Assessing the Effects of Covid-19 Misinformation Laws on Freedom of Expression

By Nashilongo Gervasius | 

As Africa’s most sought after digital rights conference dawned on its last day of bringing multitudes together, five panelists (an academic, a researcher, program managers and a digital rights specialist) converged and reflected on the effect that Covid-19 misinformation laws have had in Sub-Saharan Africa. The laws and regulations which were introduced as measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, are generally viewed by scholars and activists as serving  to curtail freedom of expression. 

At the peak of the pandemic, 110 countries around the world were reported by the International Center for Not-for -Profit Law (ICNL) to have adopted emergency declarations or laws that carried fines as heavy as USD 46,000 (Kenya), USD 10,000 (Zimbabwe), and 10 years in prison (Burkina Faso) for contravening their provisions. Closely related to digital rights, such laws also applied to social media engagement and communications, with some prohibiting publication of “any statement through any medium including social media, with the intent to deceive,” in South Africa.

The notoriety of such laws made them the focus of the State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2020 Report. Similarly, a report by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) on the State of Press Freedom in Southern Africa 2019-2020 also highlighted the challenges posed by these laws on top of the burden brought about by the pandemic itself. The MISA report indicated that the “landscape and operational environment for the media in Southern Africa has been  characterised  by  upheavals,  accentuated  by the Covid-19 pandemic and the advent of the digital  age,  which  have  threatened  the  viability  and sustainability of the media”. The report goes on to highlight attacks,  harassment  and  assault  of  journalists  and  in  some  cases  raiding  of  media  houses in the region. 

Why focus on the laws and regulations two years later? 

The Covid-19 misinformation laws are still in place even when other Covid-19 related restrictions have been eased in some countries. Worryingly, governments in the region have not opened any discussion regarding the timeframes around repealing the laws. 

Accordingly, panelists at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) 2021 session on Covid-19 Misinformation Legislation in Southern Africa vs Freedom of Expression, deliberated on  the danger that these laws continue to pose to access to information and freedom of expression. Panelists demanded an urgent need for the Covid-19 misinformation laws to be repealed, arguing that the likelihood that governments will use them to stifle citizens rights and public participation, especially during election periods, is very high.  

Further, the panel noted the limited documentation of cases of violation of rights in the countries where these laws are effected, while agreeing that, in some instances, restrictions have affected media coverage of cases.

What effects do these laws have?

The Covid-19 misinformation laws are a danger to democracy and they contravene the right to access information. Using Tanzania as an example, the panel reflected on the chaos that ensued in that country due to Covid-19 denialism that saw the government stop publishing data on coronavirus diseases cases.

In other countries like Zimbabwe, where the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act already criminalised the publication of false statements, it was unclear why the government introduced additional restrictions on false information related to Covid-19 lockdown enforcement, making the move appear to be part of a sinister agenda. Indeed, the media fell victim to the regulations, with an estimated 52 cases of violations against practitioners reported during 2020. As one of the panelists noted, “Many people were arrested without a clear cause, because people did not understand these laws well.”

In regards to the extent of the negative effects of the Covid-19 laws on freedom of expression, it was noted that the media in some countries was no longer asking government uncomfortable questions, especially those seeking accountability for expenditure on containing the pandemic. This demonstrated  that these laws are not helping journalists to do their job fairly and independently; instead, in some cases they have restricted themselves to report on mundane issues such as numbers of Covid-19 cases and vaccination figures.

The panel discussion reiterated that, in such instances, journalists were no longer performing their role of a watchdog, but had turned into “mere megaphones that repeated what government officials said”. This had undermined investigative journalism and denied citizens access to balanced and diverse information.  As a panelist aptly observed: “These laws have disorganised journalism, which is double negative given that traditional media are competing with digital platforms that are destroying newspapers and television.” 

Can such laws deter misinformation?

There seems to be  general consensus that these laws are not enough in dealing with the spread of misinformation. This calls for revisiting these laws and taking other measures, such as engaging  digital platforms to do more in combating misinformation. Further, the panel agreed that there is a need to educate the public to strengthen their digital literacy skills so that they can question the information they receive rather than consuming and sharing whatever information comes their way. 

The urgency of getting the misinformation legislation repealed was illuminated by the realisation that, in several cases where individuals have been arrested under these laws, the adverse effect  of the false information could not be demonstrated, and it was often not possible to verify who produced the information in question. The discussion recommended a coordinated regional approach to advocate for the repeal of these laws.

