Countering Digital Authoritarianism in Africa

By Apolo Kakaire |

The Internet which is viewed as the panacea for democracy, participation and inclusion is increasingly becoming a tool of repression deployed by regimes across the world to stifle rights and voice.  Africa, a continent already replete with poor democratic credentials and practices seems to be rapidly catching up on the new ‘epidemic’- digital authoritarianism.

The use of technology tactics to advance repressive political interests has come to be  referred to as digital authoritarianism. However, the tactics employed by authoritarian regimes have also been deployed by democratic states for purposes of surveillance, spread of misinformation, disinformation, and the disruption of civic and political participation under the pretext of fighting cybercrime, and in the interest of protecting national security, and maintaining public order.

Big technology companies are key drivers of digital authoritarianism through the creation, innovation and supply of repressive technology and related support. Moreover, political parties, interest groups, and smaller private companies have lapped it up too, developing and using tools and strategies of digital authoritarianism.

Digital authoritarianism is a great case study in understanding and appreciating the impact of technology on human rights. While laws legalising surveillance and interception of communications, and widespread data collection and processing may not be a problem in themselves, it is the ambiguity often present within those laws that give governments wide latitude of interpretation to facilitate the rights abuse that is a growing challenge.

At the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2022 (FIFAfrica22), Global Voices Advox, shared findings from the Unfreedom Monitor– a project exploring the political and social context that fuels the emergence of digital authoritarianism in 17 countries. They hosted a panel discussion in which project researchers from India, Nigeria, Sudan and Zimbabwe presented the project findings on the connections between political contexts, analogue rights, and the growing use of digital communications technology to advance authoritarian governance.

The findings paint a grim picture for  freedom of the media, expression, and democracy in general. In Zimbabwe for instance, the Unfreedom Monitor report notes that; “the press walks a precarious line between national security and the professional obligation to report truthfully” on issues that happen in the country. It is an observation that is replicated in the mapping conducted in Morocco, Egypt, and Tanzania 

In Sudan, where internet censorship, bad laws and repressed liberties and network disruptions are commonplace, Khattab Hamad noted that the contours and motives of digital authoritarianism include fear of losing power, protecting the existence of regional or international alliances, and geopolitical motives protecting private and family interests. He added that terrorism and support for terrorist groups was another motive for authoritarianism in the country. 

In Tanzania, researchers found that often, laws are enacted as precursors to enable various methods of digital authoritarianism. For example, the Cybercrime Act which was hurriedly enacted just months before the October 2015 elections. “There were many other such laws, including the amendments to the Non-Governmental Orgnaisations (NGO) Act, that saw NGOs being deregistered and control on them tightened in the lead up to the 2020 elections”, they revealed.

In Uganda, network disruptions in the run up to and during recent elections is another example of digital authoritarianism. “Sometimes the internet is restored after elections. So, the question is what exactly is the purpose? What are you hiding? Why do you deny your people access to information? Internet shutdowns also question the credibility of elections”, said Felicia Anthonio of Access Now. She added that network disruptions affect engagement between voters and political candidates, in addition to limiting  electoral oversight and monitoring by human rights activists and election observers. 

As part of the Unfreedom Monitor project, Global Voices Advox has established a publicly available database on digital authoritarianism to support advocacy in light of the “urgency of a fast deteriorating situation”, said Sindhuri Nandhakumar, a researcher  with the project. 

While applauding the research and database in supporting evidence-based advocacy, digital rights activists at FIFAfrica22 noted that given the behaviour of authoritarian regimes, advocacy at the national level may be met with a lot of resistance. As such, more engagement was called for  through special mandates and periodic human rights review mechanisms at the African Union (AU) and the United Nations Human Rights Council.   

“Advocacy [against digital authoritarianism] at national level will be difficult. Positive results could be registered through Special rapporteurs at the AU and states through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), towards securing accountability”, said Arsene Tungali from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For African digital rights activists, the Global Voices Advox research and database unravels new  avenues for collaborative advocacy and transnational opportunities for interventions to stem this spread of digital authoritarianism. The findings however also point at the need for a concerted and robust response to its growing traction.

