Why are African Governments Criminalising Online Speech? Because They Fear Its Power.

By Nwachukwu Egbunike |
Africa’s landscape of online free speech and dissent is gradually, but consistently, being tightened. In legal and economic terms, the cost of speaking out is rapidly rising across the continent.
While most governments are considered democratic in that they hold elections with multi-party candidates and profess participatory ideals, in practice, many operate much closer dictatorships — and they appear to be asserting more control over digital space with each passing day.
CameroonTanzaniaUgandaEthiopiaNigeria, and Benin have in the recent past witnessed internet shutdowns, the imposition of taxes on blogging and social media use, and the arrest of journalists. Media workers and citizens have been jailed on charges ranging from publishing “false information” to exposing state secrets to terrorism.
At the recent Forum of Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFA) held in Accra, Ghana, a group of panelists from various African countries all said they feared African governments were interested in controlling digital space to keep citizens in check.
Many countries have statutes and laws which guarantee the right to free expression. In Nigeria, for example, the Freedom of Information Act grants citizens the right to demand information from any government agency. Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution provides for freedom of the press and Section 39 maintains that “every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference…”
Yet, Nigeria has issued other laws that authorities use to deny these aforementioned rights.
Section 24 of Nigeria’s Cybercrime Act criminalises “anyone who spreads messages he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another or causes such a message to be sent.”
Making laws with ambiguous and subjective terms like “inconvenience” or “insult” calls for concern. Governments and their agents often use this as a cover to suppress freedom of expression.
Who determines the definition of an insult? Should public officials expect to develop a thick skin? In many parts of the world, citizens have the right to criticise public officials. Why don’t Africans have the right to offend as an essential part of free expression?
In 2017 and 2016, Nigerian online journalists and bloggers Abubakar Sidiq Usman and Kemi Olunloyo were each booked on spurious charges of cyber-stalking in connection with journalistic investigations on the basis of the Cybercrime Act.

Don’t suffer in silence — keep talking

The very existence of these legal challenges tells citizens that their voices matter. From Tanzania’s prohibition on spreading “false, deceptive, misleading or inaccurate” information online to Uganda’s tax on social media that is intended to curb “gossip”, the noise made on digital platforms scares oppressive regimes. In some cases, it may even lead to them to rescind their actions.
The experience of the Zone9 bloggers of Ethiopia provides a powerful example.
In 2014, nine Ethiopian writers were jailed and tortured over a collective blogging project in which they wrote about human rights violations by Ethiopia’s former government, daring to speak truth to power. The state labeled the group “terrorists”for their online activity and incarcerated them for almost 18 months.

Zone9 members Mahlet (left) and Zelalem (right) rejoiced at the release of Befeqadu Hailu (second from left, in scarf) in October 2015. Photo shared on Twitter by Zelalem Kiberet.

Six members of the now liberated group made their premier international engagement in Ghana during FIFA conference: Atnaf Berhane, Befeqadu Hailu Techane, Zelalem Kibret, Natnael Feleke Aberra, and Abel Wabella were all in attendance. Jomanex Kasaye, who had worked with the group prior to the arrests (but was not arrested) also attended.
Several members had collaborated with Global Voices to write and translate stories into the Amharic. As members of the community, Global Voices campaigned and mobilised the global human rights community to speak out about their case from the very first night they were arrested.
After months of writing stories and promoting their case on Twitter, international condemnation of their arrest and imprisonment began to flow from governments and prominent human rights leaders, alongside hundreds of thousands of online supporters. From the four-compass points of the world, a mighty cry arose demanding the Ethiopian government to free the Zone9 bloggers.
In their remarks at FIFA, the bloggers said that their membership in the Global Voices community was key to visibility during their time in prison. In their panel session, they credited Global Voices’ campaign for keeping them alive.
Berhan Taye, the panel moderator, asked the group to recount their prison experiences. As they spoke, the lights on the stage dimmed. Their voices filled the room with a quiet power.
Abel Wabella, who ran Global Voices’ Amharic site, lost hearing in one ear due to the torture he endured after refusing to sign a false confession.
Atnaf Berhane recalled that one of his torture sessions lasted until 2 a.m. and then continued after he had a few hours of sleep.
One of the security agents who arrested Zelalem Kibret had once been Kibret’s student at the university where he taught.
Jomanex Kasaye recounted the mental agony of leaving Ethiopia before his friends were arrested — the anguish of powerlessness — the unending suspense and fear that his friends would not make it out alive.

Zone9 bloggers together in Addis Ababa, 2012. From left: Endalk, Soleyana, Natnael, Abel, Befeqadu, Mahlet, Zelalem, Atnaf, Jomanex. Photo courtesy of Endalk Chala.

With modesty, the Zone9 bloggers said: “We are not strong or courageous people…we are only glad we inspired others.”
Yet, the Zone9 bloggers redefined patriotism with both their words and actions. It takes immense courage to love one’s country even after suffering at its hands for speaking out.
Ugandan journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo, also in attendance at FIFA, shared an Igbo proverb popularised by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe which says:

Since the hunter has learned to shoot without missing, Eneke the bird has also learnt to fly without perching.