Combating Disinformation in Africa: Challenges and Prospects

By CIPESA Staff Writer |

As disinformation grows in form and prevalence in many African countries, the challenges to combating it are equally increasing yet measures to combat it remain inadequate and often inappropriate. This has got disinformation researchers concerned that, if more robust measures are not adopted, disinformation could become pervasive, harder to fight, and with broad social and political ramifications.

While disinformation is not a new phenomenon, a number of factors have spurred it to unprecedented levels. These include the rapid growth of social media usage, emerging media viability challenges, politicians’ increasing influence on the media, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the involvement of mainstream media in spreading disinformation.

Few actors are conducting fact-checking and contributing to fighting disinformation in the region, which is partly due to a shortage of expertise. That requires building a bigger cohort of fact-checkers and arming them with the skills to match the evolving disinformation challenges.  “We need to make fact-checking sexy,” says Rosemary Ajayi, the lead researcher at Digital Africa Research Lab. “We need to learn from the disinformation spreaders. We need to find the motivation behind the disinformation.”

Also crucial to combating disinformation is generating evidence of the form and prevalence of  disinformation, and how it originates and spreads between different mediums and communities. In this regard, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) in conjunction with partners in five countries (Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda), is conducting a study to understand the nature, perpetrators, strategies and pathways of disinformation, and its effects on democracy actors including civil society, bloggers, government critics, and activists.

At a related workshop conducted as part of the eighth Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica), held in September 2021, experts discussed the factors fuelling disinformation, efforts to contain the problem, and  how disinformation is affecting democracy in African countries.  

Morgan Wack, a PhD Candidate at the University of Washington, said the fracturing of online media and rise of social media has broken up the consolidated media that previously existed. “This is good but it also leaves the media vulnerable and also takes resources away from entities that could have done better fact-checking,” he said.

According to various speakers at the workshop, mainstream media across the continent has increasingly become a key disinformation pathway contrary to the known pillars of traditional media as purveyors of factual and reliable information. As observed by Tessa Knight, a Research Assistant at the Digital Research Forensic Lab, many countries do not have free and independent media and so their stories are often biased. Given the difficulties in fact-checking in such countries, the information remains one-sided. 

With growing media viability concerns, newsrooms are narrowing the choice of issues to cover in order to cut costs. As Knight pointed out, given what is online, there may not be many people interested in what newsrooms are reporting. “We need to acknowledge the financial squeeze on the industry. Also, the fact that people consider other issues more important than say hospital deaths,” she added.

Nonetheless, Ajayi argued that the business model of several media organisations in countries such as Nigeria enables the propagation of disinformation, as some mainstream media were also doing the opposite of what is expected. “All I need to have a story published is to accompany it with an envelope [bribe] and this cuts across all media platforms,” she said. “There is also a close relationship between the government and newsrooms. Government spokespeople have come from the media so if they want to silence a story they know who to contact.” 

Ownership of news organisations by political actors, including individuals holding senior positions in government, also undermines media independence and often renders such media houses sources of disinformation.

There are also concerns about governments using public media platforms and manipulating private media to spread disinformation. “In Ethiopia, the media is largely funded by the government so their news is one-sided, noted Abel Wabella, Executive Director of Inform Africa’s HaqCheck

Yet Ethiopia presents a vivid example of how different political actors are using disinformation to push their agenda, including to destabilise the country. “Now people are suffering a humanitarian crisis because each side is providing contradictory information about the crisis in Ethiopia with a view of pushing their agenda,” said Wabella. He added that it is crucial to counter this disinformation to provide the opportunity for sanitised political conversations and to aid the country’s democratisation process.

Meanwhile, it was reported that during elections in Nigeria and Ghana, politicians assemble armies of commercial influencers to push their agendas that include disinformation. “In Nigeria we call them influenza because their goal is to make their content trend. They use all sorts of tactics, compromised accounts, fake celebrity accounts, fake accounts and also attaching fake giveaways to this content. They manipulate us by making us turn a non-story into a key topic of the day,” Ajayi said. She called for a multi-sectoral and multidisciplinary approach to digital literacy because fact-checking on its own does not work because “fact-checked information is not sexy like disinformation”.

