A Decade of Internet Freedom in Africa: Report Documents Reflections and Insights from Change Makers

CIPESA Writer |

Over the last decade, Africa’s journey to achieve internet freedom has not been without challenges. There have been significant threats to internet freedom, evidenced by the rampant state censorship through
internet shutdowns, surveillance, blocking and filtering of websites, and the widespread use of repressive laws to suppress the voices of key actors.

However, amidst all this, there is a community of actors who have dedicated efforts towards advancing digital rights in the continent with the goal of ensuring that more Africans can enjoy the full benefits of the internet.

As part of our efforts recounting the work of the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) over the years, we are pleased to share this special edition report: A Decade of Digital Rights in Africa: Reflections and Insights from 10 Change Makers, where we document reflections and insights from ten collaborators who have been instrumental in shaping Africa’s digital and Internet freedom advocacy landscape over the last ten years.

These changemakers have demonstrated change by advocating for a more free, secure, and open internet in Africa and working to ensure that no one is left behind.

Read the full report: A Decade of Digital Rights in Africa: Reflections and Insights from 10 Change Makers!

Meet the Changemakers

‘Gbenga Sesan, the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative, is an eloquent advocate for internet freedom across the continent, leading efforts to push back against repressive laws and promoting digital
inclusion while speaking truth to power. He continues to champion the transformative power of technology for social good and to drive positive change in society.

Arthur Gwagwa is a Research Scholar at Utrecht University, Netherlands, and a long-standing advocate for digital rights and justice. His work in the philanthropic sector has been instrumental in supporting various grassroots initiatives to promote internet freedom in Africa. Similarly, his pioneering research work and thought leadership continue to inspire and transform the lives of people in Africa.

Edetaen Ojo, the Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda, is a prominent advocate for advancing media rights and internet freedom. Known for his strategic vision and dedication to media freedom, he pioneered the conceptualisation and development of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and has been a key voice in shaping Internet policy-making in Africa.

Emilar Gandhi, the Head of Stakeholder Engagement and Global Strategic Policy Initiatives at Meta, built a strong foundation in civil society as an advocate for Internet freedom. She is a prominent figure in technology policy in Africa whose expertise and dedication have made her a valuable voice for inclusivity and responsible technology development in the region.

Dr. Grace Githaiga, the CEO and Convenor of Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), has been a leading
advocate for media freedom and digital rights in Africa. Her tireless advocacy in shaping internet policy has earned her recognition for her pivotal roles in championing internet freedom, digital inclusion,
multistakeholderism, and women’s rights online.

Julie Owono, the Executive Director of Internet Sans Frontières (Internet Without Borders), is a passionate and respected digital rights advocate and thought leader in the global digital community. She is not only a champion for internet freedom in Africa but is also a symbol of hope for many communities standing at the forefront of the battle for internet freedom and connectivity in Africa.

Neema Iyer, the founder of Pollicy, is well known for her advocacy efforts in bringing feminist perspectives into data and technology policy. Her dynamic and multi-faceted approach to solving social challenges exemplifies the potential of data and technology to advance social justice and promote digital inclusion and internet freedom in Africa.

Dr. Tabani Moyo, the Regional Director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), is a distinguished
media freedom advocate and influential leader in guiding a community of changemakers in Southern Africa. He has played an extensive and formidable role in pushing back against restrictive and repressive laws, supporting journalists under threat, empowering young Africans, and shaping internet governance policies.

Temitope Ogundipe, the Founder and Executive Director of TechSocietal, has been a champion for digital rights and inclusion in Africa. She is an advocate for women’s rights online and uses her expertise to contribute to the development of youth and address digital inequalities affecting vulnerable groups across the continent.

Wafa Ben-Hassine, the Principal Responsible Technology at Omidyar Network, is a recognised human rights defender and visionary leader dedicated to promoting human rights and responsible technological
development. Her relentless advocacy and valuable contributions to defending digital rights, civil liberties, and technology policy continue to inspire many across the continent.

Join the Report Launch Webinar:

When: January 31, 2024
Time: 14:00-16:00 (Nairobi Time)
Location: Zoom (Register here)
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Updated: Watch the report launch webinar.

Meet the Latest Grantees of the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF)

Announcement |

Round seven of the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF) awarded grants to seven organisations to implement initiatives focused on digital inclusion, women’s safety online, cyber security and digital resilience. In Tanzania, Omuka Hub is working to raise the online visibility of women politicians and push for reforms related to online violence against women in the context of the Political Parties Act and Election Act. Still on women’s safety online, building on the success of its endgbv.africa portal, South Africa based Alt Advisory is working to increase the availability of resources in the form of fact sheets on the harm, including legal and political nuances; landmark judgments and law reform processes; and support for survivors. 