In essence, he meant that in order to keep digital spaces free and safe, those involved in this struggle must devise new methods.
Activists on the front lines of free speech in sub-Saharan Africa and across the globe cannot afford to work in silos or go silent in frustration and defeat. With our strength and unity, online spaces will remain free to deepen democracy through vibrant dissent.

Lessons on Flying from the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa

By Jason Pielemeier |

“Since men have learned to shoot without missing, we have to learn to fly without perching” — African Proverb

By citing these words in his opening message, Dr. Wairagala Wakabi, the Executive Director of the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), captured both the daunting reality and the irrepressible optimism surrounding the state of Internet freedom in Africa. This dynamic was also captured in Charles Onyango-Obbo’s keynote address, “Many African Governments Hate the Free Internet — And That Is A Very Good Thing.”

I was fortunate to represent the Global Network Initiative at the 5th Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica18) in Accra, Ghana from September 27–28, 2018. The event, co-hosted by CIPESA and the Ghana-based Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), featured a range of activists, academics, journalists, and government representatives from across the continent and the world discussing topics like censorship, big data, and gender-based violence online. While the topics were familiar to me, FIFAfrica18 offered a unique opportunity to hear fascinating African perspectives, narratives, and stories that are often absent from larger, more international Internet freedom conferences.

Over the two days, it became clear that while authoritarian governments in Africa may have come late to the Internet repression party, they are quickly catching up thanks to their own creative tactics, as well as foreign technology and knowledge transfer. As Onyango-Obbo noted in his keynote, African dictators are weaponizing the Internet for political purposes through the control and manipulation of a new digital bureaucracy (or as he calls it, the “digitocracy” and the “surveillance securitocracy”). Other speakers pointed out how anti-terrorism laws — sometimes left-over colonial versions, in other instances newer, Global War on Terror-inspired copies are being misused — to prosecute speech that should be protected. It was also pointed out that long legacies of information manipulation, combined with the fragility of the free press, have left many African countries susceptible to disinformation campaigns.

Other tactics are more creative. For instance, Tanzania and Uganda have pioneered taxes on social media and blogging respectively, which other governments are now seeking to replicate. And of course, when threatened, these regimes have not been afraid to order brute force network disruptions. Interestingly, the case was also made that the success that some repressive regimes are having with “fake news” may be leading them away from more scorched earth tactics like Internet shutdowns.

These efforts to clamp down on online freedom are often aided and abetted by technology and services procured from outside Africa. The role of China in financing and providing information and communication infrastructure that is perceived to facilitate state surveillance was a consistent topic across the sessions I attended. In addition, participants decried the increasing availability of more targeted hacking tools, peddled by Western and Israeli firms.

The combined power of these two forces — unreliable infrastructure and targeted hacking software — have been perhaps most prominently displayed by the government of Ethiopia, and FIFAfrica18 offered a fascinating opportunity to hear from the Zone 9 bloggers, a group of independent activists who were on the receiving end of their government’s oppression for several years until their recent release. Appearing as a group outside Ethiopia for the first time, the bloggers offered lessons from their experience, including the importance of solidarity, appreciation for support from activists abroad and diplomats at home, and gratitude to social media platforms for limiting the extent to which the government could persecute others in their networks. Perhaps more important though, was the inspiration they engendered through their ongoing commitment to continue to fight for human rights in Ethiopia and beyond.

Consistent with these notes of optimism and defiance were demonstrations of new tools like Netblock’s COST (Cost of Shutdowns Tool), which is already being used to underscore the disproportionate impacts of network disruptions in Chad and Ethiopia, and the power of collaborations like AccessNow’s #KeepItOn campaign. Building on the addition of several, new, Africa-focused members — CIPESA, Internet Sans Frontieres, and Paradigm Initiative– the Global Network Initiative hopes to do its part to harness this creative energy and facilitate new partnerships between the private sector and digital rights groups in Africa.

At the end of the day, the enduring commitment to freedom demonstrated by the Zone 9 bloggers, which was echoed across the Forum by brave journalists, committed activists, human rights commissioners, and others from Cameroon, Kenya, Zimbabwe and across Africa, that helped me understand and appreciate the intrepid spirit behind that admonition to learn to keep flying without perching, even if your wings grow tired.

Emerging Challenges and Data-driven Solutions for a Connected Future at FIFAfrica18

By Netblocks’ Writer |

At the 2018 Forum for Internet Freedom in Africa in Accra, Ghana, NetBlocks is demonstrating new tools and methodologies to defend human rights, empowering local communities and creating a space for open and progressive policies for internet access and telecommunications.

In a joint panel on data-driven advocacy on Friday, NetBlocks along with partners Access NowCIPESA, the GNI and ISF, soft-launched the Cost of Shutdown Tool, an initiative supported by the Internet Society which enables participants to calculate the economic cost of internet shutdowns, network disruptions and platform blocking in sub-Saharan Africa. Economic arguments have proven to be an effective means to bolster the case for human rights online with a view to development and prosperity, a trend which is being recognised and made accessible to internet freedom campaigners by way of the new initiative.

