Advancing Internet Freedom in Africa Through the Universal Periodic Review: Lessons and Gaps

By CIPESA Staff Writer |

Since its establishment in 2006, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) has provided a unique process for reviewing the human rights records of all United Nations (UN) Member States. Over the years, however, there has been limited participation by African civil society in the review process. In particular, there is limited work by African actors to promote internet freedom through this process.

Accordingly, since 2018, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Small Media Foundation and a coalition of regional partners have been working to support civil society organisations across Africa to engage with the UPR process through capacity development in research and advocacy. The project has made up to 16 UPR submissions on digital rights in Africa with a focus on the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe

To further concretise CIPESA and Small Media’s efforts, a survey was commissioned to gauge the awareness, engagement and existing capacities of stakeholders in relation to the UPR process and their development needs with regard to UPR advocacy, campaigning, and research. Conducted between July 2019 and December 2021, the survey recorded a total of 134 respondents from all 16 countries on which CIPESA, Small Media and partners made UPR submissions focused on digital rights. The respondents included activists, academics, diplomats, lawyers, journalists, government officials, development actors, and civil society organisations. 

The survey found that there is limited participation by African civil society in the UPR process despite the review process providing a framework within which activists and human rights defenders can lobby and hold governments to account to promote internet freedom. The number of internet freedom-related submissions on Africa is still small though growing, which is a reflection of the low number of actors conducting internet freedom work and participating in UPR reviews. 

While there is a relatively high level of awareness of the existence of the UPR process, partly the result of training efforts by various organisations in recent years, the level of knowledge about the process is limited. Similarly, the level of participation in the review is moderate, with only 27% having taken part in national consultations and one in four having participated in submission of stakeholder reports. It is also noteworthy that even for those processes that many respondents had participated in, such as stakeholder submissions, those efforts were often led by entities based outside the continent. Only one third of respondents had ever received UPR-related capacity development.

The survey findings indicate the need for skills and knowledge development in UPR engagement including advocacy and follow-up on recommendations; making stakeholder submissions; and participating in national consultations and review sessions. Further, it is crucial to capacite legacy human rights organisations to embrace digital rights work. Other skills development needs identified included data collection; analysis and report writing to feed into submissions; stakeholder engagement; and diplomacy and international negotiations. 

Specifically on digital rights, skills building in understanding the legal and regulatory environment for the digital sector at national, regional and global levels, as well as coalition building strategies, and communications for advocacy, were identified. Other skills needed included digital security for human rights  defenders; knowledge of the full range of the UN Human Rights Mechanisms; and crafting human rights policy recommendations.

In line with the capacity gaps identified by the survey, CIPESA and Small Media convened CSOs, activists and human rights defenders from the 16 countries for a three days workshop on UPR advocacy and coalition building for digital rights. The workshop, which was held in Kampala, Uganda on March 20-22, 2022, featured sessions on local engagement and mobilisation, international and regional legal frameworks, researching digital rights and identifying policy issues, campaign and advocacy planning and impact communications, among others.  

Speaking at the opening of the workshop, CIPESA’s Programme Manager Ashnah Kalemera stated that the training sought to capacitate organisations to more effectively leverage the UPR for advancing digital rights. “Increasing African-based organisations’ participation in the UPR, national level uptake and follow up on recommendations by governments requires growing skills and engendering collaboration among stakeholders,” said Kalemera.

The workshop builds on CIPESA’s multi-country efforts in building skills and knowledge in collaborative internet policy research, research methods, communicating research, and data-driven advocacy, among others, towards a free, open and secure internet in Africa.

See the Internet Freedom and UPR in Africa Survey report here.

Universal Peer Review: Mozambique Should Guarantee Digital Rights

By Edrine Wanyama |

In April 2021, Mozambique’s human rights record will be assessed under the Universal Peer Review (UPR) process at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The assessment will need to shine a light on Mozambique’s record on online and offline rights to privacy, access to information, and free expression, which are increasingly under threat in the southern Afican country.