Simone Tousi, a CIPESA Programme Officer for Francophone Africa, said governments in west and central Africa were also heavily relying on mainstream media to spread disinformation. This was undermining the power of mainstream media to deter the spread of disinformation.

The inadequacy of government responses to disinformation was also reflected in their legislative decisions. According to Tousi, disinformation laws and policies have had the net effect of undermining freedom of expression. Accordingly, there is an urgent need to repeal and replace these harmful laws with more progressive legislation.

Cartographie du lien entre Désinformation, Coupures d’Internet, Pandémies et Diaspora au Cameroun et en RD Congo

Par Richard Ngamita |

Le phénomène de la désinformation sur les médias sociaux est devenu une source de préoccupation croissante dans la politique mondiale depuis plusieurs années. Bien plus, ledit phénomène explose maintenant en Afrique subsaharienne, où les campagnes de désinformation via les médias sociaux sont de plus en plus déployées par des entités et des gouvernements étrangers pour influencer l’opinion.

Plusieurs facteurs sociopolitiques et économiques offrent un terrain propice à la désinformation dans les pays africains. L’explosion démographique avec prédominance de jeunes – dont la plupart  se connectent à l’Internet  pour la première fois via les médias sociaux, la disponibilité et l’utilisation croissantes des téléphones portables connectés à Internet, les conflits ethnico-religieux et l’insécurité sont quelques-uns des facteurs qui ont contribué à la prolifération d’informations accessibles via les médias numériques, fournissant ainsi de nouveaux canaux de diffusion rapide et d’amplification de fausses informations.

Cette montée de la désinformation dans la région constitue un nouveau test de solidité pour les nouvelles dispositions politiques et législatives en matière d’Internet. Par exemple, en mars 2020, l’Éthiopie a promulgué la loi sur la prévention et la répression du discours de haine et de la désinformation, pour lutter contre ces deux phénomènes qui ont  troublé  le pays par le passé. Cependant, il s’avère selon plusieurs observateurs que cette nouvelle réglementation gouvernementale, bien que légitime pour lutter contre le discours de haine, constitue  en même temps une menace pour la liberté d’expression et l’accès à l’information en ligne.

Au Cameroun, en vertu de la loi relative à la cybersécurité et à la cybercriminalité, la publication et la propagation d’information en ligne “sans pouvoir en attester la véracité” ou justifier qu’il y avait de bonnes raisons de croire en ladite information est correcte constituent un délit. Lors d’une conférence de presse tenue en juillet 2020, René Emmanuel Sadi, ministre camerounais de la communication, s’est dit préoccupé par l’utilisation “irresponsable” des médias sociaux pour ternir l’image des fonctionnaires ou saboter les actions du gouvernement et a prévenu que ceux qui continueraient à propager de telles informations sur les plateformes de médias sociaux s’exposeraient à de lourdes peines prévues par la loi.

D’autres pays comme le Zimbabwe et la Tanzanie, disposent de lois plus générales sur les médias qui ont été utilisées pour lutter contre les fausses informations. Ces différentes lois ont été critiquées pour la menace qu’elles font peser sur les droits numériques, en particulier lorsqu’elles sont mises en place pour contrer toute opinion critique ou débat contradictoire dans des pays africains présentant des déficits démocratiques.

De nombreux pays africains, dont le Cameroun et la République Démocratique du Congo (RDC), continuent de se débattre contre la désinformation, par laquelle une mauvaise action   en ligne pourrait causer des dommages hors ligne. Ce rapport examine la situation dans ces pays, où – malgré des niveaux de connectivité relativement bas – la désinformation représente une préoccupation considérable.

En 2017, le Cameroun comptait 19,7 millions d’abonnés à la téléphonie mobile, soit un taux de pénétration de 85 %, tandis que la pénétration d’Internet était de 35,6 %. Parallèlement, la RD Congo avait un taux de pénétration d’Internet de 19,2 % en décembre 2019, tandis que le taux de pénétration de la téléphonie mobile était de 42 %.

Compréhension des conflits et désinformation

Les citoyens du Cameroun et de la RD Congo recourent à une gamme variée de sources d’information traditionnelles (notamment la presse écrite et audiovisuelle), ainsi qu’à des sources en ligne pour suivre l’actualité sociale, économique et politique. Cependant, les médias sociaux jouent un rôle de plus en plus important comme source d’informations relatives aux conflits, par le fait que les médias traditionnels sont censurés par les gouvernements respectifs.

