How Weaponization of Network Disruptions During Elections Threatens Democracy

By Evelyn Lirri |

In August 2021, Zambia became the latest country to restrict citizens’ access to social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp as the country went to the polls. Citing the need to stop the spread of election misinformation, the Zambian government disrupted the internet in an election that saw an opposition politician defeat the incumbent president.

The disruption of digital communications is a recurring theme in numerous countries in as states pursue their ambitions of controlling information and communication flow during elections and other times of public protest.

Between January and May 2021, digital advocacy group Access Now documented at least 50 internet shutdowns in 21 countries, including in several African countries like Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Niger and Congo Brazzaville. However, there has also been pushback against these shutdowns by various civil society and digital rights actors, alongside users turning to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to circumvent blockages.

At the eighth edition of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) that was hosted by the Collaboration on International ICT for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) from September 28-30, 2021, members of the KeepItOn coalition, a global movement to end internet shutdowns, shared experiences from various countries on How Weaponization of Network Disruptions During Elections Threatens Democracy and some of the actions taken to prepare and advocate against election-related shutdowns.

Susan Mwape, an Election Analyst and Executive Director of Common Cause-Zambia, noted that in the lead up to the August 2021 elections in Zambia, the government imposed restrictions on public gatherings in the name of enforcing Covid-19 prevention measures. Consequently, citizens resorted to digital platforms to engage in election-related issues.

Threatened by the increased online engagement and mobilisation, the government hurriedly adopted the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act, 2021. The Act was passed amidst criticism that it was primarily aimed at policing cyberspace, gagging freedom of expression and speech, and stifling internet use by opposition groups and supporters ahead of the general elections.

See this CIPESA analysis: Implications of Zambia’s  Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act 2021 on Digital Rights

Anticipating a shutdown ahead of the elections, Mwape said capacity building and advocacy activities were conducted  in collaboration with the KeepItOn coalition.

“We trained over 70 people – civil society, journalists, citizens and frontline defenders on secure tools they could use to stay online. But we also wrote an open letter to the President on why it was important to keep the internet on,” Susan Mwape.

Capacity building in circumvention techniques in anticipation of shutdowns has become a common strategy across the world. In Iraq, Hayder Hamzoz, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of INSM Network, said efforts in this regard not only cover use of specific tools but prior installation of applications to overcome “governments’ first course of action” which is often to disable application stores where circumvention tools can be accessed.

Indeed, this was the case in Uganda, which has experienced various forms of election-related network disruptions – the most recent being a total shutdown during the January 2021 general elections and an ongoing block on Facebook access.

Allan Ssempala Kigozi, the Head of Legal Affairs at Unwanted Witness, explained that while a shutdown was anticipated in the country, civil society actors held a number of engagements with telecommunications companies and regulators on the need to keep the internet on.

“We wanted the government to understand that as the country was heading to the polls, an internet shutdown should not be the way to go because it has a wide-ranging impact on the economy beyond the misinformation that the government says it was trying to avert,” said Kigozi. He further noted that despite the shutdown, there was still an opportunity for misinformation to flow through text messages and added that upon the reinstatement of access, recorded videos and photos were shared thus maintaining the misinformation.

Despite having a long history of disruptions, Chad last April held an election without disrupting the internet. Abdeldjalil Bachar Bong, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of House of Africa in Chad, attributed this to advocacy campaigns including by the #KeepItOn movement, which wrote an open letter to the President and telecommunications providers on the importance of keeping the internet on.

“We told them that shutting down the internet is not a solution. The solution is to educate the public on the benefits of using the internet,” he said. This was complemented by skills and knowledge building efforts targeting human rights defenders and civil society on how to use circumvention tools in the event of a shutdown.

For their part, circumvention tools developers such as TunnelBear have worked with digital rights groups and activists to ensure access to their platform in the event of a shutdown including through providing free bandwidth to use TunnelBear. Shames Abdelwahab, the Advocacy and Community Manager at TunnelBear, noted that in countries where they have done this, there has been a huge spike in the usage of the service. TunnelBear also provides free VPN accounts to activists on the ground. “The aim is to ensure digital activists keep online as they advocate against internet shutdowns,” said Abdelwahab.

