Countering Digital Authoritarianism in Africa

By Apolo Kakaire |

The Internet which is viewed as the panacea for democracy, participation and inclusion is increasingly becoming a tool of repression deployed by regimes across the world to stifle rights and voice.  Africa, a continent already replete with poor democratic credentials and practices seems to be rapidly catching up on the new ‘epidemic’- digital authoritarianism.

The use of technology tactics to advance repressive political interests has come to be  referred to as digital authoritarianism. However, the tactics employed by authoritarian regimes have also been deployed by democratic states for purposes of surveillance, spread of misinformation, disinformation, and the disruption of civic and political participation under the pretext of fighting cybercrime, and in the interest of protecting national security, and maintaining public order.

Big technology companies are key drivers of digital authoritarianism through the creation, innovation and supply of repressive technology and related support. Moreover, political parties, interest groups, and smaller private companies have lapped it up too, developing and using tools and strategies of digital authoritarianism.

Digital authoritarianism is a great case study in understanding and appreciating the impact of technology on human rights. While laws legalising surveillance and interception of communications, and widespread data collection and processing may not be a problem in themselves, it is the ambiguity often present within those laws that give governments wide latitude of interpretation to facilitate the rights abuse that is a growing challenge.

At the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2022 (FIFAfrica22), Global Voices Advox, shared findings from the Unfreedom Monitor– a project exploring the political and social context that fuels the emergence of digital authoritarianism in 17 countries. They hosted a panel discussion in which project researchers from India, Nigeria, Sudan and Zimbabwe presented the project findings on the connections between political contexts, analogue rights, and the growing use of digital communications technology to advance authoritarian governance.

The findings paint a grim picture for  freedom of the media, expression, and democracy in general. In Zimbabwe for instance, the Unfreedom Monitor report notes that; “the press walks a precarious line between national security and the professional obligation to report truthfully” on issues that happen in the country. It is an observation that is replicated in the mapping conducted in Morocco, Egypt, and Tanzania 

In Sudan, where internet censorship, bad laws and repressed liberties and network disruptions are commonplace, Khattab Hamad noted that the contours and motives of digital authoritarianism include fear of losing power, protecting the existence of regional or international alliances, and geopolitical motives protecting private and family interests. He added that terrorism and support for terrorist groups was another motive for authoritarianism in the country. 

In Tanzania, researchers found that often, laws are enacted as precursors to enable various methods of digital authoritarianism. For example, the Cybercrime Act which was hurriedly enacted just months before the October 2015 elections. “There were many other such laws, including the amendments to the Non-Governmental Orgnaisations (NGO) Act, that saw NGOs being deregistered and control on them tightened in the lead up to the 2020 elections”, they revealed.

In Uganda, network disruptions in the run up to and during recent elections is another example of digital authoritarianism. “Sometimes the internet is restored after elections. So, the question is what exactly is the purpose? What are you hiding? Why do you deny your people access to information? Internet shutdowns also question the credibility of elections”, said Felicia Anthonio of Access Now. She added that network disruptions affect engagement between voters and political candidates, in addition to limiting  electoral oversight and monitoring by human rights activists and election observers. 

As part of the Unfreedom Monitor project, Global Voices Advox has established a publicly available database on digital authoritarianism to support advocacy in light of the “urgency of a fast deteriorating situation”, said Sindhuri Nandhakumar, a researcher  with the project. 

While applauding the research and database in supporting evidence-based advocacy, digital rights activists at FIFAfrica22 noted that given the behaviour of authoritarian regimes, advocacy at the national level may be met with a lot of resistance. As such, more engagement was called for  through special mandates and periodic human rights review mechanisms at the African Union (AU) and the United Nations Human Rights Council.   

“Advocacy [against digital authoritarianism] at national level will be difficult. Positive results could be registered through Special rapporteurs at the AU and states through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), towards securing accountability”, said Arsene Tungali from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For African digital rights activists, the Global Voices Advox research and database unravels new  avenues for collaborative advocacy and transnational opportunities for interventions to stem this spread of digital authoritarianism. The findings however also point at the need for a concerted and robust response to its growing traction.