Au Cameroun, les tensions entre les régions anglophones et francophones remontent à l’indépendance du pays en 1961. Au fil des ans, des violences mortelles et des actions de protestation ont eu lieu contre la “francophonisation” continue et la marginalisation des anglophones qui affirment que le gouvernement central privilégie la population francophone majoritaire.

En 2015, une vidéo montrant deux femmes et deux enfants abattus par des soldats dans la ville de Zelevet, dans l’extrême-Nord, a commencé à circuler sur les médias sociaux. Selon une enquête de BBC Africa Eye de juillet 2018, le gouvernement a d’abord rejeté la vidéo la qualifiant de fausse nouvelle. Cependant, Amnesty International a révélé avec des preuves crédibles que l’armée camerounaise était responsable, ce qui a poussé les autorités à se rétracter et à déclarer que les 10 soldats représentés dans la vidéo avaient été arrêtés et seraient poursuivis. Cinq ans après l’incident, un tribunal militaire a déclaré les soldats coupables et les a condamnés à des peines d’emprisonnement.

Alors que l’enquête de BBC Africa Eye sur l’incident de la fusillade a révélé que plusieurs personnes n’aimaient pas diffuser en ligne des discours de haine et des contenus graphiques sur les violences, elles reconnaissaient que ces contenus pourraient parfois révéler des informations utiles à la sécurité en particulier pour ceux qui vivent dans des zones de conflit.

Source: Twitter

En RD Congo, la succession de conflits armés a fait des millions de morts et déstabilisé le pays, avec une violence continue perpétrée par plusieurs groupes armés actifs dans la région, notamment les forces démocratiques alliées (ADF : Allied Democratic Forces), les Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) et de nombreuses autres milices. La Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en RD Congo (MONUSCO) opère dans la région depuis 1999 et constitue la plus grande mission de maintien de la paix des Nations Unies dans le monde.

Lors des élections tant attendues de 2018, des irrégularités électorales généralisées ont été signalées, des partis politiques concurrents prétendaient être en tête après que les résultats de divers comptages non officiels aient commencé à circuler sur les médias sociaux. Des contenus sponsorisés produits sur Google et sur Facebook ont faussement prétendu qu’Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, dauphin du président sortant Joseph Kabila, avait remporté le scrutin. Ces annonces ont été publiées avant la proclamation officielle des résultats par la commission électorale, arrivée tardivement. Il y a eu des coupures d’Internet dans les principales villes du pays, ce qui a davantage compliqué la vérification de toute information en rapport avec ces élections.

Source : Twitter

Sachant que les élections avaient été reportées de novembre 2016 à décembre 2017, puis à avril 2018, la propagation de faux résultats électoraux aurait pu prolonger le cycle d’instabilité.

Le rôle de la diaspora

La communauté de la diaspora contribue énormément à attiser les tensions en ligne dans les deux pays, souvent par le biais de faux comptes qui partagent régulièrement des contenus haineux incitant à la violence contre des factions politiques rivales.

Lors des élections de 2018 au Cameroun, il y a eu plusieurs cas de publications sur les médias sociaux en provenance de la diaspora affirmant que le président de longue date Paul Biya était mort. Biya a finalement gagné lesdites élections et deux ans plus tard, le contenu des médias sociaux, souvent en provenance de la diaspora, continue d’alimenter les tensions politiques et ethniques.

Source:  Facebook

Avec le conflit dans les régions anglophones qui provoque des appels à un État indépendant, et les séparatistes qui recherchent activement le soutien de la diaspora camerounaise, il y a un risque permanent que le contenu en ligne qualifiant le gouvernement camerounais de répressif et violent puisse entraîner des dommages hors ligne.

Source: Facebook

Quant aux messages mensongers sur les médias sociaux qui affirmaient que Shadary avait remporté l’élection présidentielle de 2018 en RD Congo, et compte tenu de la coupure de l’Internet à l’époque, tous les indices montrent que les auteurs des annonces sponsorisées et les administrateurs des comptes en question étaient des membres de la diaspora. Le compte Lumumba aime LE CONGO qui figurait parmi les principaux propagateurs des annonces, avait été créé juste avant les élections et misait sur l’héritage de Patrice Lumumba, célèbre héros de l’Indépendance. Outre le contenu revendiquant la victoire de Shadary, la page partageait également des messages provenant de plusieurs faux domaines ou sites web d’agrégation d’informations comme Ceci constitue un autre exemple frappant de désinformation en ligne susceptible de causer des dommages hors ligne dans un environnement politique fragile.