Manson Gwanyanya, a researcher with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, noted that with increasing cases of internet shutdowns happening across the globe, more efforts including increased company transparency are being made to ensure that telecommunication companies and internet service providers are held accountable for their actions.

Blocking the internet ahead of the elections undermines electoral transparency, severely hinders the work of journalists, and denies citizens’ access to badly needed information. Governments should thus ensure the internet remains open to provide an opportunity for opposition actors to reach the electorate with information and for a pluralistic media to flourish.

How Digital Activism Is Helping African Languages Be Part of a Multilingual Web

By Evelyn Lirri |

The United Nations declared 2022-2032 the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, with the hope of creating a pathway for promoting mainstream linguistic diversity and multilingualism, including in the digital sphere. Currently, there are an estimated 7,000 languages and dialects in the world, of which only 10 dominate the internet ecosystem. Many indigenous, minority and low-resourced languages are excluded from the benefits and opportunities of the digital world.

Main Languages of the internet: English, Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, Indonesian/Malaysian, French, Japanese, Russian and German. 

Across Africa, language digital activists are now playing a pro-active role in advocating for a multilingual web that aims to ensure that the information available on the internet is as diverse as the languages that exist on the continent. Using a do-it-yourself approach, language activists are making use of a variety of digital tools to tweet, localise software, create audiovisual materials and contribute to Wikimedia projects in their mother languages.

At the eighth edition of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2021 (FIFAfrica21), held on September 28-30, 2021, language activists promoting the isiZulu, Dagbani, Ibo and Gã languages were part of a panel discussion where they shared insights on the initiatives they are undertaking to  promote African languages on the internet. 

In Ghana, Sadik Shahadu, co-founder of the Dagbani Wikimedians User Group, is spearheading a project to increase visibility of the Dagbani language on the internet. Dagbani is spoken by approximately three million people in the north of Ghana, including some two million indigenous speakers. To-date, 4,000 Dagbani words have been recorded and uploaded to the Wikimedia Commons. The team works with language experts to ensure correct spellings and to verify the meanings of the words. 

Shahadu hopes to be able to create a platform with digital dictionary words that will be usable and freely available to Dagbani speakers. “We are looking for ways not just to improve the language on the internet. We realised we can leverage on platforms such as Wikimedia to create articles and build tools that are going to support our work,” said Shahadu.

In Nigeria, Blossom Ozurumba is working with the Igbo Wikimedians User Group to promote Igbo language and culture. “We started off as a few women that came together to improve the presence of notable Igbo women on Wikipedia,” says Ozurumba. 

Despite Igbo being one of the most widely spoken languages in Nigeria – with an estimated 34 million speakers – there was dismal information on women on the Igbo Wikimedia platform compared to what was on the English platform. 

It is critical that languages and cultures of African people get amplified on different digital platforms as a way of preserving them and making online content more accessible and relevant to African audiences. Currently, the internet is constructed to suit the interests of the dominant language groups found online, thus excluding some communities from online representation and discourse. However, this linguistic gap is an extension of existing offline language inclusion gaps.

South African Siya Masuku, a writer and illustrator in indigenous languages, has been promoting isiZulu through illustrated alphabet books and comics that target primary school age children. “I came up with the idea after learning that books coming into primary schools were not in the children’s mother tongue and the pictures did not represent them,” explains the founder of Siyafunda online. Masuku developed an illustrated book called Siyafunda in isiZulu, with the isiZulu alphabet.

In Ghana, activists are turning to schools to promote the implementation of mother tongue-based bilingual education in policy and classrooms with the hope that this extends into online spaces.  Mama Adjetey-Nii Owoo, founder and lead researcher at Afroliteracies Foundation, a think tank for indigenous African Languages, has developed bi-lingual e-learning resources and curriculum materials, e-books and instruction books for use in primary schools with their flagship programme based on Akan, the most widely spoken language in Ghana.

