Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) 2019 Report

1. Overview
2. Digital security workshop and clinics
3. Localisation Sprint
4. Digital Rights Research Methods and Internet Measurements Lab
5. Disinformation and Fact-checking
6. Building Networks of Change
7. Digital Transformation
8. Collaboration in Strategic Litigation for Digital Rights
9. Technology and Disability
10. African Feminism, Women in Leadership and Changing Online Narratives
11. Exhibition: “If I were free. If we were free…”
12. Support
On September 23-26, 2019, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) alongside the Ethiopian Ministry of Innovation and Technology (MINT), and various other partners, hosted the sixth edition of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Until April 2018, Ethiopia was the leading internet freedom predator in Africa but has undertaken several progressive reforms in both the offline and online spheres. In spite of challenges that still exist, including in governance and security, the country has over the last one year and a half made notable strides in improving the state of internet freedom, in ways which can be instructive for other African countries.

Indeed, in the lead up to FIFAfrica19,  was the Policy and Regulatory Initiative for Digital Africa (PRIDA) convening at the African Union (AU), which was aimed at shaping the African digital transformation agenda through fostering universally accessible and affordable broadband across the continent to unlock future benefits of internet-based services. Further, the operational phase of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which is touted to be the world’s largest free trade area once it’s fully up and running.  Meanwhile, at the World Economic Forum (WEF), the untapped digital potential of the continent was recognised, with the need for better digital infrastructure and affordable data highlighted. Coincidentally, in the FIFAfrica19 host country, Ethiopia, the parliament passed the Communication Regulatory Proclamation, which aims to liberalise the telecommunications sector and under which licenses will be awarded to two private mobile companies.

It is upon this backdrop that FIFAfrica provided a platform for the exchange of knowledge, skills, advocacy efforts and policy agendas that can have an impact on Africa’s digital landscape among key actors including policy makers, regulators, human rights defenders, the media, and law enforcement representatives in Ethiopia and Africa as a whole.

Through panel discussions, workshops, exhibitions and lightning talks, the proceedings of FIFAfrica19 explored common strategies to address persistent gaps in policy, legislation and practices related to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) use, access and perceptions. This year’s forum tackled a number of themes including technology and disability, online safety, shifting online content control techniques and regulations, network disruptions, biometric surveillance, safety and protection mechanisms (online and offline) for  human rights defenders, censorship, misinformation, African feminist narrative online, digital leadership for women,  through to election security and democracy, digital transformation, and the rights of association ad assembly in the digital age. The various themes are not exclusive of each other as the digital rights concerns and opportunities tended to appear at various intersections across the topics.

Meanwhile, some organisations took the convening opportunity to align strategic meetings with the FIFAfrica19 including the Africa Internet Rights Alliance (AIRA), IFEX who held a lunch meeting with their Africa members in attendance, the Global Network Initiative (GNI) who hosted a roundtable on strategies against network disruption. Further, a consortium of donors attending FIFAfrica with a funding focus interest on digital rights in Africa including Ford Foundation, Open Societies Foundation, Internews, Omidyar Network, Spitfire Strategies and Open Technology Fund also held a meeting aimed at understanding the funding gaps for digital rights in Africa.
Among the pre-Forum workshops was one on digital security training for 20 LGBTI individuals and organisations in Ethiopia. A second digital security training workshop hosted 30 journalists and activists from Ethiopia and other countries.  Meanwhile, a walk-in clinic throughout the duration of the Forum responded to participants’ digital security concerns, offered advice regarding digital safety, provided digital safety software, anti-virus and operating system updates as well as malware removal from affected devices.

The two workshops and the clinic were conducted in partnership with AccessNow, DefendDefenders, Code4Africa, Defenders Protection Initiative (DPI) as well as GreenHost and featured multi-lingual trainers – English, French, Amharic and Arabic.

Linked to the digital security clinic were four sessions on emergency measures and protection mechanisms. In one session, the Pan African Human Rights Defenders Network presented Ubuntu Hub Cities - a city-based relocation initiative for human rights defenders (HRDs) at risk across Africa. The initiative provides an avenue for HRDs who have been subject to threats, violence, highly stressful and dangerous environments and extreme pressure as a consequence of their human rights work, to temporarily relocate, ensuring their physical and mental well-being during the relocation period, while enabling them to continue their work. Through diverse partnerships across the continent, the project also provides an opportunity for HRDs at risk to learn and share experiences in their host countries and/or communities and return home with enhanced capacities to protect and promote human rights.