À l’instar d’autres pays africains, le Cameroun et la RD Congo ont connu une recrudescence de la désinformation en ligne à propos du Covid-19, en partie liée aux sensibilités culturelles, politiques et religieuses, notamment la promotion de remèdes à base de plantes, de bains de vapeur, de l’alcool, de commentaires contradictoires et spéculatifs sur les traitements et/ou de conseils confus sur les Procédures Opérationnelles Normalisées (PON).

La propagation de la désinformation autour des maladies peut constituer un danger pour la santé publique, comme cela a été le cas au Cameroun et en RD Congo concernant Ebola et, plus récemment, le Covid-19. La désinformation sur les maladies cultive la méfiance par rapport aux données scientifiques, freine la sensibilisation, politise les actions de santé publique et sème le doute sur les motivations des autorités sanitaires.

La RD Congo n’est pas novice en matière d’épidémie, puisqu’elle a subi de plein fouet l’épidémie d’Ebola entre 2017 et 2019. En mai 2020, France 24 News a fait état d’une campagne de désinformation sur le Covid-19 en RD Congo. Les rapports de France 24 ont ensuite été corroborés par Facebook et le DFRLab, qui ont trouvé un lien entre le réseau avec un homme politique appelé Honoré Mvula. Le réseau a diffusé plusieurs propos sur le Covid-19 faussement attribuées à des personnalités publiques, notamment à l’expert français en maladies infectieuses Didier Raoult, au président français Emmanuel Macron et au président malgache Andry Rajoelina. Ces allégations ont fait le tour des pages Facebook très suivies en RD Congo. Mvula a nié les accusations portées contre lui. Facebook a dû supprimer lesdites pages.

Coupures d’Internet

Le Cameroun et la RD Congo ont l’habitude d’ordonner des coupures d’accès à l’Internet à de multiples occasions lors de protestations publiques et d’élections. En janvier 2017, la connectivité à Internet a été coupée dans la région anglophone du Cameroun suite à des appels à sa sécession de la région francophone. Cette interruption qui a duré plus de 230 jours jusqu’en mars 2018, est connue comme la plus longue coupure d’Internet sur le continent.

De la même manière, l’instabilité en RD Congo a été continuellement caractérisée par des coupures répétitives d’Internet depuis décembre 2011. Après la journée électorale relativement calme du 30 décembre 2018, le gouvernement a coupé l’accès à Internet le 31 décembre, puis a progressivement fermé les médias audiovisuels, tout en expulsant certains journalistes internationaux qui couvraient les élections. Les raisons officielles fournies par les responsables politiques étaient “afin d’éviter la diffusion de faux résultats”.

D’après des analystes, la coupure d’Internet au Cameroun a coûté à l’économie 1,67 million de dollars par jour, tandis que celle de la RD Congo coutait 3 millions de dollars par jour.

Source: Twitter

Les coupures d’Internet pendant les élections sont une tendance courante et croissante de la répression numérique, en particulier dans les pays autoritaires d’Afrique, dont les dirigeants sont au pouvoir depuis de nombreuses années. Lorsque les gouvernements imposent des blackouts médiatiques ou restreignent la libre circulation de l’information en ligne par d’autres moyens, la désinformation se développe car la vérification des faits et le débat contradictoire sont entravés. Dans le cas du Cameroun et de la RD Congo, cette désinformation, provenait en grande partie de la diaspora qui propageait un discours de haine et de fausses informations risquant d’exacerber les conflits civils et de compromettre l’intégrité électorale. À leur tour, les coupures d’accès à Internet et la désinformation propagées par des acteurs étatiques et non étatiques érodent le potentiel de la technologie pour améliorer l’intégrité électorale, l’engagement civique et la lutte contre des maladies telles que le Covid-19.

Source: Twitter

Venir à bout de la désinformation

La création de comptes de messagerie visant uniquement les  périodes électorales est devenue monnaie courante, et ils sont particulièrement inquiétants du fait que leur contenu est souvent mensonger, carrément faux ou incitatif. Cette récente émergence de campagnes en ligne via les plateformes de médias sociaux a donc soulevé d’autres préoccupations quant à la manière dont les données requises sont obtenues, au niveau de vulnérabilité des démocraties africaines face à l’ingérence étrangère, à la façon dont les algorithmes des médias sociaux sont enclins à la manipulation, et à l’éthique du fait que des pays africains soient utilisés comme terrain d’essai pour de nouvelles technologies numériques.

