Silencing Critical Voices: Our Online Civic Space is Shrinking

By Digital Shelter |

Somalia had recorded steady growth in telephone penetration – with 7.6 mobile subscribers. However, internet penetration remains low – 2% as at 2017, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The adoption of technology has expanded civic space in the post conflict era, with social media platforms and blogs empowering journalists, activists and human rights defenders to document and report human abuses, mobilize public opinioncampaign for reforms, share relevant content and information, and build networks at national and global level.

However, the past three years have seen a rise in threats against online freedom of expression, such as the arrest and intimidation of several journalists and social media campaigners for comments posted on social media. There are reports of dissenting social media accounts being hacked, while others have deactivated their accounts due to fear of attacks. A culture of censorship prevails, amidst a rise in sponsored trolls spreading misinformation and propaganda to counter factual narrative reported by journalists, human rights defenders and activists online.

It is against this background that Digital Shelter hosted a panel discussion on the shrinking online civic space in Somalia and the growing digital threats faced by media professionals, bloggers and human right defenders in the digital space on February 13, 2020. The event was part of series of activities under the theme “Protect our Online Space”, supported by the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF) – an initiative of the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

Among the panelists was Mohamed Irbad, a prominent blogger and researcher known for his critical writings on governance, human rights, freedom of expression and censorship on social media platforms. In early 2019, after publishing an article titled “Media Censorship In Somalia: A Nation Risk Into Information Darkness” on his personal blog, Mohamed faced serious online and physical threats which forced him to flee the country for six months due to fear for his safety.
“All critical voices, particularly individuals who are based inside Somalia have been silenced with online and physical threats altogether. For instance, when your raise critical issue on Twitter or Facebook you have two options, you either end up battling with anonymous trolls in their hundreds by answering to their toxic comments or you feel intimidated and sacred of writing about certain issues, hence, your remain silenced . And that is exactly what happened to me after writing that article. And therefore, it is fair to stay that we are witnessing the worst shrinking of our online/offline civic and democratic spaces” Mohamed Irbad.
Also speaking at the event was Hassan Ali Osman, a journalist, with the New Humanitarian newsletter. Hassan actively uses Twitter to disseminate local and international news as it breaks for his 90,000 followers. He shared that he has been constantly attacked by trolls merely because of reporting the truth on social media platforms.
Highlighting the issue of online violence against women was Sucdi Dahir Diriye, a passionate community volunteer and member of CaawiWalaal loosely translated as “HelpYourBrother” –  a digital campaign launched three years ago to support local communities affected by droughts in Somalia. As in most of the world, the internet has provided a platform for Somali women to amplify their voices. However, it has also enabled perpetuation of different forms of online violence against women including harassment, doxing, threats, stalking and blackmail, sometimes leading to physical violence. The targets of these attacks are women that are vocal on issues such as gender equality, sexual violence, free expression, or challenging the patriarchal structure of the society. This has created a hostile online environment for women and girls in Somalia, fraught with shaming, intimidation and degrading, leading to withdraw of from the online space.
As part of her work, Sucdi documents cases of online blackmailing and extortion against young girls in Mogadishu and other regions of Somalia. She stated that limited recognition of the existence of online violence and harassment against women in Somalia is allowing the abuse to continue inexorably. Relevant policies to address online violence against women need to be put in place and more women and girls need to be skilled in digital safety and security.
Based on their personal and professional experiences, the panelists stressed the need for counter measures against the prevailing threats. Among the recommendations made was increased digital security skills and knowledge building among activists, bloggers and media professionals. Specialized training on gendered online harassment was encouraged. Panelists also emphasized a dual approach in voice amplification – online and offline to reach wider audiences.  Furthermore, more stakeholder dialogue to raise awareness on online civic space and digital rights, including data protection and privacy inline with Somalia’s growing technology sector. Other recommendations included research undertakings on current digital threats in Somalia, to inform advocacy and policy interventions; and establishment of a solidarity network to support victims of online attacks.
“Digital Shelter is proud to be in a unique position to amplify voices in the most difficult time where the online civic space is shrinking in Somalia”, said Abdifatah, co-founder of Digital Shelter in the closing remarks of the forum.
Digital Shelter continues its “Protect our Online Space” drive during March 2020 with series of trainings on digital security. Digital Shelter is also planning to host other forums on expanding online civic space in Somalia.