As elections in Africa remain a major flashing point for digital authoritarianism as all manner of manipulation of voters, narratives, even results abound, it remains a key area of transnational cooperation. Ahead of the elections in Zimbabwe, slated for July-August 2023, Advox will come up with tips on awareness raising on voter rights and the role of technology in elections. Zimbabwe provides a good opportunity to pilot, learn and perhaps adopt some interventions to counter this behemoth.

Confronting the Challenges to Journalism in the Digital Age

By Edrine Wanayama |

Across the world, journalists face daily affronts physically and online for the work they do. Although the proliferation of technology has come with benefits for the practice of journalism, it has also adversely affected the media landscape to the extent that in some countries journalism has come under siege under the digital era. 

Technology has served to enable major shifts in how journalism is practiced, in addition to enhancing freedom of expression and access to information in addition to  complementing the promotion of accountability and transparency. However,  negative aspects such as digital surveillance are endangering the practice of journalism. The use of sophisticated technologies by governments is fuelling rights violations as it is now easier to track, arrest, detain, persecute and prosecute media professionals whose content is deemed unacceptable to the authorities.

This year, World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) was commemorated under the theme ‘Journalism Under Siege and recognised  how recent developments in technological means of monitoring and surveillance impact journalism and freedom of expression.

Digitisation offers several  benefits for the journalism sector, including the pace at which content can be collected and shared across online platforms. However, the risks and harms that come with digitisation, such as the elimination of professional gatekeepers who also uphold journalistic ethics, fabrication of content, falsification of information, misinformation and disinformation, hate speech, and online harassment, have become major threats to the sector.  

While in the pre-Internet world, freedom of expression and privacy were thought to only interact when journalists reported on public figures in the name of the right to know, the rights have become increasingly interdependent. This linkage reflects digital business models and the development of new surveillance technologies and large-scale data collection and retention. The changes pose risks in terms of reprisals against media workers and their sources, thereby affecting the free exercise of journalism, UNESCO

Even though the digital space offers broad opportunities for the practice of the journalism profession, various  countries in Africa have taken systematic steps to limit the enjoyment of freedom in the digital space. Many states across the continent including Egypt, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have enhanced their surveillance capacities including through enactment of enabling legislation which is often used against state critics and journalists.

Furthermore, mass data collection initiatives such as registration of persons for national identification documents, SIM card registration, voter registration and the creation of interlinked databases by the government for various services, have increased the precision with which state authorities can identify their targets. This is of particular concern for the media and their sources.s.

As such, at the WPFD commemoration in Uganda organised by the Uganda’s Media Sector Working Group (UMSWG) in conjunction with the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), the Makerere University Department of Journalism and Communication, the Media Council of Uganda, Uganda Communications Commission, and the Uganda Human Rights Commission, attendees discussed the country’s shrinking digital space, surveillance, arrests and persecution amidst growing digitalisation practices across sectors and the population. 

These concerns were echoed at the Africa Media Convention held  in Arusha, Tanzania around the WPFD and organised by UNESCO and the East Africa Editors’ Guild. The convention discussions were largely informed by a research report by CIPESA and UNESCO on journalism under siege in the digital era. In turn, the discussions resulted in the  Arusha Declaration on Journalism Under Digital Siege, which reaffirms the importance of human rights and freedom of the press and states’ commitments to provide an enabling environment for freedom of expression and the press. 

Journalists should use technology responsibly to guard against counter productivity.  There should be deliberate efforts aimed at guarding against online vices such as disinformation and misinformation, false news and hate speech to ensure reporting events and stories is based on truth and objectivity. 

Similarly, states must take all measures to ensure their compliance with universally recognised human rights standards by repealing all laws, policies and practices that limit journalism practice. They should also progressively enact laws that promote digital rights and freedoms including those of journalists. 

Specifically, recommendations in the 2022 Arusha Declaration on the World Press Freedom Day should be adopted by states, media, civil society, technology companies and development partners  if the media sector is to become better and operate with minimal interruptions.

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

By Nashilongo Gervasius | 

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

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

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

Why focus on the laws and regulations two years later? 

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

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

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

What effects do these laws have?

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

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

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

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

Can such laws deter misinformation?