Alors que les efforts visant à légiférer contre la désinformation deviennent des points de pression sur les droits humains, des mesures alternatives prises en collaboration avec les opérateurs de plateformes de médias sociaux s’avèrent prometteuses. En 2020, plusieurs gouvernements d’Afrique subsaharienne ont établi des partenariats avec des plateformes de médias sociaux et d’autres intermédiaires pour lutter contre la désinformation en rapport avec le Covid-19. Plus tôt en 2018, le Cameroun a directement travaillé avec Facebook pour explorer les moyens de lutte contre la diffusion d’informations fausses et mensongères dans le pays. Entre-temps, la promotion du renforcement des capacités dans le domaine de l’utilisation du numérique et de la capacité de vérification des faits, ainsi que la sensibilisation sur ce qui constitue un contenu inacceptable sur les plateformes et à la manière de signaler un contenu répréhensible, restent des actions clés nécessaires. Par conséquent, les efforts et les autres mesures pour lutter contre la désinformation et autres contenus préjudiciables, notamment durant les périodes électorales et la lutte contre le Covid-19, nécessitent une collaboration plus étroite par rapport à celle dont nous avons été témoins jusqu’ici, entre les gouvernements, la société civile et les plateformes.

Richard Ngamita est un chercheur dans le domaine du traitement de données qui travaille actuellement sur les droits de l’homme, la désinformation et l’espionnage. Il a précédemment travaillé chez Google au sein de l’équipe contre les pourriels. Il a également mené des recherches d’investigation dans le domaine de la santé, l’agriculture et les mouvements de réfugiés.

Charting the Link Between Disinformation, Disruptions, Diseases and the Diaspora in Cameroon and DR Congo

By Richard Ngamita |

Disinformation on social media has been a growing concern in global politics for several years, and it is now exploding across Sub-Saharan Africa, where social media-based disinformation campaigns are increasingly being deployed by foreign entities and governments  to influence narratives.

Several socio-political and economic factors provide fertile ground for disinformation to thrive in African countries. The exploding youth population – with many coming online for the first time through social media – growth in the use and availability of internet-enabled mobile phones, ethno-religious conflicts, and insecurity are some of the factors that have contributed to the large amount of information accessible via digital media and provided new, fast-moving channels for spreading and amplifying false information.

This growth in disinformation in the region has presented a new stress test for emerging internet policy and legislative responses. For instance, in March 2020, Ethiopia enacted the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation to address hate speech and disinformation, which have historically troubled the country. However, it has been argued that whereas government regulation is legitimate to control hate speech, Ethiopia’s new law poses a threat to freedom of expression and access to information online.

In Cameroon, under the Law Relating to Cyber Security and Cyber Criminality, it is an offense to publish and propagate information online “without being able to attest its veracity” or truthfulness. In a July 2020 press conference, Cameroon’s Communication Minister, René Emmanuel Sadi, expressed concerns over “irresponsible” use of social media to tarnish the image of public officials or sabotage government actions and warned that those who continued to propagate such information on social media platforms would face the heavy arm of the law.

Other countries like Zimbabwe and Tanzania have broader media laws that have been used to target fake news. The various laws have been criticised for posing a threat to digital rights, especially when deployed as tools against critical opinion, the media, and dissent in African countries with democratic deficits.

Many African countries, including Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), continue to grapple with disinformation, with a high risk of online activity resulting in offline harm. This report reviews the situation in these countries, where – despite relatively low connectivity levels – disinformation presents a considerable concern.

As of 2017, Cameroon had  19.7 million mobile phone subscribers  representing a penetration rate of 85%, while internet penetration was 35.6%. Meanwhile, as of December 2019, the DR Congo had an internet penetration rate of 19.2%, while mobile phone penetration was 42%.

Conflict Awareness and Disinformation

Citizens in Cameroon and the DR Congo rely on a wide range of traditional sources of information (including print and broadcast media), alongside online sources to keep abreast of social, economic and political issues. However, social media has come to play an increasing role on issues related to conflict because mainstream media is censored by their governments.