This article was first published by the Digital Shelter on March 04, 2020

Analysis of Tanzania’s Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2017

Policy Brief | The proposed Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations, 2017 join the catalogue of legislation related to online content in Tanzania that threaten citizens’ constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to seek, receive and impart information. The regulations were developed pursuant to section 103(1) of the Electronic and Postal Communications Act, 2010 (EPOCA), which empowers the Minister of Communications to make regulations on content related matters. Enacted in March 2010, the EPOCA aims to keep the communications sector abreast with developments in the electronic communications industry by providing for a comprehensive regulatory regime for electronic communications and postal communications service providers.
The regulations specify obligations of service providers and users of online platforms including social media, discussion forums, and online broadcasts (radio and television). They also confer powers upon the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) to regulate online content, including through registration of users and platforms, and taking action against non-compliance with the obligations, such as ordering the removal of “prohibited content.”
The regulations have some important provisions and set minimum standard requirements with regards to the protection of children online, fighting hate speech and extremism online, and promoting user responsibility and digital security practices. However, the regulations should to reviewed and amended to have clear, unambiguous definitions and wording, and quash the requirement for registration of bloggers and users of similar online platforms. It is also essential that not too much power is vested in TCRA with regards to content take-downs and that diversity in content availability online is promoted. The obligations set out should not turn content service providers and publishers into monitors, by handing them responsibility such as use of moderating tools to filter content, conducting content review before publication, and undertaking mechanisms to identify sources of content.
Moreover, there should be a clear appeal mechanism against orders to remove or block content, and such remedial measures should also be applicable once an order for blockage or removal has been issued but not yet been effected. Overall, the regulations should uphold citizens’ rights to privacy, access to information and free expression. Furthermore, TCRA, pursuant to EPOCA’s objectives of promoting a developed telecommunications sector in Tanzania, should ensure that the regulations foster internet access and affordability without placing undue requirements on service providers or making costs prohibitive, which would act as a barrier to market entry, including for public access facilities such as internet cafes.
Read CIPESA’s analysis of the implication on access to the internet, intermediary liability, user privacy, censorship, surveillance and freedom of expression of the proposed regulations in Tanzania.

Civic Technology in Uganda: A Data & Design Perspective

Workshop |

Are you a techie that’s looking to harness technology and design for the public good? Are you part of a government department or civil society organization interested in how data can improve public service delivery? Want to know what “service design” is all about? Then, this is the event for you!

We have partnered with Pollicy, a civic technology organisation and are excited to bring you the latest in civic technology in Uganda, with a focus on data and design. As issues of data ownership, digital security, censorship become more pertinent in our society, so does the need to appropriately harness the benefits of big data.

We will walk you through how data can be used to revolutionize how citizens and governments interact for mutual benefit. The agenda will include a panel discussion on the ownership of citizen data, ethics, privacy and digital security for civic technology organisations.  There will also be lightening talks on the harnessing of big data to improve service delivery and a workshop on service design.

Service design is the activity of planning and organizing an organizations resources (people, props, and processes) in order to (1) directly improve the citizen’s experience, and (2) indirectly, the citizen’s experience. For this session, Design with Borders will introduce participants to the concept of service design and how to incorporate elements of service design into their work.

For more information, email [email protected] or visit our blog at

Internet Freedom Festival 2017: CIPESA to Host Session on Navigating Internet Freedom Challenges in Africa

By Lillian Nalwoga |

The annual Internet Freedom Festival (IFF) has commenced in Valencia, Spain with hundreds of journalists, activists, technologists, policy advocates, digital safety trainers, and designers from around the world in attendance. The Collaboration on International ICT policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) will host a session “Internet Freedom in Africa: Navigating the challenges” to spark conversation on current internet freedom challenges in Africa while providing possible solutions. In addition, CIPESA shall join panel sessions hosted by partners, such as the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), Hivos, the Ford Foundation and International Media Support (IMS).
The IFF is built upon the goals of creating an inclusive information and resource sharing space, increasing the diversity of the internet freedom community, and collectively improving the services, strategies, and tools offered to the most vulnerable individuals by mapping censorship, surveillance and access obstacles faced in different regions in the world.
As internet usage rises in Africa, so do the abuses and attacks on online rights fuelled by the proliferation of laws which negate the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Further, limited judicial oversight over surveillance and interception of communications are contributing to self-censorship and threatening civic participation and free flow of information online.
The ethos of the IFF resonates with CIPESA’s  areas of the work. These include monitoring online rights violations and information control tactics, championing  a network of actors in Africa to advance progressive policy development and multi-stakeholder engagements and capacity building on digital skills among human rights defenders and journalists. The session we shall  host on navigating internet freedom challenges in Africa will partly be informed by  CIPESA’s report on the State of Internet freedom in Africa 2016 and issues that are influencing the right to information, data privacy and free speech online in Africa. We will also explore the lessons learnt from researching and advocating for internet freedom in various African countries.
The session will offer participants an opportunity to interact with internet freedom thought leaders from Africa by exploring two key questions:

  1. What is the status of internet freedom in Africa?
  2. How can we ensure a sustainable approach in promoting a free, open and safe internet in Africa?