As elections in Africa remain a major flashing point for digital authoritarianism as all manner of manipulation of voters, narratives, even results abound, it remains a key area of transnational cooperation. Ahead of the elections in Zimbabwe, slated for July-August 2023, Advox will come up with tips on awareness raising on voter rights and the role of technology in elections. Zimbabwe provides a good opportunity to pilot, learn and perhaps adopt some interventions to counter this behemoth.

Digital Rights Prioritised at The 73rd Session of The ACHPR

By CIPESA Writer |

Digital rights as key to the realisation and enforcement of human rights on the African continent was  among the thematic focus areas of the Forum on the Participation of NGOs in the 73rd Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) held on October 17-18, 2022 in Banjul, the Gambia. Under the theme “Human Rights and Governance in Africa: A Multi-Dimensional Approach in Addressing Conflict, Crisis and Inequality”, the Forum also featured thematic discussions on conflict, the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement, the environment, climate change, gender-based violence, post Covid-19 strategies and civic space for human rights and good governance.

The Forum on the Participation of NGOs in the Ordinary Sessions of the ACHPR is an advocacy platform coordinated by the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies. It aims to promote advocacy, lobbying and networking among non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for the promotion and protection of human rights in Africa. The Forum allows for sharing updates on the human rights situation on the continent by African and international NGOs with a view of identifying responses as well as adopting strategies towards promoting and protecting human rights on the continent.

A session in which the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) participated alongside Paradigm Initiative (PIN), the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) and the Centre for Human Rights-University of Pretoria, discussed the relationship between human rights and technology.

Thobekile Matimbe from PIN observed that internet shutdowns in the region are worrying and a major threat to freedom of expression, access to information, freedom of association and peaceful assembly contrary to article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People Rights (ACHPR) and the ACHPR Declaration of Principles on freedom of expression and access to information in Africa. She  expounded on the profound adverse impacts of internet shutdowns and disruptions on socio-economic rights, including the right to education, housing, health, and even social security. Matimbe specifically called for an end to the now two years internet and phone shutdown in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, while also regretting the continued violation of international human rights standards by States in other parts of the continent. 

Introducing digital rights as human rights and situating the different human rights groups within the digital rights discourse, Irene Petras from ICNL highlighted the technological evolution on the continent and the interrelatedness and interdependence of the internet with various rights and freedoms. According to her, internet shutdowns are an emerging concern that is adversely impacting the digital civic space. 

According to Access Now, in 2021 at least 182 internet shutdowns were experienced in 34 countries across the globe. In Africa, shutdowns were recorded in 12 countries on up to 19 occasions. The affected countries were Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Gabon, Niger, Uganda and Zambia, which experienced internet restrictions during elections. Eswatini, Ethiopia, Gabon, Senegal and South Sudan experienced internet shutdowns due to protests and civil unrest. 

According to CIPESA’s legal officer Edrine Wanyama, given the long-standing authoritarianism and democracy deficits in most parts of the continent, elections, protests and demonstrations and examination periods are  the key drivers of internet shutdowns in Africa. Wanyama also noted that the consequences of internet shutdowns were wide ranging, extending to economic and financial loss, undermining freedom of expression, access to information and access to the internet, aggravating the digital exclusion gap, placing doubt on credibility of elections, facilitating loss of trust in governments and often fueling disinformation and hate speech

Given the social, economic and political benefits of the internet, Hlengiwe Dube of the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria urged states to re-think its availability and access at all times, as opposed to imposing information blackouts and creating situations for litigation.  She noted that meaningful access and creation of a facilitative environment for internet access has widely been advanced as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The session called for active monitoring and documentation of internet shutdowns by NGOs including through collaborative and partnership building efforts, utilising investigative tools like Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and NetBlocks which help to detect disruptions, and engaging in strategic litigation. 

