Journalists in DR Congo and Rwanda Grapple with Disinformation and Hate Speech. Here’s What They Should Do

By CIPESA Writer |

As disinformation and hate speech intensify during periods of armed conflict and political unrest, journalists can play a critical role in countering falsehoods by providing accurate, unbiased information to the public. Yet, journalists often lack the skills and resources to identify, fact-check, and call out disinformation.

Last month, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) convened a consultative meeting in Rwanda’s border town of Rubavu for Congolese and Rwandan journalists to discuss how they can play a more effective role in countering disinformation in the conflict between the two countries while providing accurate information in their reporting. The meeting discussed the nature of the disinformation and its key instigators and spreaders, media pluralism, and factual reporting.

The Conflict

In recent months, the governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) and Rwanda have traded accusations of supporting rebel forces destabilising each other’s country, with disinformation and hate speech taking centre stage in the conflict and fuelling hostilities between the neighbours.

The Congolese government is engaged in armed conflict against the M23 rebel group, which it says is supported by the Rwanda government. A recent United Nations (UN) report corroborated the allegations, indicating that Kigali supports the M23 rebels and other militia operating in the troubled North Kivu province. Rwanda denies the allegations and in turn accuses its neighbour of supporting the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) armed rebels that have bases inside eastern Congo from where they purportedly make occasional incursions into Rwanda.

This ongoing conflict has also sucked in the UN peacekeeping force in DR Congo, commonly known as the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). There are increased calls for its withdrawal from the central African nation amidst accusations that it has failed to stop the M23 rebel advances and killings by other militia. According to media reports, 36 people including four UN peacekeepers were killed in late July amid protests against MONUSCO.

Information Disorder

The Congolese online space is fraught with calls for a boycott of Rwandan goods and businesses, as well as calls for expulsion of Rwandan nationals. In late May, Congo suspended Rwanda’s national carrier Rwandair’s flights from its territory. The hashtag #RwandaIsKilling trended online in July 2022 as some Congolese citizens and their government accused Rwanda of supporting the resurgence of attacks by the M23 rebels that claim to protect ethnic Rwandans that are native to eastern Congo, especially the Tutsi ethnic group.

The disinformation is particularly pronounced on social networking and sharing platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. However, some mainstream media, including private radio and television stations, have played an active role in manipulating information and entrenching hate speech against some members of the Congolese Kinyarwanda-speaking communities and Rwandan nationals.

Yet it is not media actors on one side of the border that are actively promoting disinformation. Journalists and media houses on the Rwandan side were also accused of propagating anti-Congo disinformation, notably that related to the Congolese government’s alleged support for anti-Rwanda armed groups. Often, those who promote the pro-Rwanda narrative are engaged in exchanges with the pro-Congo influencers on social media, with both sides utilising disinformation.

Participants at the Rubavu meeting noted that politicians have been at the forefront of using disinformation to push nationalistic and populist agendas against the Rwandan community living in Congo’s North Kivu and the South-Kivu provinces. As one Congolese journalist explained, “The disinformation and hate speech narratives have been mostly pushed by politicians and this has been done for petty political and personal interests.”

Yet another journalist, who operates from the Congolese city of Goma, noted that some prominent members of the community, “such as religious leaders, influential civil society leaders, and grassroots leaders have also played a major role in peddling and spreading false narratives and fake news.”

Participants also identified political analysts, social media influencers, bloggers, local civic leaders and ordinary citizens, as some of the actors behind the current spate of hate speech and disinformation within the digital space of the two countries.

It was noted that many journalists, both in DR Congo and Rwanda, lacked the capacity to verify the information and had become complicit, knowingly and unknowingly, in spreading disinformation. Furthermore, because most citizens could not easily identify disinformation and tended to believe most information they received through mainstream and social media platforms, fake news was thriving and spreading rapidly.

Nadine Kampire from the Goma-based media network Afia Amani Grands Lacs, said the Rubavu meeting was timely, as fake news and hate speech were rampant on various Congolese and Rwandan social media. It was therefore necessary for journalists to appreciate the extent of the problem, to develop skills in fact-checking, and to build networks for sharing credible information with counterparts across borders.