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

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

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

Par Richard Ngamita |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compréhension des conflits et désinformation

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

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

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

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

Source: Twitter

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

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

Source : Twitter

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

Le rôle de la diaspora

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

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

Source:  Facebook

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

Source: Facebook

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


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

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

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

Coupures d’Internet

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

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

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

Source: Twitter

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

Source: Twitter

Venir à bout de la désinformation

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

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

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

Regulating Freedom of Expression Amidst the Covid-19 Response in South Africa

By Tusi Fokane |

The global infodemic accelerated in part by the Covid-19 pandemic has raised important debates on how best to respond to the proliferation of false and misleading information online. The Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression addressed the critical issue of misinformation, noting that some actions undertaken by various governments to contain the spread of the coronavirus may fail to meet the test of legality, necessity and proportionality. The report cautioned against the introduction of vague and overly-broad laws to combat misinformation, proposing instead that governments provide reliable information to citizens.

Six months after a National State of Disaster was declared in South Africa, the government on September 16, 2020 eased the lockdown, removing “as many of the remaining restrictions on economic and social activity as it is reasonably safe to do.” One notable restriction still in place  is the criminalisation of the publication of “any statement through any medium including social media, with the intent to deceive,” pursuant to Regulation 11(5), under the Disaster Management Act, which was issued in March 2020. The offense is punishable with an unspecified fine, imprisonment of up to six months, or both.

The regulations were followed by directives from the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies compelling communications service providers to “remove Covid-19 related fake news from their platforms immediately after it is identified as such”. Within days of its passing, several individuals were arrested for spreading false information about Covid-19. In one case relating to a Covid-19 interview, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa fined two broadcasters South African Rand 10,000 (USD 660).

Whilst various activists initially raised their voices in support of   governments’ efforts to halt the spread of the disease, they also cautioned against overly restrictive conditions that limit human rights including  freedom of expression, access to information and public accountability.

Civil Society Reactions to the Regulations on “Fake News”

The debate about the impact of South Africa’s Covid-19 regulations on  free speech came into focus when a leading academic and member of the Covid-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee, Professor Glenda Gray made public comments about the effectiveness of the lockdown restrictions. The Minister of Health declared the academic’s views false and misleading. This prompted leading academics to conclude that “the government has repeatedly stressed that its primary goal in managing the pandemic is to save lives. But it needn’t kill speech to save lives.”

In April 2020, the Right2Know Campaign (R2K) wrote to the National Coronavirus Command Council regarding the “fake news” provisions of lockdown regulations. Whilst noting the potentially deleterious effects of false information, R2K made  proposals to amend the regulations to ensure the protection of the right to freedom of expression. Among the amendments proposed by R2K was the definition of “fake news”  to be clarified as the “dissemination of false information with the intention to deceive…”

Further, R2K noted that the “criminalisation of speech inevitably has a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression.” It proposed administrative penalties, rather than criminal sanctions, for disseminating false information. Another key proposal was that the government should make provision for relevant defences that an offender could rely on when faced with a charge of spreading false information.

Other critics, such as the Free Market Foundation (FMF), rejected the fake news regulations outright, calling on the government to rely on existing common law and constitutional provisions rather than attempting to regulate expression through the introduction of additional regulations. The FMF argued that, “there is simply too much information circulating in society for any centralised body to be entrusted with deciding its accuracy. Instead, we must rely on the decentralised gatekeeping network known as ‘the market’ to assist us in judging what is true and what is false.”

Meanwhile, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) stated in a statement in March that the regulations were narrowly defined, and proposed a high standard on the state to prove “intention to deceive.” The group  said the real challenge would be the government’s ability to implement and enforce the fake news regulations.

None of these proposals were taken into account and the current regulations remain in force under the extension of the state of national disaster, imposing undue restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.

Enforcement of the “Fake News” Regulations

As part of measures to enforce the regulations, the government established a multi-stakeholder monitoring and evaluation platform and Digital Complaints Committee to monitor and respond to misinformation and fake news related to Covid-19.  Then Acting Communications and Digital Technologies Minister, Jackson Mthembu, stated that the platform aims to assess misinformation complaints, take down fake news items, and submit cases to the police for investigation and prosecution.

According to MMA Director, William Bird, the task of combating fake news should not be left to government and platform providers. Since 2019, MMA has maintained Real411, an independent digital platform for reporting suspected misinformations. Thandi Smith, MMA’s Head of Programmes, explains that complaints are assessed by a team of three voluntary reviewers with legal, technology, and media expertise. The reviewers then make a recommendation to a five-member secretariat based on a set of assessment criteria.