The joint recommendations provided for inclusion in the NGOs Statement to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) 73rd Ordinary Session by the thematic cluster on digital rights and security are to:

African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) 

  1. In the event of an internet shutdown or any state-perpetrated network disruption, the ACHPR should condemn in the strongest terms such practices and reiterate the state obligations under international human rights law and standards. 
  2. In its assessment of State periodic reports, the ACHPR should engage States under assessment on issues of internet access including the occurrence of interferences through measures such as the removal, blocking or filtering of content and assess compliance with international human rights law and standards.
  3. The ACHPR should engage with stakeholders including State Parties, national human rights institutions and NGOs to develop guidance on internet freedom in Africa aimed at realising an open and secure internet in the promotion of freedom of expression and access to information online.

States Parties

  1. States should recognise and respect that universal, equitable, affordable and meaningful access to the internet is necessary for the realisation of human rights by adopting legal, policy and other measures to promote access to the internet and amend laws that unjustifiably restrict access to the internet.
  2. States parties should desist from unnecessarily implementing internet shutdowns and any other arbitrary actions that limit access to, and use of the internet and restore all disrupted digital networks where such disruptions have been ordered. Where limitation measures that disrupt access to the internet and social media are inevitable, they should be narrowly applied and should be prescribed by the law; serve a legitimate aim and be necessary and proportionate means to achieve a stated aim in a democratic society. 
  3. The State, as the duty bearer, should create a conducive environment for business entities to operate in a manner that respects human rights. 

Non-Governmental Organisations 

  • NGOs and other stakeholders should monitor and document the occurrence of internet shutdowns including their impact on human rights and development; raise awareness of the shutdowns and continuously advocate for an open and secure internet.

The Private Sector

  • Telecommunications companies and internet service providers, in their response to shut down requests, should take the relevant legal measures to avoid internet shutdowns and whenever they receive Internet Shutdown requests from States, the companies should insist on human rights due diligence before such measures are taken to mitigate their impact on human rights, ensuring transparency.

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]

Confronting the Challenges to Journalism in the Digital Age

By Edrine Wanayama |

Across the world, journalists face daily affronts physically and online for the work they do. Although the proliferation of technology has come with benefits for the practice of journalism, it has also adversely affected the media landscape to the extent that in some countries journalism has come under siege under the digital era. 

Technology has served to enable major shifts in how journalism is practiced, in addition to enhancing freedom of expression and access to information in addition to  complementing the promotion of accountability and transparency. However,  negative aspects such as digital surveillance are endangering the practice of journalism. The use of sophisticated technologies by governments is fuelling rights violations as it is now easier to track, arrest, detain, persecute and prosecute media professionals whose content is deemed unacceptable to the authorities.

This year, World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) was commemorated under the theme ‘Journalism Under Siege and recognised  how recent developments in technological means of monitoring and surveillance impact journalism and freedom of expression.

Digitisation offers several  benefits for the journalism sector, including the pace at which content can be collected and shared across online platforms. However, the risks and harms that come with digitisation, such as the elimination of professional gatekeepers who also uphold journalistic ethics, fabrication of content, falsification of information, misinformation and disinformation, hate speech, and online harassment, have become major threats to the sector.  

While in the pre-Internet world, freedom of expression and privacy were thought to only interact when journalists reported on public figures in the name of the right to know, the rights have become increasingly interdependent. This linkage reflects digital business models and the development of new surveillance technologies and large-scale data collection and retention. The changes pose risks in terms of reprisals against media workers and their sources, thereby affecting the free exercise of journalism, UNESCO

Even though the digital space offers broad opportunities for the practice of the journalism profession, various  countries in Africa have taken systematic steps to limit the enjoyment of freedom in the digital space. Many states across the continent including Egypt, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have enhanced their surveillance capacities including through enactment of enabling legislation which is often used against state critics and journalists.

Furthermore, mass data collection initiatives such as registration of persons for national identification documents, SIM card registration, voter registration and the creation of interlinked databases by the government for various services, have increased the precision with which state authorities can identify their targets. This is of particular concern for the media and their sources.s.

