The ADRF Awards USD 134,000 to 10 Initiatives to Advance Tech Accountability in Africa

Announcement |

The grant recipients of the eighth round of the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF) will implement projects focused on Artificial Intelligence (AI), hate speech, disinformation, microtargeting, network disruptions, data access, and online violence against women journalists and politicians. The work of the 10 initiatives, who were selected from 130 applications, will span the breadth of the African continent in advancing tech accountability.

“The latest round of the ADRF is supporting catalytic work in response to the urgent need to counter the harms of technology in electoral processes,” said Ashnah Kalemera, the Programmes Manager at the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) – the administrators of the Fund. She added that for many of the initiatives being supported, tech accountability was a new area of work but the various projects’ advocacy, research and storytelling efforts would prove instrumental in pushing for tech justice

Established in 2019 as a rapid response and flexible funding mechanism, the ADRF aims to overcome the limitations of reach, skills, resources, and consistency in engagement faced by new and emerging initiatives working to defend and promote rights and innovation in the face of growing digital authoritarianism and threats to digital democracy in Africa. The sum of USD 134,000 awarded in the latest round, which was administered by CIPESA in partnership with Digital Action, brings to USD 834,000 the total amount awarded by the ADRF since inception to 62 initiatives across the continent.

According to Kalemera, the growth in the number of applicants to the ADRF reflects the demand for seed funding for digital rights work on the continent. Indeed, whereas the call for proposals for the eighth round was limited to tech accountability work, many applicants submitted  strong proposals on pertinent issues such as digital inclusion, media and information literacy, digital safety and security, surveillance, data protection and privacy, access and affordability – underscoring the cruciality of the ADRF. 

Here’s What the Grantees Will be Up To

In the lead-up to local government elections in Tanzania, Jamii Forums will engage content hosts, creators and journalists on obligations to tackle hate speech and disinformation online as a means to safeguard electoral integrity. In parallel, through its Jamii Check initiative, Jamii Forums will raise public awareness about the harms of disinformation and hate speech.

Combating hate speech and disinformation is also the focus of interventions supported in Senegal and South Sudan. Ahead of elections in the world’s youngest nation, DefyHateNow will monitor and track hate speech online in South Sudan, host a stakeholder symposium in commemoration of the International Day for Countering Hate Speech as a platform for engagement on collective action to combat hate speech, and run multi-media campaigns to raise public awareness on the harms of hate speech. Post elections in Senegal, Jonction will analyse the link between disinformation and network disruptions and engage stakeholders on alternatives to disruptions in future elections.

In the Sahel region, events leading up to coups in Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have been characterised by restrictions on media and internet freedom, amidst which disinformation and violent extremism thrived. As some of the states in the region, notably Burkina Faso and Mali, move towards an end to military rule and head to the polls, the Thoth Media Research Institute will research disinformation and its role in sustaining authoritarian narratives and eroding human rights. The learnings from the research will form the basis of stakeholder convenings on strategies to combat disinformation in complex political, social, and security landscapes. Similarly, Internet Sans Frontières (ISF) will study the role of political microtargeting in shaping campaign strategies and voter behaviour, and the ultimate impact on the rights to privacy and participation in Mali. 

In South Africa, the Legal and Resources Centre (LRC), will raise awareness about the adequacy and efficacy of social media platforms’ content moderation policies and safeguards as well as online political advertising models in the country’s upcoming elections. The centre will also provide legal services for reparations and litigate for reforms related to online harms.

A study has found that Africa’s access to data from tech platforms, for research and monitoring electoral integrity, was below that in Europe and North America. Increased access to platform data for African researchers, civil society organisations, and Election Management Bodies (EMBs) would enable a deeper understanding of online content and its harms on the continent, and inform mitigation strategies. Accordingly, the ADRF will support Research ICT Africa to coordinate an alliance to advocate for increased data access for research purposes on the continent and to develop guidelines for ethical and responsible access to data to study elections-related content.

The impact of AI on the information ecosystem and democratic processes in Africa is the focus of two grantees’ work. On the one hand, the Eastern Africa Editors Society will assess how editors and journalists in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia have adopted AI and to what extent they adhere to best practice and the principles of the Paris Charter on AI and Journalism. On the other hand, the Outbox Foundation through its Thraets initiative will research the risks of AI-generated disinformation on elections, with a focus on Ghana and Tunisia. The findings will feed into tutorials for journalists and fact checkers on identifying and countering AI-generated disinformation as part of elections coverage, and awareness campaigns on the need for transparency on the capabilities of AI tools and their risks to democracy. 