The second session was a help desk demo by the Centre for Digital Resilience, of their open-source incident response and information sharing platform, Link. The platform enables the easy reporting and sharing of threats and solutions for digital security and facilitates connections. This technology stack is built on the open-source Zammad helpdesk platform and is customizable. It allows individuals to contact, ask for help, recommendations and resources through several different modes of communication (Telegram, Signal, WhatsApp, email, Twitter).

Thirdly, as part of the SafeSister Women’s Digital Safety fellowship programme, FIFAfrica19 featured the launch of the Digital Security Trainer’s Assistant - a guide developed for new or experienced digital security trainers who want a friendly, easy-to-follow methodology as they train. Written by digital security trainer, former OTF fellow and Safe Sister Mentor Natasha Msonza, the guide draws from her experiences of conducting training in various African countries.

Lastly, Jigsaw hosted a session on the evolution of censorship, charting patterns from Turkmenistan and Africa, and demonstrated potential measurement and circumvention tools that would be helpful in proactively countering censorship in African contexts.

The above sessions build on FIFAfrica’s tradition of developing practical skills in digital security practices for civil society organisations, journalists, human rights activists and other at-risk groups such as women and the LGBTI community, including through circumvention techniques, encryption, and application of risk assessment frameworks. They also fed into CIPESA’s legacy work on offering advisory on improving organisational digital security assessments and resilience, and promoting learning and collaboration between the various actors so as to enhance the digital safety of HRDs and the state of internet freedom in general.
In partnership with the Localization Lab, a localization sprint for Outline VPN in Amharic was hosted as a pre-Forum event. Beyond translation, the session focused on user needs, and developing an outreach strategy. In addition, over 100 Surveillance Self Defense guides (on social media, circumventing censorship, secure communication, two factor authentication, phishing attacks) in Amharic were distributed at FIFAfrica19. The guides were first demoed at FIFAfrica18 in Accra, Ghana.

Over the past three years, localisation engagements at FIFAfrica have contributed to building technical glossaries and guides in five African languages – Amharic, Igbo, Swahili, Twi and Yoruba. The sessions have also supported glossary translations in seven additional languages - Fante, Tswana, Hausa, Ndebele, Shona and Luganda.
Despite the African continent increasingly witnessing internet disruptions, currently, the true extent of interference in communications remains largely unknown and subject to speculation where there is limited evidence of interference at an internet infrastructure level. For the first time, FIFAfrica2019 worked to grow local expertise in data collection and analysis through Qualitative Research Techniques and Data Practices for Human Rights Research, Internet Measurements and Assessing Legal Frameworks. Hosted in partnership with the University of Essex, Netblocks and the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) as a pre-event, a workshop on building capacity and collaborations for digital rights research was attended by 58 participants who included university lecturers, staff of international human rights organisations, digital rights researchers, activists, technologists and lawyers.

There was consensus in the workshop on the need to build reciprocal relationships across disciplinary silos, as well as collaborative networks that include researchers and practitioners based in different regions, including in the global North and South. Continued research methods training, including in techniques such as text analysis, data mining, and network measurements, was reiterated. Capacity development to conduct research, advocacy and policy influencing on emerging issues such as biometrics processing and artificial intelligence was also cited.
FIFAfrica19 also explored the growing phenomenon of disinformation and in partnership with UNESCO, Internews, Access Now and AfricaCheck worked to equip participants with tools to be in a position to detect and call out disinformation or fake news on online platforms. Relevant sessions included:

  • Non-Legal Interventions Around Misinformation, Disinformation and Hate Speech Online in Ethiopia, during which experts from Ethiopian civil society, law school, and journalism sector discussed current concerns on these issues. The session, which was held in Amharic also featured presentations by Ethiopian innovators on technology-assisted solutions to the challenges faced and provided a platform for participants to engage and put forward ideas on combating the mis/disinformation and hate speech. Discussions from this session fed into another on Navigating Hate Speech, False and Misleading Information.

  • Ethiopia Bloggers Forum: In commemoration of the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI), this session targeting Ethiopian bloggers reflected on the importance of access to information for the realisation of other rights and to livelihoods, and the role of bloggers in leveraging the right to information to promote transparency and accountability. It also introduced bloggers to fact-checking. Overall the session aimed to rebuild a sustainable and resilient bloggers community in Ethiopia. The blogging community was among those most targeted by the previous authoritative regime in the country.

  • Fact Checking, Disinformation and Human Rights Abuse Investigations: An Introduction to Open Source Investigations: This session introduced participants to how the web and social media networks can be used as data sources for investigative journalism, blogging or research. Through case studies, the session provided insightful and hands-on experience on the available tools and publicly available data online that can help perform open source investigations and support the push-back against misinformation and affronts to human rights online and offline.