The panel explored how communities have been adopting new tools and developing new workflows as part of the KeepItOn initiative to support internet freedom across the continent, documenting recent incidents of network disruptions during elections in Mali and in Chad, as well as collecting bodies of technical evidence around disruptions in Ethiopia and Cameroon at critical moments for democracy and society.

Thursday saw the launch of the latest edition of The Internet Measurement Handbook, which provides civil society organisations and human rights defenders with practical technical and policy advice on managing internet disruptions, with a copy provided to each FIFAfrica participant.

NetBlocks director Alp Toker and advocacy manager Hannah Machlin demonstrated new internet freedom measurement techniques which present a more accurate, live view of emerging network incidents. Demonstrations and workshops provided a hands-on introduction to real-time internet freedom monitoring, web probes and internet-scale visualisation, which are now being adopted across the continent and globally as part of the internet observatory project.

Working with other civil society groups, the team explored issues around internet governance, internet protocols and their impact on human rights, free expression and trade, producing a series of new alliances and partnerships to strengthen digital rights and protect the integrity of elections regionally and worldwide.

Connecting data and human rights

Sessions over the course of three days have helped build a bridge between technical work to track restrictions on free expression online, connecting the personal experiences of victims of human rights violations with policy makers, governments and ICT industry stakeholders.

About FIFAfrica

Organised by the Collaboration for International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) in partnership with the Media Foundation West Africa (MFWA) the 2018 edition of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa  takes place on 26-28 September 2018 in Accra, Ghana.

The Forum is a landmark event that convenes various stakeholders from the internet governance and online rights arenas in Africa and beyond to deliberate on gaps, concerns and opportunities for advancing privacy, access to information, free expression, non-discrimination and the free flow of information online on the continent.

With strategic linkages to other internet freedom forums and support for the development of substantive inputs to inform the conversations on human rights online happening at national level, at the African Union and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), the African Internet Governance Forum (IGF), subregional IGFs, the global IGF, Stockholm Internet Forum (SIF), the Internet Freedom Festival (IFF), the Internet Freedom Forum (Nigeria) and RightsCon, among others, FIFAfrica provides a pan-African space where discussion from these other events can be consolidated at continent-wide level, drawing a large multistakeholder audience of actors.

Council of Europe to Host Session on Cybercrime Legislation in Africa at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2018 (FIFAfrica18)

Announcement |
The Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2018 (#FIFAfrica18) is pleased to announce the participation of the Council of Europe (CoE), through its Cybercrime Division, at the landmark event which is set to take place in Accra, Ghana, at the end of September.
The panel aims to contribute to the on-going efforts on harmonisation of national cybercrime laws with international and regional standards in the African continent, and provide a specific focus on human rights safeguards. International experts, with background on drafting, implementing and enforcing cybercrime legislation, will facilitate an interactive discussion with the participants by introducing the current state of cybercrime legislation in the African continent, debating the progress made in the recent years and discussing the entailed human rights challenges.
FIFAfrica convenes various stakeholders from the internet governance and online rights arenas in Africa and beyond to deliberate on gaps, concerns and opportunities for advancing privacy, access to information, free expression, non-discrimination and the free flow of information online. This year’s forum, which runs from September 26 to 28, is hosted by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA).
According to recent statistics, Africa is exhibiting one of the fastest growth rates in Internet penetration worldwide, with digital connectivity that has almost tripled in the last five years. In the same period, both governments and private sector entities in Africa have been experiencing an equally increasing trend of cyber-attacks.
The CoE has taken steps to protect the pillars of democracy in the digital age particularly as  large-scale theft of personal data, computer intrusions, bullying, harassment and other forms of cyber violence, or sexual violence against children online, affect the extent to which the use of online tools enables participation in democratic processes. Moreover, it is notable that hate speech, xenophobia and racism may contribute to radicalisation, leading to violent extremism.
Attacks against computers used in elections and election campaigns are attacks against democracy. Daily attacks against critical information infrastructure affect national security and economic and other national interests as well as international peace and stability. Moreover, evidence in relation to fraud, corruption, murder, rape, terrorism, the sexual abuse of children and, in fact, any type of crime may take the form of electronic evidence, which is volatile, often intangible and probably in other jurisdictions. And accessing such evidence also has implications for human rights and the rule of law. Effective, legally compliant and robust procedures for the identification, collection and preservation of electronic evidence are therefore essential.
It is in regard to these trends that the CoE will host a panel discussion at FIFAfrica18 that will include reference to the Budapest Convention. The convention is an international treaty that aims at providing substantive legislation and procedural powers for criminal justice authorities to effectively tackle cybercrime, while upholding rule of law and human rights. Since its entry into force in 2004, the Budapest Convention has proven to be a solid baseline for enhanced cooperation across borders, and many governments in Africa, as well as in the rest of the world, have undertaken legal reforms using it as a guideline.