Meanwhile, a group of young researchers under the stewardship of the Tanda Community-Based Organisation will research how deep fakes and other forms of manipulated media contribute to online gender-based violence against women journalists and politicians in the context of elections in Ghana, Senegal, and Namibia. The study will also compare the effectiveness of the legal and regulatory environment across the three countries in protecting women online, hold consultations and make recommendations for policy makers, platforms  and civil society on how to promote a safe and inclusive digital election environment for women.

Past and present supporters of the ADRF include the Centre for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), the Ford Foundation, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the German Society for International Cooperation Agency (GIZ), the Omidyar Network, the Hewlett Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Skoll Foundation and New Venture Fund (NVF).

Advancing Sustainable Cross-border Data Transfer Policies and Practices in Africa

By Paul Kimumwe |

Over the years, several African governments have enacted laws and policies that limit cross-border data flows, citing the need to protect national security, promote the local digital economy, and safeguard users’ privacy. The limitations range from complete bans on cross-border transfers of all data to conditional cross-border transfer of specific data, with authorization sought from relevant government bodies.

The legal provisions prohibiting cross-border data transfers are scattered in different legal frameworks in countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda, whose limitations are contained in their financial services and cybersecurity laws. In Rwanda, for example, Article 3 of Regulation No. 02/2018 of 24/01/2018 on cyber security provides that any bank licensed by the Central Bank must maintain its primary data within the territory of Rwanda. In Uganda, Article 68 of Uganda’s National Payment Systems Act 2020 requires all electronic money issuers to establish and maintain their primary data centre in relation to payment system services in Uganda.

For other countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tunisia, and Uganda, the limitations are contained within their data protection laws. For example, sections 48 and 49 of Kenya’s Data Protection Act 2019 prohibit cross-border transfer of personal data to a country

lacking appropriate data security safeguards. South Africa’s 2013 Protection of Personal Information Act prohibits cross-border data transfers without the data subject’s consent or unless the foreign country is believed to have adequate safeguards. In Nigeria, sections 41-43 of the 2023 Data Protection Act sets conditions under which cross-border data transfers may occur, such as the requirement for the destination country to have data protection safeguards and consent from the data subject, among other conditions.

Critics of these data localization provisions and practices have often argued that the current data localisation policies and practices are not pro-people as they do not mitigate any genuine cybersecurity or online targeting but instead serve to undermine personal data privacy by facilitating government agencies’ unrestricted access to citizens’ personal data, including for purposes of conducting state surveillance.

These practices do not also conform to the key provisions of the 2019 African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, which prohibits countries from adopting laws and other measures that criminalize and encryption practices, including backdoors, key escrows, and data localisation requirements unless such measures are justifiable and compatible with international human rights law.

The legal data localization requirements have been identified as the most restrictive and disruptive barriers to international trade, pushing foreign registered businesses to incur extra and unnecessary costs of establishing multiple infrastructures such as local data centres and in each of their countries of operation as opposed to having one center in their country of choice. In addition, the “limited policy and regulatory reforms to facilitate the interconnection of networks across borders, including national and commercial backbones, or supervisory frameworks for data protection, data storage/processing/handling” were identified as additional weaknesses in achieving Africa’s economic potential.

The success of several initiatives, such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) whose mandate is to create “a single continental market with a population of about 1.3 billion people and a combined GDP of approximately US$ 3.4 trillion,” hinges on eliminating trade barriers and the harmonization of cross-border transfers through the amendment of restrictive data localisation policies and practices.

In addition, under the African Union’s Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030), countries are called upon to “promote open data policies that can ensure the mandate and sustainability of data exchange platforms or initiatives to enable new local business models, while ensuring data protection and cyber resilience to protect citizens from misuse of data and businesses from cybercrime.”

On the other hand, the AU Data Policy Framework requires countries to create an enabling legal environment that would achieve and maximize the benefits of a data-driven economy by encouraging private and public investments necessary to support data-driven value creation and innovation. The framework offers guidance on policy interventions to optimise cross-border data flows and harmonise data governance frameworks. In terms of cross-border data governance and transfers, Principle 14(6)(a) of the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection prohibits data controllers from transferring “personal data to a non-Member State of the AU unless such a State ensures an adequate level of protection of the privacy, freedoms, and fundamental rights of persons whose data are being or are likely to be processed.”

