Capacitating Civil Society Actors to Advance Digital Rights in Africa

By Paul Kimumwe |

Internet freedom in Africa has been on the decline over the past years with several countries continually adopting repressive measures that curtail civil liberties. Many governments have embraced digital authoritarianism, which has resulted in criminalisation of speech online, internet disruptions, arrests and prosecution of social media users, and abuse of citizens’ data rights, thus undermining free expression and civic participation. 

Several governments have continually enhanced their technical capacity to intercept and monitor electronic communications, including through the installation of equipment and software or spyware that enable remote controlled hacking and eavesdropping, and deployment of video surveillance systems, some of which have facial recognition capabilities. These enhancements have been partly aided by introduction of regressive laws ostensibly to fight terrorism and to protect national order. 

Some control measures – such as trolling and cyberbullying – target critical democracy actors, including women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and journalists, and have far-reaching impacts on rights protection, including free expression, access to information and civic participation. Other measures, such as digital taxation, registration and licensing of online users, greatly undermine internet access and affordability and weaken the potential of digital technologies to catalyse free expression and civic participation.

These measures are worrying not only because they directly undermine citizens’ digital rights and their appetite for public participation but also because they endanger the safety of some critical democratic actors. Without adequate digital security capacity, activists and human rights defenders (HRDs) are not able to meaningfully undertake advocacy and engagements around human rights, transparent and accountable governance. Concerningly, digital security and safety skills are lacking among some of the most at-risk groups, yet trainers and support networks are in short supply. In this brief we review some key intervention measures necessary to  grow the capacity of  civil society actors to navigate the rising digital authoritarianism and highlight CIPESA’s work in this regard.

Shrinking Civic Space

Recent years have seen an increase in the number of reported incidents of governments in the region cracking down on civil society organisations, especially those addressing human rights and social justice issues. Various illegal means, including physical assaults, arbitrary detention, torture, killings, intimidation and surveillance by security agencies, have been adopted to limit the rights to freedom of assembly, association, expression, and access to information.

The situation was exacerbated by measures adopted by national governments to curb the spread and mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The different measures including the clamp down on media platforms, intimidation, arrests, detention and prosecution, affected the work and operations of HRDss and civil society organisations (CSOs) in many countries. The ability of citizens to participate in civic matters and the conduct of public affairs were also eroded. Meanwhile, HRDs, journalists, activists, the political opposition, and ordinary citizens have been forced to self-censor, disengage from participating in public affairs, and refrain from exercising their rights to participate.

Limited Capacity of Civil Society Actors

Although there has been a growing number of civil society and justice actors responding to, and challenging government excesses, some of them have been hampered by lack of requisite knowledge, skills, and tools to engage in meaningful policy advocacy. There is also limited understanding of the linkages between Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), human rights and democracy and how government control measures undermine democratic participation.

According to Ashnah Kalemera, Programme Manager at CIPESA, advancing digital rights is a new phenomenon for most of the traditional human rights organisations in Africa, “with many still trying to understand the relationship between ICT and human rights, on top of dealing with an already hostile environment.” 

Through various interventions, CIPESA is building the capacity of different social justice organisations and equipping them with the requisite skills, including research, communicating digital rights, designing evidence-based advocacy campaigns, as well as digital resilience, especially how to cope with the increasing cyber attacks.

Findings from a 2017 joint research study conducted by Small Media, DefendDefenders, the Centre For Intellectual Property And Information Technology Law (CIPIT), and CIPESA showed that in Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, most CSOs failed to demonstrate a baseline of digital security knowledge and practices.

The study noted that although the internet and other ICT had empowered CSOs to engage with the public, share information, and advocate for citizens’ rights in sometimes challenging and closed political environments, it had also offered means and tools that regional state and non-state actors utilised to interfere with their work, surveil them, and censor their voices.

Similarly, an assessment CIPESA conducted in five countries during 2020 indicated a need to bolster capacity, organisational practices, and implementation of security and safety measures for social justice organisations and staff. It also found that skills and protections (software and hardware) were low and inadequate among many HRD organisations and individuals. 

