CIPESA Staff |

In June 2022, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) conducted a regional capacity-building workshop aimed at equipping participants’ thematic understanding of key digital rights trends in the region, including disinformation, alongside practical skills development in impactful digital rights advocacy and communication. Hosted in Lusaka, Zambia, the two-day workshop (June 28 and 29), attracted 20 participants from 10 African countries – Eswatini, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

According to Ashnahh Kalemera, CIPESA’s Programme Manager, the training was part of various interventions through which, CIPESA is building the capacity of different social justice organisations and equipping them with the requisite skills, including research and communicating digital rights, designing evidence-based advocacy strategies, as well as digital resilience especially how to cope with the increasing cyber-attacks orchestrated by state agents,” 

“Advancing digital rights is quite a new phenomenon for the majority of the traditional human rights organisations in Africa, with many still trying to get to understand the relationship between the ICTs and human rights, on top of dealing with an already hostile environment that has shrunk the civic space,” says Ms. Kalemera.

Although there has been a growing number of civil society and justice actors responding to and challenging government excesses over the years, there are still knowledge and skills gaps among actors that hinder their engagement in meaningful policy advocacy.

Findings from a 2017 joint research study conducted by CIPESA, Small Media, DefendeDefenders, and CIPIT showed that in all of the countries surveyed (Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda), CSOs failed to demonstrate a baseline of digital security knowledge, and/or failed to implement practices effectively. The report notes that although the internet and other ICT have empowered civil society organisations (CSOs) to engage with the public, share information, and advocate for citizens’ rights in sometimes challenging and closed political environments, it has also offered means and tools that are used by regional state and non-state actors to interfere with their work, surveil them, and censor their voices.

In addition, digital security and safety skills are lacking among some of the most at-risk groups, yet trainers and support networks are in short supply. Without adequate digital security capacity, activists and HRDs are not able to meaningfully undertake advocacy and engagements around human rights and transparent and accountable governance.

CIPESA’s capacity-building interventions are therefore designed and structured to provide both skills and knowledge modules and serve as a platform for developing collaborative advocacy strategies for advancing digital rights in the region. During the Lusaka training, participants were given an overview of the interplay between ICT, democracy and human rights. In her presentation, Ms. Kalemera discussed how digital technologies can empower citizens to enjoy a broad range of human rights and participate in community affairs, including those related to governance. 

While facilitating the discussions on the different control measures that states and non-states actors have employed in the region, Paul Kimumwe, Senior Programme Officer at CIPESA) noted that there has been an increase in digital rights violations such as arrests and intimidation of online users, internet blockages, and a proliferation of laws and regulations that undermine the potential of ICT to drive socio-economic and political development on the continent. In addition, several governments have enhanced their technical capacity to intercept and monitor electronic communications through the installation of equipment including software or spyware that enables remote control hacking and eavesdropping, deployment of video surveillance systems, some of which have facial recognition capabilities, and requiring communication service providers to acquire relevant systems, at their own cost.

Other topics covered during the workshop included disinformation and human rights where participants explored how disinformation undermines human rights and several elements of democracy, including freedom of opinion and expression, access to reliable and pluralistic information, ability to mobilise support online and to sell contesting ideas to citizens, the right to democratic participation, and the right to privacy, while also explaining how counter-disinformation measures often undermine democracy.

In discussing digital inclusion, Zambia-based activist, Matha Chilongoshi of Revolt Media emphasised the need for digital rights activists to always ensure that their work on digital rights is inclusive, especially in terms of tackling the gender digital divide, advocating for the inclusion of persons with disabilities and rural communities. These issues were further highlighted by Kamufisa Manchishi, a digital rights activist and Lecturer at the Mulungushi University – Zambia– who noted that the existing digital disparities are a result of limited access and affordability of digital technologies by the marginalised groups as well as the failure by the respective governments to design and implement policies, such as the universal access funds, that priorities equity.

On the second day, participants were guided through the process of designing and implementing a successful digital rights strategy as well as conducting impactful digital rights communication. In his remarks, Mr. Apolo Kakaire the Advocacy and Communication Manager at the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), noted that in order for civil society/ HRDs’ work in Africa to impact government policy, to help change attitudes and behaviour in society, and to ultimately result in greater protections for internet freedom, there is a need to develop and implement robust advocacy and impactful communication strategies.

Post-evaluation of the training workshop indicated an increased understanding of the key terms and concepts covered including the link between disinformation and freedom of expression, disinformation and internet shutdowns, and commitment to apply the knowledge and skills gained during the workshop in their daily engagements, including acting as infomediaries within their communities and organisations through awareness raising among colleagues and conducting information verification prior to sharing.

“As a communication officer, I will cross-check and make sure that all the information I am sharing is not deceitful while encouraging others to do the same,” noted one participant. 

Another participant indicated that they would work to get more involved in advocacy regarding disinformation laws that are detrimental to human rights. “We are planning to have a workshop with the grassroots women human rights defenders on disinformation and human rights and develop a digital rights advocacy and communication strategy.” The planned workshop will take place in Kenya’s largest urban informal settlement, Kibera, led by Tunapanda.