A critical challenge for the continent is how to translate and localise these initiatives into workable solutions. Most autocratic governments are reluctant to amend their laws to be more open to cross-border data transfers. The reluctance is based on unfounded fears that sending their citizens’ data abroad could increase citizens’ vulnerability to serious security and privacy threats from foreign actors. On the other hand, civil society actors lack the requisite skills and knowledge to proactively engage in strategic advocacy both at national and regional levels. In addition, there is a paucity of evidence-based research on the key issues around data localization, particularly how various countries are implementing their data localisation policies as guided by the AU Data Policy Framework and Digital Transformation Strategy.

Lessons from previous policy advocacy engagements show that national governments are open to progressive policy reforms, as evidenced by the rapid adoption of data protection laws, particularly if they trust that such measures will not injure their national interests.

Key Interventions

Even with this promise and the abundance of international and regional frameworks to guide the adoption and implementation of progressive national data governance frameworks, interventions would require the adoption and implementation of multiple and mutually reinforcing strategies such as (a) building research and advocacy capacity of digital rights and data rights actors; (b) undertaking research and policy analysis; and (c) engaging in national and regional policy processes on data governance regulation, particularly that related to cross-border data flows and harmonisation of data governance frameworks.

Building on the success of her previous work on data governance and engagement with the AU Union Data Policy Framework, under the current project, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) is continuing with regional engagements as well as working in our countries – Cameroon, Ghana, South Africa, and Uganda, to build the capacity of country-based research partners as well as generate evidence that addresses fears that informs states’ restrictive regulatory stances, shows benefits of free data flows and policy harmonisation.

1. Capacity Building in Research and Advocacy

Central to CIPESA’s interventions is the need to generate a critical mass of engaged actors that understand the cross-play of national and regional policy frameworks on data regulation and their implication for data policy harmonisation and national policy and practice. Further, these actors will need the skills to research and produce evidence to inform engagements with actors such as policymakers and to conduct effective, collaborative advocacy to inform policymaking.

2. Research and Policy Analysis

CIPESA also supports country-based research partners to produce and communicate research-based commentaries, briefs, policy analyses, and think pieces on data localisation regulation and cross-border data policies and advocate for flexible cross-border data flows and respect for data privacy. These outputs will inform engagements with policymakers at national and regional levels and with multilateral treaty bodies that mandate data protection and monitor privacy and data rights.

3. National and Regional Advocacy and Engagement

The third strand involves strategic deployment of the published commentaries, analyses, and think pieces to attract the attention of state and non-state actors and form the basis of deliberations on how to improve the policy and practice around data governance in the region, notably on cross-border data flows, data harmonisation, and the need to embrace the AU Data Policy Framework. The advocacy will target national actors, such as data regulators, telecom regulators, and policymakers, as well as regional entities, such as the African Union, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and regional regulators’ and telecom operators’ associations such as Compassionate Rural Association for Social Action (CRASA) and East African Communication Organisations (EACO).

By building on pivotal and live continental initiatives such as the AU Data Policy Framework, the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa, and the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA), and working at regional and four-country levels through a multi-sector network of actors, CIPESA hopes to generate evidence that demystifies the unfounded fears used by states to engage in restrictive cross-border data regulatory policies and practices while demonstrating the benefits of free data flows and proposing harmonisation measures.

The article was first published by CIPESA’s partner NIYEL on April 22, 2024.

The Pursuit for Digital Security among Women Journalists in Uganda

By Juliet Nanfuka |

The media sector in Uganda has grown exponentially since its liberalisation in the 1990s, which saw a shift away from state-owned media to the pluralism of print media, radio and television stations and the eventual entry of digital media at the turn of the century. Yet despite this, women journalists appear to have remained on the periphery of the media industry and, in more recent times, are bearing the brunt of a society that continues to make attempts at muting them, particularly through online spaces.  

The Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ) in Uganda has documented a concerning rise in violations and abuses against female journalists between 2017 and 2022. Although there was a slight decrease in incidents in 2020 and 2021, there was a resurgence thereafter, with reported cases increasing to 17% in 2022 compared to 12% in 2017. These abuses have included  instances of sexual and gender-based harassment of female journalists while at work and in the field, as well as  attacks in online spaces.

Indeed, research shows that the attacks experienced by women journalists in online spaces include sexist comments, age, and body shaming, as well as character assassination. Further, stories related to politics triggered more attacks than other beats as perpetrators accuse journalists of being politically biased. More recent developments have seen these attacks further exacerbated by the increasing use of artificial intelligence and the ease of access to bots.