As such, at the WPFD commemoration in Uganda organised by the Uganda’s Media Sector Working Group (UMSWG) in conjunction with the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), the Makerere University Department of Journalism and Communication, the Media Council of Uganda, Uganda Communications Commission, and the Uganda Human Rights Commission, attendees discussed the country’s shrinking digital space, surveillance, arrests and persecution amidst growing digitalisation practices across sectors and the population. 

These concerns were echoed at the Africa Media Convention held  in Arusha, Tanzania around the WPFD and organised by UNESCO and the East Africa Editors’ Guild. The convention discussions were largely informed by a research report by CIPESA and UNESCO on journalism under siege in the digital era. In turn, the discussions resulted in the  Arusha Declaration on Journalism Under Digital Siege, which reaffirms the importance of human rights and freedom of the press and states’ commitments to provide an enabling environment for freedom of expression and the press. 

Journalists should use technology responsibly to guard against counter productivity.  There should be deliberate efforts aimed at guarding against online vices such as disinformation and misinformation, false news and hate speech to ensure reporting events and stories is based on truth and objectivity. 

Similarly, states must take all measures to ensure their compliance with universally recognised human rights standards by repealing all laws, policies and practices that limit journalism practice. They should also progressively enact laws that promote digital rights and freedoms including those of journalists. 

Specifically, recommendations in the 2022 Arusha Declaration on the World Press Freedom Day should be adopted by states, media, civil society, technology companies and development partners  if the media sector is to become better and operate with minimal interruptions.

Journalists in DR Congo and Rwanda Grapple with Disinformation and Hate Speech. Here’s What They Should Do

By CIPESA Writer |

As disinformation and hate speech intensify during periods of armed conflict and political unrest, journalists can play a critical role in countering falsehoods by providing accurate, unbiased information to the public. Yet, journalists often lack the skills and resources to identify, fact-check, and call out disinformation.

Last month, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) convened a consultative meeting in Rwanda’s border town of Rubavu for Congolese and Rwandan journalists to discuss how they can play a more effective role in countering disinformation in the conflict between the two countries while providing accurate information in their reporting. The meeting discussed the nature of the disinformation and its key instigators and spreaders, media pluralism, and factual reporting.

The Conflict

In recent months, the governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) and Rwanda have traded accusations of supporting rebel forces destabilising each other’s country, with disinformation and hate speech taking centre stage in the conflict and fuelling hostilities between the neighbours.

The Congolese government is engaged in armed conflict against the M23 rebel group, which it says is supported by the Rwanda government. A recent United Nations (UN) report corroborated the allegations, indicating that Kigali supports the M23 rebels and other militia operating in the troubled North Kivu province. Rwanda denies the allegations and in turn accuses its neighbour of supporting the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) armed rebels that have bases inside eastern Congo from where they purportedly make occasional incursions into Rwanda.

This ongoing conflict has also sucked in the UN peacekeeping force in DR Congo, commonly known as the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). There are increased calls for its withdrawal from the central African nation amidst accusations that it has failed to stop the M23 rebel advances and killings by other militia. According to media reports, 36 people including four UN peacekeepers were killed in late July amid protests against MONUSCO.

Information Disorder

The Congolese online space is fraught with calls for a boycott of Rwandan goods and businesses, as well as calls for expulsion of Rwandan nationals. In late May, Congo suspended Rwanda’s national carrier Rwandair’s flights from its territory. The hashtag #RwandaIsKilling trended online in July 2022 as some Congolese citizens and their government accused Rwanda of supporting the resurgence of attacks by the M23 rebels that claim to protect ethnic Rwandans that are native to eastern Congo, especially the Tutsi ethnic group.

The disinformation is particularly pronounced on social networking and sharing platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. However, some mainstream media, including private radio and television stations, have played an active role in manipulating information and entrenching hate speech against some members of the Congolese Kinyarwanda-speaking communities and Rwandan nationals.