In Cameroon, tensions between Anglophone and Francophone regions date back to the country’s independence in 1961. Over the years, there have been fatal violence and protest action against the continued “francophonisation” and marginalisation of English speakers who say that the central government privileges the majority French-speaking population.

In 2015, a video showing two women and two children being shot dead by soldiers in the Far North town of Zelevet started to circulate on social media. According to a July 2018 BBC Africa Eye investigation, the government initially dismissed the video as fake news. However, Amnesty International revealed credible evidence that the Cameroon military was responsible, prompting the authorities to retract and state that the 10 soldiers depicted in the video had been arrested and would be prosecuted. Five years after the incident, a military court convicted and sentenced the soldiers to imprisonment.

Whereas the BBC Africa Eye investigation into the shooting incident revealed that several people did not like to spread hate speech and graphic violence content online, sometimes they recognised that such content could include safety information, especially for those who live in conflict areas.

Source: Twitter

In the DR Congo, a history of armed conflict has left millions dead and the country destabilised, with continued violence perpetrated by several armed groups active in the region, including the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and numerous militias. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo (MONUSCO) has operated in the region since 1999 and is the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world.

During the 2018 elections that had been long awaited, there were reports of widespread election irregularities, with competing political parties claiming to be in the lead as several unofficial tallies started to circulate on social media. Sponsored content from Google and Facebook falsely alleged that former President Joseph Kabila’s surrogate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, had won the elections. The ads were published before the official results announcement by the Electoral Commission, which had been delayed. There were internet shutdowns in key cities, which made it even harder for fact checkers to verify any information related to the elections.

Source : Twitter

Considering the elections had been postponed from November 2016 to December 2017, and then to April 2018, the circulation of false election results could have prolonged the cycle of instability.

 Role of the Diaspora Community

The diaspora community is a huge contributor to the inflaming of tensions online in both countries, often through fake accounts that regularly share hateful and inciting content against rival political factions.

During the 2018 elections in Cameroon, there were several instances of social media posts from the diaspora claiming that long-serving President Paul Biya had died. Biya went on to win the disputed elections, and two years on, social media content, often from the diaspora, continues to fuel political and ethnic tensions.

Source:  Facebook

With the conflict in Anglophone regions leading to calls for a break-away state and separatists actively seeking support from the Cameroonian diaspora, there is an ongoing risk that online content that depicts the Cameroonian government as repressive and violent could result in offline harm.

Source: Facebook

As for the social media posts falsely claiming that Shadary had won the 2018 presidential election in DR Congo, considering the internet disruption at the time, indications are that the perpetrators of the sponsored ads and admins of the accounts in question were based in the diaspora. Lumumba aime LE CONGO (Lumumba loves Congo), which was among the key propagators of the ads, had been created just before the elections and traded on the likeness of Patrice Lumumba, a famous independence leader. Besides content claiming victory for Shadary, the page also shared posts from several fake domains or news aggregation websites like This was another example in which disinformation had the potential to lead to offline harms within a fragile political environment.



Like in other African countries, Cameroon and DR Congo have seen a surge in Covid-19 disinformation online, some of it pegged on cultural, political and religious sensitivities including promotion of herbal remedies, steaming, alcohol, contradictory and speculative reports about treatments and/or confusing guidance about standard operating procedures (SOPs).

The spread of disinformation around diseases can be a public health risk, as has been the case in Cameroon and the DR Congo regarding Ebola and, more recently, Covid-19. Disease disinformation undermines confidence in underlying science, slows down sensitisation, politicises health activities and questions the motives of health officials.

DR Congo is no novice to pandemics, having borne the brunt of the Ebola outbreak between 2017 and  2019. In May 2020, France 24 News reported a Covid-19 fake news campaign in DR Congo. The France 24 reports were later corroborated by Facebook and DFRLab, which linked the network to a politician called Honore Mvula. The network carried several Covid-19 false claims attributed to public figures including French infectious disease expert Didier Raoult, French president Emmanuel Macron and Madagascar president Andry Rajoelina and these made rounds on Congolese Facebook pages, recording a high rate of engagement. Mvula denied the allegations against him. Facebook took down the pages.


Internet Disruption

Cameroon and DR Congo have a history of ordering internet disruptions on multiple occasions during public protests and elections. In January 2017, internet connectivity was restricted in the Anglophone region of Cameroon following dissent and calls for succession from the Francophone region. The disruption, which lasted for over 230 days until March 2018 is recorded as the longest internet shutdown on the continent.