The UPR process offers all UN member states the opportunity to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situation in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations. In the previous review, nine of the 227 recommendations made to Mozambique were related to freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information. In response, the Mozambican government supported six of the nine recommendations and by implication was to take steps and measures that aim to protect and promote the respective rights. However, various developments in the country make it imperative to reflect on recommendations made during Mozambique’s last UPR assessment, with a view to supporting the realisation of digital freedoms as part of the upcoming review.

Despite constitutional provisions for freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the right to information, in 2018 Mozambique introduced a draconian media law, Decree No. 40/2018. The legislation was revoked two years later in May 2020 following a Constitutional Court petition by six organisations – Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Mozambique Chapter, Association of Journalistic Companies, National Forum of Community Radios, Centre for Public Integrity, Mozambican Bar Association and the Emergency Committee for the Protection of Fundamental Freedoms. The court declared that the decree was unconstitutional since it introduced prohibitive costs on the exercise of the journalism profession for foreign correspondents and local freelance journalists.

Mozambique is ranked 104 out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, which is a drop by one position from 2019. Journalists and media houses are threatened by an increasingly shrinking operating space. Indeed, the October 2019 general election was marred by attacks on the media, which included use of threatening messages through social media and SMS. Some journalists, especially in the northern part of the country, were intimidated while others were arrested, persecuted, detained and prosecuted.

More recently, the insurgency in Cabo Delgado and the Covid-19 State of Emergency have elicited state measures that threaten freedom of expression, opinion and the right to access information. Notably, the decree that instituted a state of emergency barred the media from transmitting Covid-19 information that is “contrary to official information”, arbitrarily restricting journalistic information and interfering with editorial independence.

There is some goodwill for openness by the government and increasing numbers of persons using the internet – yet Mozambique has a low score in internet affordability with women being most affected. As of 2018, only 20.8% of Mozambique’s population used the internet, while 26 in every 100 inhabitants had mobile broadband subscription. As of January 2019, the internet penetration rate  stood at 17%.

Amidst a narrowing civic space, there are some measures to improve cybersecurity yet, worryingly, the country has dropped on the Global Cybersecurity Index by 23 places. On individual privacy protections online, Mozambique is still without a data protection law. However towards the end of 2019, Mozambique revised its Penal Code, introducing provisions related to the invasion of privacy. The new Penal Code provisions outlawed the interception, recording, transmission or disclosure of online communications, including email, messages, audio-visual and social media content without consent.

To buttress the protection and enjoyment of digital rights, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Small Media,  Fórum das Associações Moçambicanas das Pessoas com Deficiência (FAMOD) and the Associação de Cegos e Amblíopes de Moçambique have made a joint stakeholder submission on digital rights in Mozambique. The submission focuses on various developments in the country on freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of information and censorship of content, the right to equal access and opportunity, and the right to data protection and privacy on the internet. It draws experiences from Mozambique’s review of January 19, 2016.

Below are some of the recommendations made in the submission:

  1. Enhance capacity building efforts to enforce the right to information law, including encouraging proactive disclosure and compliance with timely responses to information requests.
  2. Repeal provisions of the Covid-19 Emergency Decree, which are contrary to national and international obligations on freedom of expression and access to information and promote open reporting and commentary on issues of public concern.
  3. Institute an independent body to investigate, hold accountable and deter security forces who repeatedly violate journalists’ rights, especially those covering elections and the insurrection in the North.
  4. Implement measures to promote inclusive access for marginalised and vulnerable groups including women, rural communities and persons with disabilities, with funding from the Universal Service Fund.
  5. Enact a data protection law, in line with international and regional standards through multi-stakeholder consultative processes.

See the full submission here.