Building Digital Resilience Among CSOs

In many countries in the region, skills in digital security and safety 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 continue advocacy and engagements around human rights, transparent and accountable governance.

For several years CIPESA has provided digital security resilience including conducted training for civil society groups, HRDs and other democracy actors. Through the Level-Up programme, CIPESA has provided security support to 16 HRD organisations in Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Sudan, and Uganda. 

The initiative helped to strengthen the participating entities’ organisational and information systems security capacity, entailed a Training of Trainers (ToT) component – which benefitted 19 individuals – to grow the network of individuals and organisations that offer digital security training and support to journalists, activists, and HRDs, and organisational security assessments. The training and support were delivered through innovative approaches to geographically distributed individuals that could not meet physically due to Covid-19 social distancing and travel restrictions.

The individuals trained in turn conducted safety and security training sessions which benefitted 120 staff of HRD organisations. The Level Up programme also conducted an assessment of organisational digital security needs and practices which informed the provision of hardware, software and security equipment to nine beneficiary organisations in four countries, and the development of organisational digital security policies.

“Several justice actors, both individuals and organisations, have fallen victims to cyber attacks, hacking, and online harassment, with some reporting loss of  their brand assets. It is therefore important to bolster their capacity, enhance their organisational practices, especially the implementation of security and safety measures related to digital and social media platforms usage by the organisations and their staff,” says Brian Byaruhanga, Technology Officer at CIPESA.

Supporting Impactful Digital Rights Advocacy and Communication

Digital rights advocacy and communication has become crucial in promoting human rights in Africa. Accordingly, CIPESA has over the years supported capacity development for CSOs, HRDs particularly WHRDs, and key duty bearers, to cultivate cross-country and cross-sectoral partnerships, and promoted joint advocacy and communications campaigns. 

In June 2022, CIPESA convened a regional advocacy and engagement training workshop in Lusaka, Zambia that brought together media, civil society and technology policy actors from 10 African countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The regional engagement equipped participants with a keen understanding of key digital rights trends in the region, alongside practical skills in impactful digital rights advocacy and communication.

Also in June 2022, CIPESA convened a digital rights policy advocacy webinar where participants shared their experiences, challenges and lessons learned in advocating for digital rights in Africa. Panelists were mainly drawn from the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF) beneficiaries, a grant facility managed by CIPESA whose main purpose is to offer flexible and rapid response grants to select initiatives in Africa to implement activities that advance digital rights, including advocacy, litigation, research, policy analysis, digital literacy and digital security skills building 

In July 2021, CIPESA in partnership with the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), conducted an intensive training course on Digital Rights and Impact Communication for grantees of the ADRF. The training was preceded by a capacity and training needs assessment. The ADRF was launched in April 2019 to offer funding and capacity development to expand the pool of actors that advance digital rights in Africa, amidst rising digital rights violations.

These capacity building efforts serve to equip civil society actors with skills, knowledge, and tools to effectively engage in evidence-based advocacy as well as communicating digital rights issues. They inspire these actors to approach advocacy and communication systematically in order to increase the visibility of digital rights issues in different media and to promote public discussion of digital rights issues.

Building Capacity and Collaborations for Digital Rights Research

Evidence-based digital rights advocacy has become particularly crucial in Africa as a growing number of governments and powerful private actors continue to undermine citizens’ online rights through legal and extra-legal means. However, as the need for internet policy advocacy that is informed by research grows, it is essential to increase the amount and depth of research originating from, and relevant to, Africa. 

Over the last few years, CIPESA has responded by building capacity and enhancing collaborations for digital rights research among academia and CSOs. During the 2019 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica19) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, CIPESA organised a Digital Rights Research Methods Workshop as one of the pre-events. The workshop was attended by 58 participants who included university lecturers, staff of international human rights organisations, digital rights researchers, activists, technologists, and lawyers.

The Ethiopian training built on the foundations of a five-day intensive training on internet policy research methods co-organised with the Annenberg School for Communications Internet Policy Observatory in 2018, which aimed to train, connect, and build collaboration between researchers, activists, academics and internet freedom advocates, and brought together 40 participants from 17 countries.