Yet, women journalists who experience abuse online rarely seek justice and often struggle to have their complaints taken seriously and properly investigated. Thus, according to a study by UNESCO and the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), the full extent of online violence against female journalists remains unknown However, there are numerous illustrative cases that indicate that Technology Facilitated Gender Based Violence (TFGBV) against women journalists is a growing problem not only in Uganda, but across the continent.

At a workshop hosted in March 2024, by UNESCO and CIPESA to further insights and awareness on the  State of Media Freedom and Safety of Journalists in Africa participants narrated their online experiences on trolling, attacks, threats and concerns about surveillance and limited practical skills or legal recourse in how to navigate incidents. Some participants noted that they had withdrawn from social media spaces, and limited their interactions only to closed platforms such as Whatsapp, while others indicated high levels of self-censorship in the nature of the content they posted.

Additionally, there was a common concern regarding the uncertainties surrounding various aspects of the Internet. This included discussions about the protective measures implemented by platforms, such as the prompt takedown of malicious or harmful content once reported.

Present at the workshop were 40 participants representing a mix of radio and television stations, print media and online content creators based in Kampala. Speakers at the workshop included Jan Ajwang, Projects Manager at Media Focus on Africa, Isabella Akitung, a Human Rights Policy Consultant, Jimmy Haguma, the Head of Electronic Counter Measures at Uganda Police, and Rehema Baguma, an Associate Professor of Information Systems, Makerere University and Sylvia Musalagani, Head of Safety Policy  Africa, Middle East and Turkey at Meta.

Each speaker made distinct contributions to the workshop, including a call for the plight of rural-based journalists in Uganda to be recognised when it comes to TFGBV, the recognition of the impact that online attacks have not only on victims but on the broader community of existing and aspiring women journalists, and the continuing efforts of the Uganda Police in addressing technology-related affronts to women and girls in the country.

Similarly, it was noted that Meta is working on its proactive detection and removal of harmful content in a bid to improve the experiences of more women across its different platforms. However, the growing pervasive use and presence of AI amongst more users remains a concern that more users should be aware of and pursue more proactive measures to better detect its presence in misinformation and disinformation narratives.

Meanwhile, running concurrently with the discussion was a Digital Security Cafe which entailed tailored practical responses to the digital security concerns that the participants had about their phones and laptops.

This practical support served as an extension of CIPESA’s digital resilience work in Africa, which includes the provision of the Digital Security Hub at the annual Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica),  the Road to FIFAfrica annual digital security campaign and an ongoing digital security assessment for human rights defenders in Uganda.

The workshop was hosted in partnership with the Media Challenge Initiative and the Uganda Radio Network. Similar workshops and Digital Security Cafe’s are planned for women journalists, media practitioners, and content producers in Ethiopia and Tanzania as part of efforts aimed at bridging this work between Women’s Day and World Press Freedom Day.

Online Activism is Moving the Dial on Social Accountability in Uganda

By Peter G. Mwesige |

The viral #UgandaParliamentExhibition hashtag campaign on X on the excesses of the Ugandan parliament has once again put digital media at the centre of debate on citizen agency in the demand for transparency and accountability from duty bearers.

Fifteen years or so ago, the jury was still out on whether digital platforms including social media were a boon to citizen participation or the bane of meaningful political action. Even more recently, “hashtag activism” or what some called “slacktivism” was still being dismissed as “performative activism” that inhibited offline participation or created the illusion of participation.

The debate remains unsettled, but there is no denying that social media platforms have “democratised access to information” and offered alternative avenues for citizens to amplify their voice in the demand for accountability from those that hold power.    

The Ugandan online exhibitions were started last year by Dr. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, an academic, cartoonist, and social commentator. He has described them as “an open invitation to the public, to whoever has an issue about a particular institution or sector to come out … a public initiative to demand for accountability; to showcase things (people) are not happy about; to showcase their pain.”

From the #UgandaPotholeExhibition, the #UgandaHealthExhibition, the #UgandaNGOExhibition (where the activists appeared to devour their own), the #UgandaLabourExhibition, the #UgandaSecurityExhibition and so on, activists have been joined by Ugandans from all walks of life to shine the torchlight on pressing public concerns.