Under the themes of cybercrime, data protection and privacy and hate speech, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)’s ADRF initiative aims to document (through primers and podcasts) and spark discourse around narratives related to national security, social media regulation and content moderation, and multi-stakeholder participation in Namibia’s cyber security law and policy making processes.

Towards strengthening the digital resilience of human rights defenders, activists, and journalists in Malawi, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) will conduct knowledge and skills building exercises in digital security, develop reference materials and resources and convene stakeholder meetings on the Data Protection Bill. 

In Kenya, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, ADRF-supported projects on advancing learning and best practice in digital accessibility for persons with disabilities based on CIPESA’s Disability and ICT Accessibility Framework Indicators are underway by the Mozambican Forum of Disabled Persons’ Organizations (FAMOD)Signs of Hope Trust and the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), respectively. 

Round seven brings to USD 700,000, the total amount of funding disbursed under the ADRF since it started in 2019. Information about past grantees can be found here.

Ongoing Power Cuts Set Back South Africa’s Gains on Digital Access 

By Tusi Fokane |

Over the last 15 years, South Africa has been caught in the midst of  an energy crisis with 2023 marking the most challenging period. The country experienced record-breaking power cuts, resulting in 300 days of load shedding at an economic cost of ZAR 1 billion per day (USD 55 million).  The power cuts which in some instances run up to eight hours a day have impacted South African society in various ways including through a rise in crime, reduced access to economic opportunities, health care, education and essential government services. There have also been concerns raised on the impact of load shedding on access to the internet. 

Internet access concerns fueled by the power cuts have included data affordability, availability of pre-paid internet packages, and convenience of access.  Whilst telecommunications companies have taken steps to minimise access disruptions, by investing in increased security, back-up, and alternative sources of energy, experts have warned that the continued power disruptions would exacerbate the digital divide, particularly for rural and poor communities. As part of efforts to avert the crisis, in May 2023,  the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), established a committee to assess the impact of load shedding on consumers of electronic communications, broadcasting, and postal services towards informing regulatory interventions for the sector.  

Meanwhile, according to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) telecommunications companies are lobbying for the declaration of the sector as a national strategic asset under the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act. The law deems a sector critical if it is essential for the economy, national security, public safety and the continuous provision of basic public services.

A Fracturing Digital Access Divide 

An estimated 79 percent of the South African population has access to the internet, predominantly through their mobile devices. Access to the internet, particularly in the post-Covid-19 environment, increased reliance on the sector as internet access facilitated many digital activities such as remote work and e-learning. However, the frequency of load shedding affects digital gains particularly for small businesses and students, leaving those without access to alternative sources of power, often unable to access internet services effectively.  According to Accountability Lab, citizens who can afford extra internet data, generators, and solar panels are managing to cope with the power outages. However, the Lab notes a widening of the gap between “digital haves and have-nots” and stresses that ”with limited access to online education and work options, citizens who are already struggling to afford the cost of living find themselves further behind.” Activists have warned that any load shedding mitigation undertaken by mobile network operators should not come at the expense of poor consumers who run the risk of being charged more for data services. 

Indeed, in a country with one of the highest inequality levels in the world, and an unemployment rate of 42 percent, there are concerns that continued load shedding is contributing to inequality and deepening the digital divide. Lower-income households have resorted to staying up until midnight waiting to benefit from “internet happy hours” where data packages are offered at cheaper rates than daytime packages.

Money Spent on Mitigating Load Shedding Could be Used to Expand Rural Access

Telecommunications service providers have not been spared from the consequences of the power cuts. The country’s second-largest mobile operator – MTN South Africa – reportedly spent ZAR 6.6 billion ( USD 360 million) on improvements to its network in 2023. Competitor, Vodacom, is set to increase its annual infrastructure spend to  ZAR 12 billion (USD 654 million) to strengthen its network. The investments will go towards back-up power systems (additional batteries, fuel and generators, and alternative energy sources) at their base stations and data centres. In addition, operators face increased security costs, due to theft and vandalism at their sites including the potential theft of high-capacity batteries which can fetch high values on the black market. 

The investment into back-up systems and batteries is key as longer periods of load shedding often result in batteries not charging sufficiently, affecting network availability, particularly in rural areas.  ICASA was recently taken to task by Members of Parliament for not conducting effective oversight in ensuring access to adequate network coverage. It was noted that service providers generally take their time to get to rural areas when there is a breakage or theft of cables or batteries, which undermines network stability in affected communities. The Select Committee Chair on Public Enterprises and Communication highlighted that internet access “is now no longer a matter of privilege but rather a right to have reliable signal” adding that ICASA needs to be firm and ensure that communications services are consistently provided. 