Globally, there are over four billion active internet users, with the dominant languages of communication being European and Asian languages in addition to Arabic. This, according to advocates of inclusion, creates an unfair realm in the digital sphere.

During a  session that focused on linguistic and cultural diversity as an integral digital right, the role that language plays in enabling expression and engagement in online spaces was highlighted. Wilhelmina Ndapewa Onyothi Nekoto, a natural language processing (NLP) researcher, stressed that language is an important aspect of freedom of speech. Nekoto is currently part of an open source NLP project called Masakhane, that is aimed at addressing native African languages representation online. 

Despite the numerous positive initiatives, there remain various challenges to creating digital resources in more African languages. These range from some languages not being supported by keyboards, absence of android support, through to volunteers not having the necessary devices such as computers for contributing or editing content on platforms such as Wikimedia. Further, financial constraints hinder the growth of more African native languages online. As Ozurumba noted, one of the pressing challenges for the Igbo Wikimedians User Group is the struggle to retain editors as much of the work is done on a voluntary basis.

Putting Digital Inclusion Data into Practice

By Prudence Nyamishana |

Trends in global digitalisation have seen strides in the use of technology as an enabler for economic growth, public discourse, service delivery, transparency and accountability, access to education and public health. However, alongside these advancements, there has remained a persistent digital access gap that predominantly affects Sub-Saharan Africa.

Further, it appears that even for those countries in the region with high levels of access to digital technologies, there remain inconsistencies at national level, including in policy formulation and practice, and the business ethics and human rights of mobile network operators, which potentially exacerbate digital exclusion.

According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), global 4G coverage stood at 84% in comparison to 44% in Africa  – the lowest across all regions. 

In 2020, four of Africa’s leading digital companies (Safaricom, Jumia, MTN, and Naspers) were ranked and scored on digital inclusion by the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA)‘s Digital Inclusion Benchmark. These companies have business footprints in more than numerous countries in Africa.

The Digital Inclusion Benchmark results showed that commitment and contribution towards digital inclusion are highly uneven across industries in the digital sector. Clear and consistent support to improve digital skills is needed, especially for vulnerable and underrepresented groups.

These results echoed similar sentiment in the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) Access Denied report, which showed that several telecom companies in Sub-Saharan Africa have failed to meet their obligations to provide information and services to persons with disabilities.

Both the WBA Benchmark and the CIPESA report call for adjustments to how business should be conducted, with a higher priority placed on the often digitally excluded and underrepresented communities such as women and persons with disabilities.

As such, in June 2021, the WBA and CIPESA hosted a roundtable with stakeholders committed to advancing digital inclusion in the region. Additionally, the roundtable sought to help foster coordinated multi-stakeholder actions on digital inclusion that can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Watch the Africa RoundTable on Digital Inclusion

Speaking at the roundtable, Andrew Rugege, the Africa regional director for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), noted that Covid-19 had laid bare the realities that underpin global economics and made it evident that broadband and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) play a critical role in daily lives for the overall growth of national economies.

However, Michael Minges, a WBA Research Analyst, highlighted gaps in current internet access policy and structures that affect national economics and also impact digital inclusion and access. He pointed out the issue of scale, noting that many African countries have not yet built up their internet markets to make them attractive for international investors.

Onica Makwakwa, Head of Africa at the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), highlighted the role that state policies and regulations have to play in enabling digital access. She stated: “We need to have policies and regulations that make this [internet access] universal … It requires intentional actions.”

The shift from data to action was stressed by Lourdes Montenegro, the WBA Lead on Digital Sector Transformation, who noted that the data emerging from research initiatives such as by the WBA and CIPESA triggers thinking on what public policy actions are needed, including by think tanks and governments that need to work towards addressing digital inclusion gaps with evidence-backed data.

Indeed, narratives from the roundtable discussion including the need for more stakeholder collaborations were carried through to the September 2021 CIPESA-hosted Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2021 (FIFAfrica). Digital inclusion was one of the themes at FIFAfrica21, and multiple sessions at the Forum entailed discussion on why digital inclusion should be attained including for the benefit of increased public participation, countering misinformation, fighting online violence against women, supporting progressive online movements, and encouraging online diversity especially from the Global South. Thus, as the data in support of digital inclusion grows, so does the need to put this data into practice in policy formation, business strategy and digital rights advocacy.