Ethiopia’s Digital Rights Record on the Spot at May 2019 Universal Peer Review

By Ashnah Kalemera |
Despite the promises and efforts made by Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, to transform the country after years of political repression and state control of major forms of media, the country is yet to experience substantive change in the state of digital rights.
Restrictions to freedom of expression, privacy, and access to information remain in force including through legislation such as the 2008 Mass Media and Freedom of Information law, the 2009 Anti-Terrorism law, the Computer Crime law of 2016 and the Telecom Fraud Offences law (2012). While the establishment of the Advisory Law Reforms Committee, with a mandate to review existing laws to bring them in line with human rights standards, is a welcome development, pledges to reform problematic legislation are yet to be delivered.
Meanwhile, since November 2015, the Ethiopian government has consistently blocked and initiated national or regional shutdowns during public protest and exams, on grounds of national security. Whereas access to affected regions was restored during reforms in early 2018, there were reports of a shutdown in the eastern part of country in August 2018.   
At its upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the Human Rights Council scheduled for May 14, 2019, Ethiopia should be tasked to implement reforms that fundamentally promote and protect citizens’ rights both online and offline.

What is the UPR? It’s a full assessment of a country’s human rights. Every United Nations (UN) member state has its human rights record assessed, and all UN member states are involved in the review process. It happens every four-and-a-half years, for every state.

Such reforms should include the amendment of the 2008 Mass Media and Freedom of Information law, the 2009 Anti-Terrorism law, the Computer Crime law of 2016 and the 2012 Telecom Fraud Offences law to bring them in line with international human rights instruments on freedom of expression. Further, changes should be implemented to curb state surveillance of citizens, including by introducing independent judicial oversight over interception of communications.
In this UPR advocacy brief, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and Small Media analyse the state of freedom of expression, freedom of information, the right to equal access and opportunity, as well as data protection and privacy developments in Ethiopia since the previous UPR review in April 2014. We make recommendations for consideration by UN member states at the upcoming review of Ethiopia.
See the full brief. 

Stakeholder Submission to the UN Human Rights Council on Digital Rights in The Gambia

By Ashnah Kalemera |
In November 2019, The Gambia will be coming up for its third cycle review under the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism. Former President Yahya Jammeh, before his ouster in 2017, was renowned for his utter disregard for constitutional rights, once stating publicly that he would “not compromise or sacrifice the peace, security, stability, dignity, and the well-being of Gambians for the sake of freedom of expression.”
However, since the new administration of Adama Barrow took office in January 2017, the government has made public its intention to review and revise the current regulatory framework for press freedom and freedom of expression. Indeed, in June 2017, the new Attorney General and Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou conceded at the Constitutional Court that the charge of “sedition” under a law that had been frequently used to silence journalists and critics under the former regime was unconstitutional.
Later in February 2018, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court ruled that Gambian authorities should repeal sections of the Criminal Code on libel (Sections 178 & 179), sedition (Sections 51& 52), false news (Sections 59 & 181) and false publication on the internet (Section 173). Following this ruling, the government of The Gambia indicated its intention to “honour” the judgement after review by the Ministry of Justice and other relevant authorities.
As The Gambia’s online user base increases, it becomes increasingly important for UPR recommendations at the upcoming review to reflect explicitly the need for the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, and to privacy to be protected online as well as offline, in line with the state’s obligations under Articles 17 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

What is the UPR?  It’ is a full assessment of a country’s human rights. Every United Nations (UN) member state has its human rights record assessed, and all UN member states are involved in the review process. It happens every four-and-a-half years, for every state.

As part of the Internet Freedom in Africa and UPR project, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Small Media, The Gambia Press Union, Give1 Project Gambia and the YMCA Computer Training Centre, and Digital Studio have made a joint stakeholder submission on digital rights in The Gambia. The submission focuses on freedom of expression, freedom of information, right to equal access and opportunity, as well as data protection and privacy. It explores relevant developments since the previous UPR review in October 2014 and makes the following recommendations:

  • In compliance with international standards, as well as the rulings of the Supreme Court and the ECOWAS Community Court, repeal provisions violating freedom of expression under the Criminal Code (2014) and the Information and Communication Act (2013).
  • Repeal in its entirety the Official Secrets (Amendment) Act 2008 and enact and implement a right to information law.
  • Hasten efforts to provide equal access to technology and communications to all citizens, including disadvantaged and marginalised groups of the population, by removing barriers to access and improving affordability, as well as expanding infrastructure and desisting from internet disruptions.
  • Reform the legislation on personal data protection and privacy in order to provide safeguards on the use of personal data and to protect the right to privacy online.

See the full submission.

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.
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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.
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.