However, further challenges remain in rural areas which still face insufficient infrastructure deployment. Network operators concede that ongoing load shedding diverts much-needed capital away from rural infrastructure projects and new technologies. Concerns have also been raised on the negative impact to consumers, who will likely carry the additional costs through higher tariffs. Higher income earners have invested in fibre and wireless solutions to maintain connectivity during load shedding, but this comes with the additional costs of installing uninterruptible power supply (UPS). Some experts suggest that satellites, coupled with alternative energy sources, may be more resilient during higher stages of load shedding, or in the event of a total grid collapse. 

Industry stakeholders, through the Association of Comms and Technology have been lobbying for increased government support through policy reform and fuel subsidy rebates in order to avert a digital doomsday scenario where digital networks fail as a result of ongoing power cuts. The industry eagerly awaits the outcome of the ICASA committee on the impact of load shedding on the communications sector, which will hopefully also provide some relief to South African internet users.

Congo Heads to the Polls: Why it is Crucial to Keep the Internet On

By CIPESA Writer |

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) heads to general elections on December 20, 2023 amidst considerable turbulence, including a deluge of disinformation and endemic insecurity in parts of the country. To move towards building a safer and more democratic society, the Congolese government must break away from its past practice of limiting internet access and commit to keeping the internet accessible ahead of, throughout and after the election period.

For more than a decade, network disruptions have been a hallmark of elections in the DR Congo, Africa’s fourth most populous country. The first network disruption, which affected Short Messaging Services (SMS), was witnessed in December 2011, following disputed elections. The government claimed the move was necessary to prevent the online spread of fake results prior to the official announcement by the electoral commission.

Three years later in January 2015, the Congolese government again ordered telecommunications companies to block access not only to SMS but also the internet. This shutdown came on the backdrop of protests against a proposed electoral bill. Whereas banks and government agencies were granted access to the internet four days after the shutdown, the general public did not regain access until after three weeks.

In 2016, the government ordered telecom operators to block access to social media sites as an attempt to thwart mobilising by protestors against then president Joseph Kabila’s stay in office beyond the two-term limit. In January 2018, internet access and SMS were disrupted ahead of a peaceful protest march organised by the Catholic Church to compel Kabila to step down following the expiry of his final term in office. 

The Congolese government again disrupted the internet during the last general elections in December 2018. A senior government official justified the move as necessary to preserve public order after “fictitious results” were circulated on social media. 

Congo faces strong challenges to electoral integrity, including logistical ones such as faulty voters’ cards, poor infrastructure that renders delivery of electoral materials cumbersome, and armed conflict that will likely limit voting in some areas. Moreover, the rampant electoral disinformation has fuelled insecurity and hindered many citizens’ ability to access credible and pluralistic information necessary to make informed and independent choices. 

Opposition leaders have accused the electoral commission of lacking independence and questioned its ability to hold free and fair elections. This has fomented hostilities against the electoral body and its officials and raised the possibility of post-election violence. 

Meanwhile, since November 19, 2023, the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented attacks or threats against at least four journalists and the closure of at least one broadcast station.

Today, a disruption to the internet would exacerbate the challenges of disinformation, incite violence, endanger people’s lives, affect press freedom, and have long-lasting harms on Congo’s economy. Shutdowns provide a shield to those who perpetrate human rights violations, deny people access to critical information, and amplify the spread of misinformation as they block access to alternative sources of verification. The resulting lack of transparency would fuel doubts about the integrity of the elections and heighten the prospects for violence.

Internet shutdowns also violate regional and international frameworks including the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa 2019, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). These frameworks uphold fundamental human rights including freedom of opinion and expression, access to information, right to assembly and social, economic, cultural and political rights.

Indeed, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association has noted that network shutdowns are in clear violation of international law and cannot be justified in any circumstances.

The 2023  election could be a key step in Congo’s move toward a more democratic, tolerant and safe society. How the country handles the election process, including the transparency and integrity of the entire electoral cycle, could determine whether the post-election period will be peaceful and see meaningful social cohesion in the country.

CIPESA Launches Framework to Assess ICT Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities in Africa

By Frank Kisakye |

In many instances, persons with disabilities are unable to use digital technologies because these technologies lack “digital accessibility,” namely the ability of a website, mobile application, or electronic document to be easily navigated and understood by a wide range of users, including those with visual, auditory, motor or cognitive disabilities. The issue is especially key in African countries, where persons with disabilities contend with various forms and layers of exclusion, contradicting the potential for inclusion promised by technology despite one of the pillars of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pledging to “leave no one behind.”

Against this background, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) hosted experts from multiple countries in a webinar to discuss developments pertaining to efforts aimed at enhanced digital inclusion for persons with disabilities. The webinar also served to commemorate the International Day for Persons with Disabilities on December 4, for which CIPESA launched its revised Disability and ICT Accessibility Framework Indicators: A Framework for Monitoring the Implementation of ICT Accessibility Laws and Policies in Africa.