CIPESA has continued to build this capacity through additional training, and providing research and grant opportunities through the CIPESA Academic and Media Fellowships, which seek to nurture university students’ and early career academics’ understanding of ICT for governance, human rights and development, as well as enhance the media’s understanding of and coverage of ICT, democracy and human rights issues, respectively.

Digital rights continue to evolve alongside technological changes and advancement. CIPESA will continue to tap into the opportunity of skilling civil society personnel to facilitate knowledge building and enhance their capacity to continually engage in digital rights proactively and securely.

International Day of Persons With Disabilities (IDPWD) 2022

The theme this year is “Transformative solutions for inclusive development: the role of innovation in fuelling an accessible and equitable world“.

The annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) on 3 December was proclaimed in 1992 by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 47/3. The observance of the Day aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.

The 2022 global observance to commemorate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities will be around the overarching theme of innovation and transformative solutions for inclusive development, covering in three different interactive dialogues the following thematic topics:

Click here for more information on the event.

Participant Reflection on #FIFAfrica22: Effective Engagement in the UPR Process for Digital Rights Promotion

By Murungi Judith |

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and Small Media held a workshop on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process as part of  Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica 22), which was held in Lusaka Zambia from September 26-29, 2022. The workshop is a product of the UPROAR project aimed at advancing the cause of digital rights globally by supporting engagement in international advocacy at the UPR. 

The 32 participants at the workshop represented a diverse array of backgrounds including  civil society, digital rights activism and advocacy, legal, journalism, and academia.  A total of  20 countries were also represented -Benin,Burundi, Botswana,  Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, India Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria,  Senegal, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania,Uganda,United Kingdom, United States of America, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

The workshop entailed an overview of the UPR, its  purpose and the processes. Also included were in depth  discussions on international and regional normative frameworks on digital rights. Specific attention was drawn to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the first normative framework on freedom of expression. The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was also explored under the core tenets of the right to hold opinions without interference (freedom of opinion), the right to seek and receive information (access to information) and the right to impart information (freedom of expression).

It was noted that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and that the three-part test is key in determining the circumstances which potentially justify limitations. Under Article 19 (2) of the ICCPR, limitations are specifically listed as ( i) it must be provided for in law (ii) it must pursue a legitimate aim (iii) it must be necessary for a legitimate purpose.

The three-part-test formed the basis of heated debate related to electoral democracy and internet shutdowns in countries like Cameroon and Tanzania when compared to Kenya where the government did not impose an internet shutdown during their recent elections. As a result of the comparative discussions, participants reached  the conclusion that there are still actions of governments that are a threat to internet freedom such as arrests, detention and assassination of some journalists. It is the responsibility of civil society, activists and human rights defenders to hold governments accountable through the use and increased participation in the UPR process. 

The presence of Hon. Neema Lugangira from Tanzania, a member of Tanzanian Parliament and the Chairperson of the African Parliamentary Network on Internet Governance in the sessions was priceless and a beacon of hope in bridging the gap between civil society and policy makers towards promoting digital rights through the UPR.

The workshop also explored various case law on freedom of expression in Africa including precedent such as in Lohé Issa Konaté v Burkina Faso. Participants deliberated on the relevance of evaluating and critically assessing the law and ensuring that cases are framed in a manner that is in line with the jurisdiction of the particular court of law approached without which matters could be thrown out. This session gave the participants a clear understanding of the link between offline and online rights and specific laws that apply to minority and marginalised groups such as children, women, persons with disabilities and other vulnerable communities. 

The session on campaign and advocacy planning aimed at equipping participants with the necessary tools required to engage partners on how to carry out campaigns and to execute advocacy strategies through the UPR. It highlighted the eye-catching and precise advocacy materials that could be used in social media as well as other platforms for the UPR at local level. It led to discussions on the critical role played by local stakeholders in leveraging the UPR for digital rights development in their various contexts. The session helped the participants understand how to engage with local partners and to ensure that there is effective implementation of recommendations made to their respective countries. This involved fact sheets and how to use them during the UPR process. 