The Effects

For the residents of Goma and Rubavu, the effects of disinformation and hate speech on regional peace and stability are all clear. The disinformation, escalation of conflict and whipping up of hate speech, have led to a substantial decline in the movement of people and goods and continue to undermine cross-border trade. As a result, this has negatively affected the livelihoods of hundreds of small-scale traders and community members.

Further, the standoff between the two countries has prevented many learners from attending school as they fear crossing the border. Notably, many Rwandans in Rubavu attend schools in the much larger city of Goma across the border.

Fidèle Kitsa, a Congolese journalist working with Star Radio in Goma, noted that hate speech and disinformation have caused negative social, economic and educational consequences within communities in the border towns. He said the price of food and commodities increased, the population has been radicalised, pessimism towards certain information on social media increased, and the peaceful coexistence of the populations in two cities has been harmed. These effects are evident beyond the border towns, all the way to the Congolese capital Kinshasa.

The tension is palpable, even here in the capital [Kinshasa] where we really see acts of xenophobia between the Congolese and Rwandans all day long. All it takes is one click, one video, one publication and it can quickly go viral, because in our minds, our subconscious, the information is there. We are just waiting for something to trigger it. – Dandjes Luyila, Journalick, CongoCeck

A Rwandan editor summed up the effects: “The rampant spread of fake news, political propaganda, and hate speech across social media and through the mainstream media has breached trust and the social relationship between the communities living on both sides of the border.”

Recommendations

At the end of the meeting, a number of recommendations were made that can help to stem the spread of disinformation in DR Congo and Rwanda.

Journalists:

Journalists:

  • Abide by ethical standards that promote accuracy, fairness, and objectivity in the coverage of news.
  • Fact-check every piece of information before disseminating it.
  • Provide news and information in an unbiased way.
  • Actively promote peace and security.

Media development agencies:

  • Hold regular training on fact-checking for journalists.
  • Provide small grants to support journalists to pursue in-depth stories on the ongoing conflict in the region as a way of providing accurate information to the public.
  • Enhance collaboration between journalists within the East and Central African region. This includes the creation of a regional association of journalists and media professionals.
  • Support media initiatives that are working towards identifying and fighting disinformation and fake news.
  • Support fact-checking initiatives for journalists.

 

 

 

Africa in the Crosshairs of New Disinformation and Surveillance Schemes That Undermine Democracy

By Daniel Mwesigwa |

A range of spyware vendors including Italian Hacking Team, the Anglo-German Gamma Group, and Israeli’s NSO Group, have found a ready market in authoritarian and repressive governments in Africa and elsewhere. Similarly, systematic propaganda campaigns designed by meddlesome actors – including government agents and ambitious data analytics companies such as Cambridge Analytica working on behalf of state and non-state actors – are becoming conspicuous in Africa, especially during electoral periods. 

The tools and tactics of these operators, who are mostly non-African, are increasingly undermining democracy and respect for human rights in Africa, as they enable mass surveillance and disinformation that manipulates and undermines political discourse. 

For example, Chinese tech giant Huawei and its technicians were implicated in an August 15, 2019 exposé by The Wall Street Journal that detailed how the company’s staff had helped the Uganda Police to hack into the encrypted communications of an opposition figure. As a result, the security officers were able to thwart the opposition leader’s mobilisation plans. The article also stated that technicians from Huawei had helped Zambian authorities to access the phones and social media pages of a group of opposition bloggers who were tracked and arrested. 

Through security vulnerabilities, spyware tools and products give governments, notably intelligence and law enforcement authorities, super powers to surveil using covert intrusion systems across major mobile platforms and operating systems. In 2016, the Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary lab working at the intersection of global affairs and technology at the University of Toronto, uncovered Pegasus – a sophisticated malware developed by the NSO Group that is injected into a target’s phone via text or WhatsApp, a popular messaging tool in Africa. The Citizen Lab has since identified Pegasus operations in over 45 countries including Algeria, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, Rwanda, South Africa, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia. But NSO has reportedly bragged time and again how it can penetrate various operating systems and applications irrespective of the security patches.