The #UgandaParliamentExhibition is slightly different. It has been organised under the AGORA Centre for Research, the brainchild of journalist and lawyer Agather Atuhaire, who recently won the U.S. State Department International Women of Courage Award (and last year won the European Union’s Human Rights Defenders’ Award in Uganda), fellow lawyer Godwin Toko, and others. Sharing evidence from official records, highlighting standout posts on digital flyers, throwing in the occasional handwritten satirical stingers from Ssentongo, and complementing tweeting with X Spaces, AGORA has flooded the zone with evidence of abuse of public funds at parliament. The vociferous Anthony Natif of Public Square and exiled activist and author Kakwenza Rukirabasaija have also lit up the exhibition.

In a space of about two weeks the #UgandaParliamentExhibition laid bare the scope of the abuse of public funds in the August House as well as blatant nepotism and favouritism in recruitment of staff.  The exhibition laid this at the door of the Speaker of Parliament Anita Among and the Parliamentary Commission that she heads, whose members include the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance, the Leader of the Opposition (LoP) and a few Members of Parliament (MPs) representing both the ruling party and the opposition.

At the heart of the expose is the billions of shillings that have been spent in travel allowances, and the so-called corporate social responsibility by the Speaker, as well as the “service awards” that were passed as “personal to holder” for the former LoP Mathias Mpuuga and Commissioners Solomon Silwany, Prossy Akampurira Mbabazi, and Esther Afoyochan, all representing the ruling National Resistance Movement. Mpuuga bagged Uganda Shillings (UGX) 500 million, equivalent to 130,000 US Dollars (USD) while three Commissioners received UGX 400 million each.

The service award for the former LoP has already caused a storm in his party, the National Unity Platform, which has asked him to resign from the Commission. Other interest groups, such as the Uganda Law Society, have also weighed in, saying by participating in a meeting that passed awards which would benefit them personally, Mpuuga and the other commissioners violated the Leadership Code. 

The Speaker has refused to entertain any debate on what has been exposed by the #UgandaParliamentExhibition despite calls by a number of MPs that the institution should be held accountable in the same way it holds other government agencies to account. She remained adamant last week when new LoP Joel Ssenyonyi condemned the “deafening silence” by parliament on the issues raised on social media and the ruling party “rebel MP” Theodore Ssekikubo demanded a response to the “grave allegations” of impropriety and profligacy. “Me to answer you on hearsay, on things you have cooked on social media because I have said no to bum-shafting, I will not,” Among responded.

“Bum-shafting” was a derogatory reference to homosexuality, which is outlawed in Uganda. Under Among’s stewardship, parliament last year passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023, attracting backlash from the international community that has seen Uganda lose development funding.

Interestingly, Speaker Among had previously commended the online exhibitions. During the #UgandaHealthExhibition last year, she “urge(d) both public servants and political leaders to take feedback from the public in good faith and use it to improve further.”

President Yoweri Museveni had earlier responded to the #KampalaPotholeExhibition by directing the Ministry of Finance to release UGX 6 billion for emergency road repairs in the city. He has this time joined the Speaker to condemn the online activists. “How can you talk so much about Anita Among? (What) about those working for foreigners? We are going to expose those traitors,” Museveni said on March 23, 2024, after commissioning the Speaker’s Bukedea Teaching Hospital and College of Health Sciences in her home district. 

Clearly, online activism has moved the dial on social accountability. The government and others who have been the subject of the exhibitions may not always be responsive, but they can’t claim they haven’t heard the voice of the people.

One can argue that the traction of online social justice campaigns makes the riskier street protests unnecessary. Indeed, in a country where public demonstrations on hot button issues have been criminalised in complete disregard of the constitutional right of citizens to protest and petition the government, the alternative offered by digital platforms should be embraced.

But the digital warriors leading these campaigns still face the same risks that the street activists before them confronted – such as surveillance, online smear attacks, threats of arrests and other forms of intimidation. Accordingly, online activism should not be seen as a replacement of traditional forms of protest. As Dr. Ssentongo argued when he appeared on Robert Kabushenga’s #360Mentor X Space in April last year, it should not be an either-or-question. “Those who can organise online should and those who can organise (through) other means should (also do so),” he said.

The other issue that has been raised quite a lot especially during the #UgandaParliamentExhibition is the failure of the traditional news media (newspapers, radio, and television) to uncover the corruption in parliament.

The credibility of the journalists who cover parliament has taken a major knock, but this does not mean social media should replace mainstream media as our only sources of news as some have suggested.