Join us Friday March 10, 2017 09:45 – 10:45am in the Visual Room or contribute to the conversation online: #InternetFreedomAfrica @cipesaug @opennetafrica
Other sessions at IFF of interest to CIPESA, some of which shall feature CIPESA staff, include:

Online Censorship in South Africa

South Africa is among the top five African countries with the highest mobile broadband reach, preceded by Ghana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Egypt. As of June 2014, internet users had increased to 52% of the population, majority of them using mobile devices to access the internet.
Although the country has been ranked free in internet freedom rankings and held highly in respect to promoting equal rights, recent developments in the offline and online world say otherwise.
In March 2015, a consumer activist who runs the CAMcheck blog that reports on misleading claims made by consumer goods providers, was forced to move his website offshore following a take-down request made by sports supplement company USN for content described as “unsubstantiated and defamatory”.
According to Section 78 of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act (ECTA) 2002, ISPs are not obliged to monitor the data they transmit or to actively seek facts or circumstances indicating an unlawful activity. Service providers are, however, liable for failure to comply when issued with takedown requests from users as provided under Section 77 of the Act.
It is thus no surprise that Hetzner, the CAMcheck blog web hosting provider, also a member of the South Africa Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA), complied with the take down request.
Also in March 2015, the Film and Publication Board (FPB) gazetted a Draft Online Regulation Policy, 2014, which contains clauses that have the potential of blocking online content – including films, games and certain publications – prior to publication.
The regulations require that anyone wishing to publish or distribute such content has to first acquire a digital publisher’s online distribution agreement with the FPB, after paying a subscription fee. Once paid, the publisher would have to submit the content to the FPB for classification prior to publishing.
The FPB has the mandate to regulate the creation, production, possession and distribution of films, games and certain publications by way of classification, to protect children from exposure to disturbing and harmful material and from premature exposure to adult material and to criminalise child pornography and the use and exposure of children to pornography.
The Draft Online Regulation Policy states that, the policy, “read with the Online Regulation Strategy and the ECT Act Amendment Bill, will also ensure that classification focuses on media content, rather than on platforms or delivery technologies.”
However, civil society organisations have criticised the draft policy, stating that they are “effectively a specific form of pre-publication censorship, which is not acceptable.” They also add that the time spent on the pre-classification of content would undermine one of the most valuable traits of the internet – its immediacy.
Further concerns about the new regulations include the exclusion of content by parties unable to pay the fees required and thus a potential limitation on the diversity of online content.
But online content censorship is not new in South Africa. In 2012, “The Spear”, a controversial painting by Brett Murray which depicted President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed, was published on the City Press website – a daily newspaper. President Zuma and the African National Congress Party obtained an order for the removal of the image from the website of City Press on the grounds that it was unfit for viewers under the age of 16, according to classifications by the FPB. The Goodman Gallery (where the painting was displayed) approached the FPB Appeal Tribunal which found that the ruling in favour of the injunction was incorrect. The City Press nonetheless removed the image from its website.
Meanwhile in the first quarter of 2013, the South African Counter Intelligence Agency made a content removal request to Google for a blog post that was ‘allegedly infringing copyright by criticizing a media release that the agency had issued.”
Although this request was denied, past incidents together with recent developments in the country bring to the fore the crucial online freedom issues of intermediary liability and freedom of expression.
In its 2014 State of Internet Freedoms in South Africa report, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) highlights these gaps. It states that the absence of detailed provisions in the guidelines for recognition of industry representative bodies of ISPs “creates a situation where ISPs are not free to establish any ’notice’ or ‘notice and put-back’ mechanism, which would allow the user to respond to the allegations of infringement or, respectively, to provisionally restore the allegedly infringing content.”
The ECTA Amendment Bill of 2012 attempts to address some of the existing gaps by introducing Section 77A, which provides consumers with the right to be heard by ISPs before a takedown notice is enforced. However, this section still has limited provision for a user to respond to the allegations of infringement or to provisionally restore the allegedly infringing content. ISPs are merely required to respond to a “first take-down notice” within 10 business days (lesser days if the complainant can demonstrate irreparable or substantial harm).
The 2014 report calls for a review of South African legislation that is applicable to online freedom, specifically pointing out the need for immediate revision of the Films and Publications Act.
The report also recommends increased dialogue between civil society and policy makers to progressive law reforms, including a review of legislation that have actual or potential chilling effects on internet freedom.
Read the full State of Internet Freedoms in South Africa Report here.