According to the 2019 State of Internet Freedom in Africa Report, the “surveillance state” in Africa gained notoriety at the turn of the decade, after the infamous Arab Spring that swept across North Africa in 2011, allegedly amplified by dissident voices on social media. The report documents how repressive states such as Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Botswana, and Rwanda have since boosted their surveillance capabilities through procurement of advanced spyware. In 2015, it was revealed that Uganda and Tanzania had procured Hacking Team’s premium Remote Control System (RCS) for intrusion into systems across major mobile platforms and operating systems. 

More recently, the Financial Times reported that Rwanda paid up to USD 10 million to the NSO Group to spy on government critics and dissidents through WhatsApp – an allegation Rwanda president Paul Kagame denied in a presidential press briefing held on November 8, 2019, only acknowledging that they spy on “our enemies” using “human intelligence”. He added, “I wouldn’t spend my money over a nobody [Rwandan exiles] yet we have sectors like education to spend such money”. 

But Kagame’s denial is to be taken with a pinch of salt. In 2016, a Rwandan court sentenced a popular singer, Kizito Mihigo, to 10 years in prison on allegations of conspiracy to overthrow the government, based on hacked private WhatsApp and Skype messages exchanged with alleged dissidents in exile. 

The alleged Rwanda cases appear to be linked to others of NSO infiltrating the WhatsApp accounts of journalists, human rights activists, political dissidents, prominent female leaders, and other members of civil society in up to 20 countries, which prompted Facebook (the owners of WhatsApp) to sue NSO in October 2019. The lawsuit brought by Facebook in the U.S Federal Court accuses the spyware maker of hacking into the WhatsApp accounts of 1,400 users worldwide. While there are scanty details on the exact identities of the affected, it is reported that 174 are lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders and religious leaders.

According to the Financial Times, those targeted in Rwanda, six of whom it interviewed and they confirmed being alerted by WhatsApp about the possible NSO-enabled surveillance of their communications. These included a journalist living in exile in Uganda, who had petitioned the Uganda government “to help protect Rwandans in the country from assassination”; South Africa and UK-based senior members of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an opposition group in exile; an army officer who fled Rwanda  in 2008 and testified against members of the Rwandan government in a French court in 2017; and a Belgium-based member of the FDU-Inkingi opposition party.

Meanwhile, some foreign powers are purportedly testing, as New York Times recently reported, “New Disinformation Tactics in Africa to Expand Influence”. The report detailed how the Wagner Group founded by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who allegedly has close ties to the Russian government, has over the last couple of years been running aggressive disinformation campaigns on Facebook. 

It is reported that Prigozhin’s campaign used locally-opened Facebook accounts to disguise behaviour and also used sham news networks that regularly reposted articles from Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news organisation to promote Russian policies while undermining US and French policies in Africa. On October 31, 2019, Facebook reportedly removed these accounts that were influencing operations “in the domestic politics” of eight African countries – Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan.

Earlier in 2019, Facebook reportedly shut down a separate “fake news” operation targeting elections in African countries such as Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Niger, Angola, and Tunisia, propagated by “inauthentic” accounts on Facebook and Instagram run by Israeli commercial firm, Archimedes Group.  Between 2013 to 2017, governments such as Kenya and Nigeria reportedly hired Cambridge Analytica to manipulate their electorate in a bid to win presidential elections for the incumbents.

Besides the disinformation campaigns linked to Russian actors, and the Israel-made spyware, there are also facial recognition surveillance programmes such as the Huawei’s “Smart Cities”, which has been deployed in 12 African countries. This phenomenon is referred to by some as an export of digital authoritarianism. 

It is now evident that governments and non-state actors face an uphill task of combatting the governance challenges caused by this phenomenon. Accordingly, governments, with the help of tech platforms, need to understand what legislation and policies, including oversight and enforcement mechanisms, are necessary to strengthen the protection of democracy and human rights in the rapidly changing digital world.