  • A session on Open Source Intelligence (#OSINT) was hosted by data specialist, Richard Ngamita. The session aimed at introducing participants to web and social media networks as data sources for investigative journalism, blogging or research. It also sought to support the push back against misinformation and affronts to human rights online and offline.
Elections Security and Democracy: beyond the skills, knowledge and tools workshops, a joint session with the Council of Europe session explored policy responses to misinformation including by platform operators such as Facebook, as well as tools of the Budapest Convention available to investigate and prosecute aspects of election interference.
Internet Freedom and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR): Due to the rise of internet usage, there is an increasing rate of abuse, threats, and attacks on the internet users’ which women usually fall prey to. The internet can lead to disruption and disinformation and this determines the intensifying need for defending digital human rights violations with a focus on freedom of expression, press freedom and digital rights. Human rights online is a topic that is often forgotten during discussions of human rights violations because the concept is still quite new without acknowledging the reality that human rights offline can translate online.  Many people usually face numerous human rights violations online but they are not even aware that their rights are being violated or where and who to report to in case this happens.

In partnership with Small Media, a two-day workshop on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) was held as part of the Forum. See more

Network for Digital Rights in Ethiopia:
It is often in collective action that advancements can be made.  This was the basis of the session titled Network for Digital Rights in Ethiopia (NDRE) hosted by the Internet Society.  Following the 2015 elections, human rights in the country deteriorated. The situation was further aggravated by the then government blocking many websites in addition to jailing journalists. Despite these affronts to press freedom, the NDRE was set up to protect digital rights in Ethiopia.

It was noted that the advancement of internet access and its safe guards should not be left to the government alone. Issues such as data protection through to network disruptions require engagement by multiple actors particularly following the actions of the previous government which heavily invested in surveillance and malware. Further, the deep seated perceptions of censorship, self-censorship and mistrust in the government increased following the arrest of the Zone Nine bloggers website – it was blocked a week after its launch. One of the websites founders, Atnafu Berhane noted, “That was the height of digital repression in Ethiopia. That led to our arrest. There was no internet shut down but there was censorship then.”

Despite the change in government (see this on the Reforms in Ethiopia) the audience maintained a sense of suspicion of the government with one attendee stating, “There is still an internet shut down here, there is still media repression in this country.” Meanwhile, it was also noted that many citizens are accepting of the network disruptions, “one the major obstacle you will face is that people are not angry, they are not perturbed” noted a participant in the discussion. However, missed economic opportunities due to the network disruptions have led some to leave the country in search of financial stability. This frustration was also noted by another speaker who stated that, “The government is just an entity that we allowed to exist. It has no rights to make our lives miserable.”

Among the pressing concerns is on the issue of data privacy. It was reported that a new regulation by the city council requires Ride (an online cab hailing app) to share their database with the government. This means that by doing this, the government has access to private user data which is a massive violation of human rights, a breach of privacy.

As such, it was noted that while there is a readiness to work with government by entities such as NDRE, this comes with the need to challenge the government including through the utilization of legal actions. A misconception of legal actions still persists with many assuming that the use of legal actions is an attack on government when it is actually a normal process of developing jurisprudence. However, it was noted that legal actions can be long and expensive – but should not be completely left out of the methods of engaging the government.

Further, networks need to prepare for the liberlisation of the telecommunications space in Ethiopia and integrate the language of digital rights in their advocacy. Networks also need to be cognizant of communities outside Addis Ababa who have little or limited internet access.

Recommendations

  • There is a need for more collective effort to advance democracy in Ethiopia
  • Data privacy needs to be prioritised including by advocates of human rights and digital rights
  • Additional avenues of interacting/challenging government including through strategic litigation should be explored
  • Telecommunications companies should also be held accountable for their actions
There is a need to advocate for increased connectivity in the country
In September 2018, the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) previewed its policy guide on the digital economy  at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2018 (FIFAfrica18) which was hosted in Accra, Ghana. FIFAfrica18 provided an opportunity to support public-private dialogue efforts throughout Africa on issues key to shaping democratic discourse on digital economy. The following month, in October 2018,  the Digital Economy Enabling Environment Guide: Key Areas of Dialogue for Business and Policymakers guide was officially launched as a tool for multi-stakeholder collaboration on reforms that can promote a robust and inclusive digital economy. The guide covers four priority digital economy topics: Consumer Protection in the digital age, Data Protection, Cybersecurity, and Electronic Transactions (e-payments and e-signatures) and provides guidance on business advocacy and legal and regulatory considerations for regulators and policymakers. The guidebook provides advocacy strategies for business and an overview of existing legal frameworks for regulators and policymakers. To-date, the guidebook has reached over 1,400 people and was adopted by the Ethiopian government and the Kenyan government as a key resource in developing national policies and strategies to enhance the digital economy.