Participants engaged in a practical lobbying session where they had to appear before a UN delegate and present the issues affecting digital rights in their respective countries and recommendations for reform. This practical group exercise was very beneficial and informative because it gave the participants a chance to apply what they had learnt in regard to the UPR process. It gave them an opportunity to experience the review process at Geneva. 

Through the UPROAR Website, participants were guided on how to leverage research and social media platforms online for effective design and branding as part of UPR engagements  related to digital rights. The workshop also entailed guidance on what stakeholder mapping is and its importance.

In a subsequent panel entitled ‘Stemming the Tide: Has the Universal Periodic Review Mechanism Contributed to Changes in the Digital Rights Landscape of States Under Review?’ panelists shared experiences from Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and many others. This gave the participants in the workshop an understanding on how to prepare for stakeholder engagements and how to conduct evidence-based advocacy at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

It was noted that the Covid-19 pandemic led to the imposition of travel restrictions which caused difficulties in traveling to Geneva to physically participate in the UPR process. Online opportunities were a welcome alternative but the lack of reliable internet access among civil society on the continent during the sessions presented an additional barrier

Beyond making submissions and engaging during review sessions, participants were urged to also take part in monitoring recommendations. Experiences were shared about governments such as that of Uganda which rejected all the recommendations that were given in regard to digital rights. In such instances participants were encouraged not to give up and draw back due to such government response but to keep doing the work of advocacy in line with digital rights since the same is also a notable step in the right direction. They were also encouraged to collaborate with law and policy members to ensure that they know about the UPR process and that they are able to positively respond to the recommendations given. They were also encouraged to ensure that there is in-country pressure from civil society to ensure that governments act on the recommendations given to them. It was noted that in Tanzania there has been a significant increase in the acceptance of recommendations after there has been collaboration between civil society and parliamentarians.  

The UPR sessions at FIFAfrica22 were very informative and intriguing as it engaged well-equipped workshop trainers. Experiences from those who had participated in Geneva engagements on digital rights stirred the urge for proactive engagement and participation by those coming up for review like Botswana.

Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2022 (#FIFAfrica22):  Four Days of Workshops, Exhibitions, Panel Discussions and More!

#FIFAfrica22 |

Since its inception in 2014, the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) has offered a platform for policymakers, government officials, civil society, media, tech companies and technologists to convene and deliberate on various aspects of internet governance and digital rights arenas in Africa. This year’s FIFAfrica marks the return to a physical event following two years of hybrid events in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and will take place in Lusaka, Zambia, on September 26-29, 2022. It will feature two days of network meetings and skills workshops (September 26-27,2022) ahead of a two-day main event (September 28-29, 2022).

The FIFAfrica22 agenda is spread over 21 tracks with speakers and session organisers representing an extensive diversity of national, regional and international organisations, governments, tech platforms and think tanks. The largest agenda to date represents the growth in interest in digital rights as well as the concerns that have emerged and prevail on the continent’s digital landscape.

Tracks at FIFAfrica22
Access to Information Cybercrime
Artificial Intelligence Data Governance
Artivism and Creative Expression Online Digital Economy
Business and Human Rights Digital Health
Child Online Protection Digital Resilience
Digital Sovereignty Internet Rights and Governance
Digitalisation and Access to Justice Movement Building
Disinformation Network Disruptions
Inclusive Access and Affordability Platform Accountability
Infrastructure Strategic Litigation for Digital Rights
Technology and Education Women’s Rights Online

FIFAfrica22 will also feature a dedicated Digital Security Hub will also feature at the Forum with digital security and resilience experts from CIPESA, the Digital Society of Africa, the Digital Security Alliance, Internews, Jigsaw/Google and Zaina Foundation.