Watch the different sessions from the Forum.

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.

FIFAfrica21: Stronger International Cooperation Key to Advancing Digital Rights in Africa

By Apolo Kakaire |

Constructive international cooperation will be key to shaping digital rights in Africa and creating a path towards an inclusive, safe and secure internet on the continent. This observation was at the heart of the eighth  edition of the Forum for Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica21) as it kicked off on September 28, 2021. 

In a keynote panel discussion, Ambassador Tadej Rupel, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Slovenia, Presidency of the Council of European Union (EU) 2021, reiterated the need for a comprehensive partnership between the European Commission and the African Union (AU) to address the challenges that come with the wider advances in the  digital sphere.

He noted that many political actors view digitalisation through the lenses of the digital economy and yet there are more critical aspects to it. Accordingly, the Slovenian EU Presidency would work to raise political awareness and attention about the significance of digital rights. He called for policy dialogue as a precursor to addressing and reinforcing a human-centric agenda through sharing experiences, such as in regulatory expertise and frameworks, and underscored the need for cooperation in building cyber security, promoting cyber resilience, and increasing responsible state behaviour.

Ambassador Rupel said: “We are trying to solve similar challenges and we can all benefit from dialoguing on these issues. We cannot allow ourselves to pursue some things in isolation. We cannot talk about increased connectivity without talking about responsibility and safety. The partnership between AU and EU can play a big role in balancing sustainable, safe and a human-centric agenda for digital services.” 

Among the growing challenges that are key for EU-AU cooperation is safe and secure use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which calls for streamlining the regulatory landscape and public sector policies in regulating AI governance, autonomous intelligence systems, and privacy/safety issues. “It is urgent that the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence prioritises bridging the gap between the theory and practice of AI,” said Ambassador Rupel. He said the Slovenia-based International Research Centre on Artificial Intelligence (IRCAI) could be developed into a centre of excellence on AI to drive multi-disciplinary research in the field. 

The keynote panel also noted that states were variously stifling citizens’ digital rights including the right to free expression and access to information. Samira Sawlani, a journalist, called for the establishment of mechanisms to ensure enforcement of guidelines and laws on access to information because, while many countries have legal and constitutional guarantees, the practice leans more towards impeding information disclosure. “One way to stop journalists from doing their work is to deny them information, and when a journalist is blocked then others also do not get this information and it is something we have seen before and even during the pandemic,” she said. 

Donald Deya, the Chief Executive Officer of the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), underscored the importance of stronger commitment from states to establish civil rights and digital rights standards at national, regional and continent level. So far, the commitment has been lacklustre. He cited the African Union Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection, which requires only 15 countries to ratify it for it to come into force, yet currently only eight states have ratified.

Moreover, he noted, there is selective application of laws that has seen action taken against critics on such allegations as money laundering and terrosim. “The laws have issues but the culture of rule of law is a bigger problem – with laws being applied wrongly. We should cultivate the culture of doing what is right for the majority,” said Deya.

Meanwhile, there is growing concern that states are increasingly responding to criticism with draconian measures, such as internet shutdowns. According to Michèle Ndoki, a Cameroonian lawyer and activist, “there is a shift in muzzling dissenting views, which has the net effect of cutting off masses and also has widespread economic ramifications for individuals and the economy, and activists must respond to this growing threat”.

Digital taxation is another threat to the realisation of digital rights across the continent, which speakers indicated should be addressed under the proposed cooperation. As observed by one participant, “digital taxation has become a low hanging fruit for governments [in Africa] to tighten control of the digital space.” Deya said it was essential  to establish a fair global digital taxation formula, which could be pursued through the involvement of the United Nations (UN) Tax Committee.

Initiatives that could inform international cooperation include the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030) which was launched in 2019, as well as human rights mechanisms such as the UN Human Rights Council, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information.