Using the guide as a framework, CIPE went on to support national and regional policy fora across Africa and Asia on how the digital economy can advance shared prosperity. For instance, to promote dialogue on the governance of technology and the digital space in Kenya, CIPE hosted a forum, Building Partnerships for Kenya’s Digital Transformation, on October 8, 2018 in Nairobi, Kenya. The forum was held in cooperation with local business organizations and modeled on the approach to strengthen the voice of business in democratic governance through private sector, civil society, and government dialogue under the aegis of the Ouagadougou Declaration. This Declaration provides a framework for multi-stakeholder collaboration by cultivating mutual interest among business, civil society, and policymakers to shape sustainable democratic policy to build more prosperous societies. The Kenya forum resulted in the publication of a white paper which included captures recommendations on policies to support effective democratic governance of Kenyan’s digital spaces. These recommendations formed the basis of discussions at the Policy Roundtable and panel discussion convened by CIPE and CIPESA at FIFAfrica19. The purpose of the digital economy sessions at FIFAfrica19 was to promote dialogue between governments, business and civil society regarding regional digital economy policy considerations following the passage of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCTA).
Strategic litigation has gained recognition as a tool for pushing back against restrictions on rights to privacy, access to information and freedom of expression, assembly and association in the digital sphere in Africa. Notable cases have been recorded in Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Cameroon, Gambia, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.

However, litigation for digital rights remains under-utilised across the continent due to lack of effective collaboration between actors such as lawyers, activists, academia, civil society organisations and other technical experts.

Building on two previous workshops at FIFAfrica17 and FIFAfrica18, a workshop was hosted to promote best practices for more effective collaboration across disciplinary silos in digital rights litigation. The session also aimed to raise the visibility of the outcomes and lessons learned from three recent digital rights cases and campaigns in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, alongside global experiences by Access Now, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Media Legal Defense Initiative (MLDI), so as to inform future intervention. It was attended by 22 participants comprising of parliamentarians, lawyers, academics, journalists, digital rights activists, civil society actors and representatives of government agencies. See more details at https://cipesa.org/2020/01/advancing-collaborations-in-strategic-litigation-for-digital-rights-in-east-africa/
While advances in Information and Communications Technology (ICTs) including the Internet have created avenues of inclusion, for some, especially persons with disabilities, it has also widened the extent to which they are excluded from the social and economic potential of the digital society.

Persons with disabilities are more likely to experience adverse socio-economic outcomes than persons without disabilities, such as lack of access to information, less education, poorer health outcomes, lower levels of employment, and higher poverty rates. Several factors are contributing to the deepening of this exclusion in the digital society, including a non-conducive legal and policy environment, poor investments in telecommunication infrastructure that supports ICT access for persons with disabilities, and the lack of access to the required assistive technologies such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, and braille.

FIFAfrica participants explored the various challenges faced by persons with disabilities in accessing and using ICT, particularly assistive technologies.

A session on ICTs and disability attracted various parliamentarians including, Safari Shuti, a Member of Parliament from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who stated that existing disability legal frameworks must be strictly enforced with penalties for non-compliance if they are to become effective.

The session also featured a digital campaign tool for persons with visual impairment, heartheblindspot.org was launched by Together!, in partnership with Small Media, and Data4Change. The website uses sonification of data to tell the story of digital exclusion for people who are blind or visually impaired in Ethiopia, and champions the need for a more inclusive and accessible internet. There are an estimated 4.5 million more than 850,000 people with visual impairment in Ethiopia.

Ultimately, there was a call made for Governments and Donors to Advance ICT Access for Persons with Disabilities
In much of Africa, feminism is often incorrectly considered a new movement. However, the reality is that feminism in the continent has played a role in shaping social and cultural relations, as well as policy and business development around the continent for decades. It is perhaps the increased vibrancy of feminist narratives in the African digital sphere that has led many to assume its novelty. The difference, however, is that the use of digital technologies has enabled the feminist voice to become more visible, even blatant, unapologetic in the push back against deep-seated patriarchal social mores.

