipulate individuals. Although there are numerous ongoing efforts to combat physical violence against women these have not transitioned into the online space. More efforts are needed to ensure the same online and provide women with support and response mechanisms.

This article was first published by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC)  on March 15, 2016.

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