Shadow Report on Freedom of Expression Online in Rwanda

Submission to the ACHPR |
The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has submitted to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) a shadow report on the state of freedom of expression online in Rwanda.
The report outlines Rwanda’s legislative and related measures taken to promote and protect freedom of expression online, and provides the Commission with impartial information regarding Rwanda’s state of internet freedom and recommendations for improvement.
Article 62 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter) requires all States Parties to the charter to submit after every two years, reports on the measures taken to effect the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the charter. Rwanda submitted reports for the period 2009 to 2016 on March 22, 2017. They were reviewed by the commission this week, with civil society groups such as CIPESA providing shadow reports and questions to inform the commission’s review.
In its report, the Rwanda government stated that freedom of the media and the freedom to receive information are recognised and provided for by law, adding that every journalist has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to seek, receive, give and broadcast information and ideas through any media. However, according to CIPESA’s shadow report, various laws and state practices continue to contravene these freedoms, notably constraining their enjoyment online. Surveillance and interception of communications, blockage and filtering of content, are among the problematic issues CIPESA’s shadow report raises
The Rwanda government stated that the access to information law is an entry point to improving journalists’ participation in political affairs and that it recognises the importance of an independent, professional media and ease of access to information as essential components of good governance and a sustainable social, economic and political development. It went on to specify national laws and statutory institutions that safeguard the right to expression and freedom of information.
However, the shadow report notes that the ICT law N° 24/2016 of 18/06/2016, Law No.60/2013 regulating the Interception of Communications, Criminal Procedure Code Law N° 30/2013 of 24/05/2013, and the regulation of SIM card registration of 2013 collectively contain some provisions that undermine freedom of expression online and privacy rights and contravene article 38 of Rwanda’s Constitution, international standards and best practices on freedom of expression, access to information and privacy rights.

As of June 2017, Rwanda’s internet penetration was estimated at 36.6 % (3,724,678 connections) with Facebook users estimated at 490,000, within a total population of 12,159,586. This shows an improvement from statistics recorded by the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency (RURA) indicating mobile phone penetration rate of 79% and internet penetration at 33%, as of June 2016.

CIPESA’s report calls for a comprehensive review of all interception and privacy laws and policies to bring them into conformity with constitutional guarantees as well as international human rights standards and best practices on surveillance of communications by setting out clear legal parameters that ensure protection of freedom of expression and privacy rights.
For more details, see the full Shadow Report on Freedom Expression Online in Rwanda  submitted by CIPESA.

Rwanda’s Communications Regulator Dismisses Electoral Commission’s Directives on Suppressing Free Speech Online