Similarly, in the DR Congo, instability in the country has been continuously characterised by persistent internet shutdowns since December 2011. Following a relatively peaceful voting day on December 30, 2018, the government shut down the internet on December 31 and progressively, broadcast  media, and expelled some international journalists reporting on the elections. The official reasons provided by policymakers were “to avoid fake results from circulating”.

According to analysts, the internet shutdown in Cameroon cost the economy USD 1.67 million per day, while the shutdown in DR Congo  cost the economy USD 3 million per day.

Net block
Source: Twitter

Internet shutdowns during elections are a common and growing trend of digital repression especially in authoritarian countries in Africa, whose leaders have been in power for many years. When governments impose information blackouts or curtail the free flow of information online through other means, disinformation thrives as fact-checking and the production of counter-narratives are hampered. In the case of Cameroon and DR Congo, that disinformation, much of it originating from the diaspora, propagates hate speech and disinformation that threaten to exacerbate civil strife and undermine electoral integrity. In turn, the shutdowns and the disinformation propagated by state and non-state actors, are eroding technology’s potential to enhance electoral integrity, to civic engagement and the fight against diseases such as Covid-19.

Source: Twitter

Overcoming Disinformation

Accounts of targeted messaging during elections have become common, and they are particularly concerning as the content of the messages is often misleading, out-rightly false, or inciting. This recent rise of online campaigning through social media platforms has thus raised further concerns about how the required data is obtained, the extent to which African democracies are vulnerable to foreign interference, the ways in which social media algorithms are prone to manipulation, and the ethics of using African countries as a testing ground for new digital technologies.

Whereas efforts to legislate against disinformation are human rights pressure points, alternative countermeasures, in collaboration with social media platform operators, hold some promise. In 2020, several sub Saharan African governments partnered with social media platforms and other intermediaries to fight Covid-19 disinformation. Earlier in 2018, Cameroon directly engaged with Facebook to explore opportunities for fighting the spread of false and misleading information within the country. Meanwhile, promoting digital literacy skills and fact checking capacity, and creating awareness about what is unacceptable content on platforms and how to report objectionable content, remain key needed actions. Hence efforts and other measures to combat disinformation and other harmful content, including around elections and in the fight against Covid-19, require closer collaboration between governments, civil society and platforms than we have witnessed this far.

Richard Ngamita is a Data Researcher who currently works on human rights, disinformation and espionage. He previously worked at Google with the Spam team. He has also led investigative research across health, agriculture and refugee movements.

Apply To Participate in Disinformation and Human Rights Online Training Series

Call for Applications |
To allow for interactive discussion about specific cases and in-country contexts, we are limiting participant numbers to 20. Please see below for eligibility criteria and details about how to apply.Details:
This online training series is aimed at expert and non-expert members of civil society with an interest in tackling misinformation and disinformation using a rights-respecting approach.
The training series will consist of two interactive workshops to be held via Zoom on:
Thursday 5 November, 2-4pm EAT and Wednesday 11 November, 2-3pm EAT;
Wednesday 18 November 2-4pm EAT and Wednesday 25 November, 2-3pm EAT.
Participants will also be invited to participate in a one hour follow up call during December.
The series will be delivered by international, regional and local experts on disinformation and human rights and seeks to:

      1. Increase participants’ understanding of human rights issues relating to disinformation and misinformation.
      2. Increase participants’ understanding of policy and legal responses to disinformation in their region.
      3. Introduce participants to basic tools and methodologies to detect mis/disinformation
      4. Increase participants’ capacity to engage with representatives from government, business and journalism on disinformation and human rights (particularly the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy) in policymaking processes and debates relating to disinformation and misinformation.

Please note that sessions will be delivered in English.
Eligibility criteria:
Applicants from the following countries are eligible to apply: Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone Somalia, Somaliland, Tanzania, Uganda.
Applicants affiliated to NGOs, social enterprise companies and think tanks are eligible to apply. Media, academic and non-affiliated applicants will also be considered.
Applicants from governments and private companies (except social enterprises) are not eligible for this training series. 
Selection criteria:
Eligible applicants will be assessed by the quality of their motivation to participate in the training, as set out in answer to their application.
We particularly welcome applications from individuals and organisations that are interested in engaging in this policy area within the region and/or their countries in the longer term.