Yet it is not media actors on one side of the border that are actively promoting disinformation. Journalists and media houses on the Rwandan side were also accused of propagating anti-Congo disinformation, notably that related to the Congolese government’s alleged support for anti-Rwanda armed groups. Often, those who promote the pro-Rwanda narrative are engaged in exchanges with the pro-Congo influencers on social media, with both sides utilising disinformation.

Participants at the Rubavu meeting noted that politicians have been at the forefront of using disinformation to push nationalistic and populist agendas against the Rwandan community living in Congo’s North Kivu and the South-Kivu provinces. As one Congolese journalist explained, “The disinformation and hate speech narratives have been mostly pushed by politicians and this has been done for petty political and personal interests.”

Yet another journalist, who operates from the Congolese city of Goma, noted that some prominent members of the community, “such as religious leaders, influential civil society leaders, and grassroots leaders have also played a major role in peddling and spreading false narratives and fake news.”

Participants also identified political analysts, social media influencers, bloggers, local civic leaders and ordinary citizens, as some of the actors behind the current spate of hate speech and disinformation within the digital space of the two countries.

It was noted that many journalists, both in DR Congo and Rwanda, lacked the capacity to verify the information and had become complicit, knowingly and unknowingly, in spreading disinformation. Furthermore, because most citizens could not easily identify disinformation and tended to believe most information they received through mainstream and social media platforms, fake news was thriving and spreading rapidly.

Nadine Kampire from the Goma-based media network Afia Amani Grands Lacs, said the Rubavu meeting was timely, as fake news and hate speech were rampant on various Congolese and Rwandan social media. It was therefore necessary for journalists to appreciate the extent of the problem, to develop skills in fact-checking, and to build networks for sharing credible information with counterparts across borders.

The Effects

For the residents of Goma and Rubavu, the effects of disinformation and hate speech on regional peace and stability are all clear. The disinformation, escalation of conflict and whipping up of hate speech, have led to a substantial decline in the movement of people and goods and continue to undermine cross-border trade. As a result, this has negatively affected the livelihoods of hundreds of small-scale traders and community members.

Further, the standoff between the two countries has prevented many learners from attending school as they fear crossing the border. Notably, many Rwandans in Rubavu attend schools in the much larger city of Goma across the border.

Fidèle Kitsa, a Congolese journalist working with Star Radio in Goma, noted that hate speech and disinformation have caused negative social, economic and educational consequences within communities in the border towns. He said the price of food and commodities increased, the population has been radicalised, pessimism towards certain information on social media increased, and the peaceful coexistence of the populations in two cities has been harmed. These effects are evident beyond the border towns, all the way to the Congolese capital Kinshasa.

The tension is palpable, even here in the capital [Kinshasa] where we really see acts of xenophobia between the Congolese and Rwandans all day long. All it takes is one click, one video, one publication and it can quickly go viral, because in our minds, our subconscious, the information is there. We are just waiting for something to trigger it. – Dandjes Luyila, Journalick, CongoCeck

A Rwandan editor summed up the effects: “The rampant spread of fake news, political propaganda, and hate speech across social media and through the mainstream media has breached trust and the social relationship between the communities living on both sides of the border.”

Recommendations

At the end of the meeting, a number of recommendations were made that can help to stem the spread of disinformation in DR Congo and Rwanda.

Journalists:

Journalists:

  • Abide by ethical standards that promote accuracy, fairness, and objectivity in the coverage of news.
  • Fact-check every piece of information before disseminating it.
  • Provide news and information in an unbiased way.
  • Actively promote peace and security.

Media development agencies:

  • Hold regular training on fact-checking for journalists.
  • Provide small grants to support journalists to pursue in-depth stories on the ongoing conflict in the region as a way of providing accurate information to the public.
  • Enhance collaboration between journalists within the East and Central African region. This includes the creation of a regional association of journalists and media professionals.
  • Support media initiatives that are working towards identifying and fighting disinformation and fake news.
  • Support fact-checking initiatives for journalists.