By Ashnah Kalemera |
The Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA), the body that regulates telecommunication services, has dismissed a statement by the country’s electoral body regarding vetting of social media posts by candidates in the upcoming elections. This principled move by RURA needs to be commended, and just like the authority has steadfastly held service providers to their licensing obligations and protected digital technology users’ interests, RURA stands well positioned to be the champion of the free flow of information and ideas online in Rwanda.
“The National Electoral Commission (NEC) has no mandate to regulate or interrupt the use of social media by citizens,” reads RURA’s May 31 statement. The authority goes on to state that as the body in charge of communications, it has not had any discussions with NEC on the matter and to “reaffirm the right of citizens express themselves on social media and other ICT [Information and Communication Technologies] platforms, while respecting existing laws.”
The statement by RURA follows a directive by the electoral body requiring that campaign posts by candidates, including text, photographs and videos must be sent to a team of analysts prior to publishing on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram or on candidates’  websites.
“The candidates will have to send their messages to our team 24 hours before the time they expect to post them – and then they give us another 24 hours to give them feedback,” a NEC official is quoted as having told journalists. The commission head stated that candidates risked having their social media accounts blocked if they failed to comply with the instructions. According to officials, NEC’s directive was “not censorship”, but rather, aimed at ensuring that “messages posted on social media are not poisoning people.”
The electoral body’s move deserves condemnation for infringing on free speech and aiming to curtail the free flow of information and opinion in the lead up to presidential elections scheduled for August 2017. Article 38 of the Rwanda constitution guarantees freedom of the press, of expression and of access to information. The Media Law of 2013 further extends these rights to the media, including online platforms, as provided for under Article 19.
Whereas these rights need to be respected at all times, it is especially critical to uphold them at election times to enable politicians easily reach out to voters and for citizens to have ample access to competing ideas so as to make informed choices of who to vote for as their leaders. This is why RURA’s dismissal of the electoral body’s overtures to curtail free expression online is particularly welcome, and yet there is need to work on other fronts to ensure that the country’s laws, and the practices of its institutions and leaders, promote free expression online.
Presently, there are gaps in laws such as the 2013 Media Law, the Penal Code, and the law on interception of communications which pose a threat to the online operations of media and civil society. Over the years numerous blogs and websites with content deemed critical of the state have been blocked Recent years have also seen some online publishers being arrested and charged, with some fleeing into exile. See 2017 report on Safeguarding Civil Society: Assessing Internet Freedom and Digital Resilience of Civil Society in East Africa.
Nonetheless, RURA’s statement is a positive development in the country that has put ICT at the forefront of its socio-economic development. As of December 2016, Rwanda had a mobile phone penetration rate of 79%, while internet penetration stood at 37%, according to RURA’s 4th quarter 2016 report.
In October 2015, Rwanda launched its ICT Master Plan – Vision 2020. Among the priority areas is improved ICT access especially via mobile. Meanwhile, Rwanda’s Universal Service Fund, which is aimed at extending connectivity to rural and underserved communities, is funded by up to 2% levy of operator turnover.
Meanwhile, the RURA actively enforces operator licensing requirements and regulations, and issues notices and penalties for non compliance with quality of service obligations. In June 2016 notices to MTN Rwanda and Airtel Rwanda, the operators were ordered to comply with obligations within 15 calendar days and submit to the authority short term implementation reports and in the longer term, implementation plans. The notice to MTN also stipulated a penalty of approx. USD 6,300 per day for “major network outage and service degradation.”
To fully realise the benefits of these initiatives, citizens need to be free to express themselves online and to have trust in using online tools and platforms without fear for their privacy and safety.
Established under the 2001 law governing telecommunications, RURA’s mandate was extended under a 2013 amendment to include “telecommunications, information technology, broadcasting and converging electronic technologies including the Internet and any other information and communication technology.”
 
 
 

Safeguarding Civil Society: Assessing Internet Freedom and the Digital Resilience of Civil Society in East Africa

By Small Media |
Over the past decade, East Africa has seen a tremendous boom in connectivity and online participation that is beginning to transform the way that citizens across the region communicate, express themselves, and establish communities. In a similar manner, the growth of internet access in the region is beginning to empower civil society organisations (CSOs) to engage with the public, share information, and advocate for citizens’ rights in sometimes challenging and closed political environments. Although the internet offers opportunities to advocates, it also offers the possibility for regional state and non-state actors to interfere with their work, surveil them, and censor their voices.
In this report Small Media, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), DefendDefenders, and Strathmore University’s Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law have sought to map out the state of internet freedom in East Africa, and assess the extent to which ongoing challenges have impacted negatively upon the work of civil society actors in the region. Although we were not able to map out the state of internet freedom across the entire region, we were able to focus our efforts on some of the lesser-studied digital landscapes – Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
To measure the state of internet controls in the region, we have taken the African Declaration of Internet Rights and Freedoms (ADIRF) as our key point of reference. This declaration – drafted and signed by a large array of African civil society organisations in collaboration with global internet freedom organisations – establishes a set of rigorous principles by which governments and other stakeholders must abide in order to guarantee the online rights and freedoms of citizens across Africa.
Over the course of this research, we have found that there is an urgent need for East African civil society to be given support to improve their digital resilience in the face of growing threats of surveillance and censorship across the region. In all of the countries surveyed in this report, CSOs failed to demonstrate a baseline of digital security knowledge, or else failed to implement practices effectively.
DigRes_1 DigRes_2
 
 
 
 
 
 
At the same time, we found that governments across the region require support to bring their policies into compliance with the principles of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms – a set of principles developed by African internet freedom stakeholders to guarantee a free and open internet in Africa.
ADIRF_Grid
Small Media, CIPESA, Defend Defenders and CIPIT hope that this research can help to support the security of civil society actors, empower activists to support the principles of the African Declaration, and press their governments to adopt it.
Read the full report here.