In defence of the journalists who are still passionate about public affairs reporting, the gatekeeping bar for what gets to be published in the major media houses is much higher. On social media, anything goes, although to AGORA’s credit, most of the information they have released about parliament has been verified.

But it would be unrealistic to expect citizen-driven online campaigns to bring the same “discipline of verification” parliament’s Director of Communication and Public Affairs Chris Obore, a former journalist, seems to demand. Social media will always be messy. Just like democracy, some would say.

We need a multiplicity of platforms (both digital/social media as well as credible mainstream media) to provide information about what is happening in parliament and other public sectors, provide the public with platforms for debate, and hold duty bearers accountable.  

And we need sustained pressure both online and offline to continue driving the demand for accountability and meaningful change. In a democracy, what has been exposed through Uganda’s online exhibitions would have been enough to drive action and change. But in a country where leaders are openly contemptuous of public opinion, and where the public cannot count on free and fair elections to kick out those who abuse their trust, online activists and other social justice actors still have their work cut out.

About the author: Dr. Peter G. Mwesige is Chief of Party of the USAID Your Rights Activity led by CIPESA.

2024 the Year of Democracy: African Electoral Authorities Release Guidelines for Social Media Use

By CIPESA Writer |

Over the last couple of years, digital and social media have come to play a central role in elections in Africa. That role has many bright sides, such as enabling swift voter education by electoral bodies, efficient campaigns by candidates, as well as monitoring and reporting malpractice. For the bigger part, in many African countries, the focus has centred on the negative impacts of digital platforms that often threaten social cohesion and electoral integrity, so much so that social media and sometimes all of the internet have been blocked at crucial times of the electoral cycle.

Concerns about ‘not throwing out the baby with the bathwater’, as some countries have appeared to do with drastic measures such as network disruptions, elicited a need for guidelines on how digital platforms, including social networking sites and private messaging applications, should be utilised during elections. Such guidelines would nurture the great potential that these media can deliver to candidates, political parties, and Election Management Bodies (EMBs), and to electoral integrity, while combating disinformation, hate speech, Technology-Facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV), and other harms that they can enable.

This is the spirit behind the development of the Principles and Guidelines for the Use of Digital and Social Media in Elections in Africa, which were launched in South Africa on  February 27-29, 2024 at an event where the country’s deputy president, Paul Mashatile, was guest of honour. The Guidelines are the brainchild of the Association of African Election Authorities (AAEA), whose General Assembly endorsed them in November 2023 in Cotonou, Benin. The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) coordinated the development of the Guidelines, with support from the African Union Commission, the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division (EAD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and various African experts and civil society groups including the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

The stated objective of the Guidelines is to enhance the capacities of EMBs and other relevant electoral stakeholders to harness the advantages of social media and tackle the adverse effects of new and emerging digital technologies.

The Guidelines could help to stem the growing use of social media, including by state officials, opposition parties and “paid influencers” to sow disinformation and undermine electoral integrity, prompt platforms to do more to moderate harmful content, pave way for regulating political advertising, hopefully deter such antics as Cambridge Analytica played in elections in Kenya and Nigeria, and discourage internet disruptions that create an information vacuum and undermine electoral credibility.

Launching the Guidelines represents a major step in developing a crucial normative framework which entities around the continent should embrace. Indeed, in this crucial year in which up to 16 African countries will hold national/presidential elections, electoral authorities and other stakeholders would do well to adopt the use of the guidelines. Popularising the Guidelines will be critical for their uptake.

The adoption of the Principles and Guidelines signalled a new era for EMBs in the quest to reap the benefits of digital and social media while also investigating ways to mitigate the inherent harms that could jeopardise the credibility of electoral processes. Paul Mashatile, South Africa’s Deputy President.

The Guidelines encourage African EMBs to develop a clear and comprehensive plan for responsible social media use during election campaigns. They also lay down guidelines for various stakeholders, including the media and civil society organisations.

Furthemore, as noted by the IEC, they encourage African member states and regulatory authorities to refrain from imposing measures that might disrupt access to the internet, and to digital and social media. They call on social media operators to treat political parties and candidates equitably and ensure that their online messaging, including that of their supporters, does not undermine electoral integrity or contravene human rights.

On Responsibilities of Social Media Companies: In line with the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), digital and social media must put in place processes for human rights due diligence and human rights impact assessment to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their impacts on human rights during the electoral cycle, and disclose these processes for transparency and accountability.

In sum, these timely guidelines, if implemented, could help combat digital harms and enhance electoral integrity across the continent.