Speaking at the webinar, Dr. Abdul Busuulwa, a lecturer at Kyambogo University Institute for Special Needs (Uganda) and also a CIPESA board member, noted that there are several tools and devices that mitigate barriers to accessibility for users with visual, physical, hearing, intellectual, and psychosocial disabilities. He also highlighted the accessibility guidelines published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium which are  aimed at making web content more accessible for persons with visual and hearing impairment, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity, and combinations of these.

However, the spectrum for ensuring digital access for persons with disabilities is expansive. Titilola Olatunde-Fasogbon, a senior associate at Udo Udoma & Belo-Osagie (Nigeria), noted that in addition to the technical aspects of inclusion, such as websites, more deliberate efforts need to be made by stakeholders in the information ecosystem.  Olatunde-Fasogbon pointed out the role of media houses and the need for more investment into meeting the needs of persons with disabilities as part of broadcasting, such as through more sign language interpretation, subtitling, dubbing for non-English speakers or audio-to-text options, as well as provisions for alternate text for non-text content.

She added that governments also need to ensure that policies and laws align to enhance digital inclusion for excluded communities and that they should be at the forefront of driving such policies. Further, that for digital inclusion to be realised for persons with disabilities, civil society organisations must pursue more collaborative efforts with governments as “governments are obligated to offer the much-needed tax-related policies, tax holidays for commercial companies involved in digital inclusion beyond just passing the laws.”

Collaborative efforts were also emphasised by Dr. Diana Msipa, Manager, Disability Unit at the University of Pretoria (South Africa), who stressed that digital inclusion efforts should even be more deliberate for persons with disabilities in rural areas as they face numerous exclusions such as limited availability of infrastructure and public resources, as well as scarce economic opportunities. Dr. Msipa called for more conscious efforts to make it mandatory for governments and organisations to translate adverts, engage sign language interpreters, and use of non-complex language, among other measures, to ensure information reaches audiences often excluded.

Further efforts at Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) also need to be part of narratives on digital inclusion for persons with disabilities, including through more employment opportunities and leadership positions for persons with disabilities. Dr. Karen Smit, Manager of Disability Unit at Vodacom (South Africa) stated that, “Employers should embrace an inclusive culture so that staff with disabilities can feel they belong. Senior leaders must speak about disability, and ongoing awareness raising must be conducted with management and all staff.” 

Dr. Smit noted that solutions for digital inclusion already exist for mainstream devices and called for more stakeholders, including private sector actors, to pursue awareness initiatives and campaigns on their existence.  She noted that  Safaricom – a subsidiary of Vodacom – introduced the Interactive Voice Response (IVR), a mobile money (M-PESA) solution that enables the visually impaired and blind customers to be in control of their M-PESA transactions.

Similar sentiments were expressed in a 2020 CIPESA report – Access Denied How Telecom Operators in Africa Are Failing Persons With Disabilities, which found that while there are various efforts to increase ICT usage in Africa, there is limited information about what telecom companies are doing to promote digital accessibility. 

While there may be efforts aimed at improving digital inclusion, these need to be assessed regularly. CIPESA’s Revised Disability and ICT Accessibility Framework notes that an accessible web also benefits people without disabilities, for example, older people with changing abilities, people using a slow/expensive Internet connection; and people with “temporary disabilities” such as a broken arm or poor eyesight. The framework implores companies, governments, and organisations to conduct a self-diagnosis on whether they meet the threshold of the five broad disability and ICT accessibility framework indicators which include legal and regulatory, accessibility framework for public access, mobile communication accessibility, television, video programming accessibility, and web accessibility.  

The five indicators were informed and crafted around key provisions within national laws, policies, and international human rights instruments on ICT and Disability. Other international ICT Accessibility standards, such as The Web and Mobile Content Accessibility Guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, informed the indicators.

It is anticipated that this framework will be useful for monitoring and measuring public and private stakeholders’ compliance and implementation of inclusion obligations and inform research, advocacy, and capacity building on ICT for persons with disabilities in the region. 

In addition, the assessment informs planning for different interventions at country and regional levels since it reveals areas that need further interventions. It can also highlight good practices that can help inspire other countries that may still be far in the journey or still struggling with certain aspects of improving their disability digital rights.

Panelists encouraged Disability Rights Organisations, policymakers, mobile network operators, researchers, and academia interested in advancing the rights of persons with disabilities to utilise the framework as a key pillar in their digital accessibility and inclusion efforts.

Here is the Disability and ICT Accessibility Framework Indicators: A Framework for Monitoring the Implementation of ICT Accessibility Laws and Policies in Africa