Upon completion of an investigation, the secretariat recommends a range of actions which may include issuing a take-down notice, fact-checking verification, and publishing a counter-narrative infographic. Bird said the secretariat reports hate speech cases to the South African Human Rights Commission for further action. Extreme cases of misinformation would be reported to the South African police, but to-date no complaints warranting police investigation have been received. Complaints about the media and editorial content are referred to the relevant regulatory authority. Smith noted that there is an appeal process headed up by a retired Constitutional Court judge.

 Assessing the Effectiveness of Criminalising Misinformation

It may be difficult to assess the effectiveness of fake news regulations on Covid-19 given the rapid spread of information in the digital environment. This raises philosophical and policy issues on whether free expression online should even be regulated at all, and by whom.

Indeed, Ghalib Galant, Deputy National Coordinator & Head of Advocacy for the R2K Campaign, maintains that the challenge with South Africa’s Covid-19 misinformation regulatory framework is that government’s response was to criminalise behaviour rather than focusing on educating and supporting South Africans to understand the impact of the pandemic. As he puts it, “Government policed people, rather than healing a health pandemic.”

Galant suggested that administrative penalties may be a better deterrent than criminal sanctions. This would ensure the protection of the right to freedom of expression whilst the country debates whether or not new rules are needed for regulating false information, or a “re-imagining of section 16 of the Constitution.” Galant suggests that perhaps this could be within the purview of a statutory institution such as the Information Regulator.

Section 16(1) of South Africa’s Constitution states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.” Section 16(2) restricts speech related “to propaganda for war; incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”

The head of legal, policy and research at the FMF, Martin van Staden, said fake news regulations have not been effective as they are difficult to enforce. From his perspective, any prohibition on freedom of expression beyond Section 16(2) Constitutional limitations would amount to censorship. He stated: “The Constitution is unequivocal about the scope of the right to freedom of expression, and it does not include a provision that only ‘factual’ expression is allowed. This means that misinformation is constitutionally protected expression in South Africa, and must be left alone.”

He recommends that the government should instead provide accurate and reliable information, and develop a strong counter-narrative strategy, which would enable South African citizens to reach their own conclusions on the veracity of any information they receive.

Van Staden cautioned against the state’s “paternalism” and future attempts to introduce legislation aimed at ensuring the truthfulness of information that is disseminated. “The right to freedom of expression is meant to protect the uncomfortable, the unpopular, and the offensive,” he said.

Threats to Freedom of Expression Beyond Covid-19 Regulations

There is uncertainty on whether the National State of Disaster will be extended again beyond December 15, 2020, given concerns of a second wave of Covid-19 infections in the country. Freedom of expression experts have warned that whilst fake news may be decriminalised by a declaration of the end of the State of Disaster,  the government may attempt to use impending legislation to further regulate free speech online.

For example, in July 2020, the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies released a call for comments on the gazetted draft Film and Publications amendment regulations, (commonly known as the internet censorship bill), which introduces a requirement for pre-classification of online content with the Film and Publications Board.

Another key piece of legislation in the pipeline is the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, which lapsed and is currently on hold, pending judgment on the Qwelane hate speech Constitutional Court challenge which was heard on  September 22, 2020.

Qwelane contends that the prohibited grounds listed in section 10(1) of the Promotion of Equality and Protection of Unfair Discrimination Act (Equality Act) are overly broad, go far beyond the limitations set out in section 16(2) of the Constitution, and unjustifiably limit the right to freedom of expression.

The outcome of the Qwelane case will be important in clarifying the limitations on free speech for South Africans given ongoing debates on the regulation of freedom of expression both online and offline. This is particularly important in setting clear parameters for free speech and false and misleading information in South Africa. This will assist in ensuring that unprotected speech is very narrowly defined and does not unjustifiably limit the Constitutional right to freedom of expression.

Tusi Fokane is a 2020 CIPESA Fellow focussing on the the availability and use of digital technologies to combat the spread of Covid-19 in South Africa. She is also  studying the country’s readiness for electronic voting to comply with social distancing and other movement restrictions during the upcoming local government elections.