FIFAfrica is hosted by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), an Uganda-based technology policy think-tank with a pan-African footprint. CIPESA has previously hosted physical Forums in  Kampala, UgandaJohannesburg, South AfricaAccra, Ghana; and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

See the agenda

For more details email [email protected]

CIPESA Working On Advancing Digital Inclusion for Persons With Disabilities in Africa

By Staff Writer |

Persons with disabilities have unique needs and have for long been disadvantaged, yet the more some African countries get digitally connected, the deeper the digital divide for this community seems to grow. Despite growth in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) penetration, a large section of persons with disabilities faces digital exclusion due to lack of access and affordability of the requisite ICT tools and equipment, and failure by telecommunication operators to provide information and services in disability-friendly formats.

While millions turned to technology and traditional media for information in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, critical messages about the disease that are disseminated by health authorities, telecom companies, and broadcasters were and still are not reaching persons with visual and hearing impairments.

In turn, the digital exclusion of persons with disabilities worsened with the Covid-19 pandemic yet the Covid-19 crisis rendered technology key to working, learning, political participation and the enjoyment of other rights. Yet few organisations, within and outside the digital rights movement, are pushing for greater ICT accessibility.

These gaps in access to information gaps are growing despite the International Disability Alliance (IDA) issuing key recommendations towards a disability-inclusive Covid-19 response, including the requirement that persons with disabilities must receive information about infection mitigating tips, public restriction plans, and the services offered, in a diversity of accessible formats with use of accessible technologies.

The Collaboration for International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), is working to raise the availability of information on ICT and disability in Africa by producing relevant evidence-based research; mainstreaming disability rights issues in conversations about technology access and digital rights; growing the capacity of diverse actors to research on and advocate for meaningful connectivity and digital accessibility, and engaging key actors such telecom companies and regional bodies.

What CIPESA is doing is quite powerful and empowering. The tool is excellent, it needs to be worked on as we’ve given our input in the meeting. Once that is done, reaching out and creating awareness about the tool will be more powerful, engaging such stakeholders such as government and other key stakeholders. Once it is out this is going to be a game-changer because for persons with disabilities, ICT makes the world go round … This has been one of the first meetings on ICT and disabilities, so it is an excellent move. – Erick Ngondi, United Disabled Persons of Kenya

Here are some of our blogs and in-depth research reports on technology and persons with disabilities in Africa.

Blogs

  1. Why Access to Information on Covid-19 is Crucial to Persons with Disabilities in Africa
  2. Placing ICT Access for Persons with Disabilities at the Centre of Internet Rights Debate in Kenya
  3. CIPESA Submits Comments to Uganda Communications Commission on Improving Access to ICT for Persons With Disabilities
  4. Calling Out the African Union and Telecoms Associations to Prioritize ICT Access for Persons with Disabilities
  5. Vodacom Outshines MTN in Efforts to Serve Persons With Disabilities in South Africa
  6. People With Disabilities Left Out in ICT Jamboree
  7. Governments and Donors Urged to Advance ICT Access for Persons with Disabilities
  8. Telcos in Nigeria and Kenya Should Address Exclusion of Persons With Disabilities
  9. CIPESA Endorses GSMA Principles to Drive Digital Inclusion of Persons With Disabilities
  10. Fighting for plight of persons with disabilities

Research Reports

  1. Assessing the Barriers to Accessing ICT by People with Disability in Tanzania
  2. Assessing the Barriers to Accessing ICT by People with Disability in Uganda
  3. Assessing the Barriers to Accessing ICT by People with Disability in Kenya
  4. Removing Barriers to ICT Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities in  Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda which identified needed actions by government, regulators and communication companies.
  5. Access Denied: How Telecom Operators in Africa Are Failing Persons With Disabilities. CIPESA assessed 10 telecom companies in five countries (Botswana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda). Most of them – despite being long-established operators with a majority market share in their respective countries – were found to have failed to meet their obligations to provide information and services to persons with disabilities, in contravention of the companies’ obligations under national laws and the CRPD.

CIPESA made submission to the AUC, the ATU and EACO, drawing attention to these organisations’ obligation to protect and advance the rights of persons with disabilities in line with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; the CRPD; the Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled (the Marrakesh Treaty); the SDGs; and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Africa.

See an in-depth document about our work here.

Watch this insightful discussion on “The Role of the Media in Promoting Digital Rights for  Persons With Disabilities in Africa.

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