While existing inequalities are rooted in tradition and social mores, many more are maintained by religious and educational institutions and in some instances reinforced by outdated national laws. These structures of inequality were among the issues discussed at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) 2019 during sessions on feminism in Africa and women’s digital leadership. In one of the sessions, it was it was reported that in Malawi, women’s participation in protest can lead to persecution as was the case for Beatrice Mateyo, Executive Director of the Coalition for the Empowerment of Women and Girls (CEWAG) who was arrested and charged with “offensive behaviour to the modesty of a woman or intent to insult the modesty of a woman” in September 2017 for carrying placards during an anti-violence protest with the handwritten Chichewa words “kubadwa ndi nyini si tchimo” (to be born with a vagina is not a crime/sin) and “my pussy my pride”.

Panelists also noted the experiences of women in Sudan, who remain policed through Section 234 of the Penal Code and have been publicly flogged for “indecent dressing” and for “being vocal in public.” The section states, “Whoever to the annoyance of others does any obscene or indecent act in a public place, commits an offence and shall on conviction, be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or with fine or with both.”

These various forms of repression against women have been transferred online, but it is also online that the pushback against them has gained momentum and increased amplification. There is increased local content generation on the systems that have fueled and shaped gender and sexual identity based inequalities. Further, online campaigns and movements such as the #TakeBackTheTech, #FeministInternet, #BringBackOurGirls and #MeToo have contributed to a shift in how feminism, gender roles and perceptions are understood and interpreted.

However, many feminist commentators and content creators online, particularly on social media, have been met with hostility in the form of trolling, personal attacks, threats of violence and more, often disproportionately to other users, as a consequence of expressing feminist views. Frequently attacked are women in politics, journalism, business, sexual minorities, as well as those making commentary on sexual minorities, and in some cases, unsuspecting girls and women whose images are shared online for ridicule and shaming.

While some have been forced offline as a result of the backlash, others have opted to face critics through practicing “radical rudeness” which challenges the established social expectations of women online and offline. The most recent notable case of radical rudeness is that of Ugandan Academic Dr. Stella Nyanzi, whose campaign for improved service delivery resulted in her incarceration for insulting the president under the Computer Misuse Act, 2011.

At FIFAfrica, panelists called for increased solidarity in movements which support feminism and equality. Among the recommendations that emerged from the discussions is the need for increased advocacy on feminism and women’s rights online alongside more public initiated campaigns online and offline which amplify where policy and public positions should be with regards to the promotion of women’s rights. The widespread online amplification of issues is increasingly being used as a tool in advancing awareness on the need to maintain a feminist voice online. Panelists also noted the need for more use of popular culture including various mediums in art and design, literature, social media as well as poetry and theatre to highlight the shifting voice of African feminism. However, they noted the need to remain steadfast amidst the continued pushback against women’s rights and equality in society both online and offline.
For a long time, African narrative was told by many but her own, with a gaze that was informed by different cultures, lived experiences, attitudes and interpretations which often were not a true reflection of her people, places, sights, tastes and sounds. With the digital society, there lies an opportunity to broaden the efforts aimed at promoting African narrative through an African lens.

In an exhibition by Afrophilia, a digital Pan-African magazine that has a vested interest in shaping how the continent is viewed, curator and Editor- in- Chief, Nobantu Modise, featured talents from across the continent and the diaspora who explored the topic of freedom through photography and graphic art. It featured a montage of reflections on society and aimed to display the varying perspectives held by Africa’s youth on the future of internet access and use. 

Noting that the continent still faces challenges such as network disruptions, self-censorship, affronts to freedom of assembly and association offline and offline, exclusion of marginalised and vulnerable communities such as women, youth and persons with disabilities (PWDs), the exhibition sought to portray that there remains a deep seated spirit to rise above this all and take a stance for freedom of expression. 

The exhibition also aimed to promote a questioning of just how much more of Africa’s rich narrative remains unseen, untold, undocumented, with some gems fading away as time passes. More importantly, it hoped to encourage the role one could play in advancing a free, fair and open internet where the freedoms declared by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are guaranteed.

See the Digital Exhibition
The 2019 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) was supported by the Ford Foundation, Media Legal Defense Initiative (MLD), Small Media, Association for Progressive Communications (APC), US State Department (DRL), Access Now, Omidyar Network, Facebook, UNESCO, ICNL, Open Technology Fund (OTF) Centre for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), Sigrid Rausing Trust, and the German Development Agency (GIZ).

For session organisation and mobilisation, CIPESA partnered with the Council of Europe, European Union Institute of Security Studies (ISS), Internews, DefendDefenders, Open Society Initiative for East Africa (OSIEA), APC, ICNL, Internet Society and ICT4Democracy in East Africa Network.