Disruptions To Digital Communications Persist In The Democratic Republic Of Congo

By Edrine Wanyama |
Internet access and Short Message Services (SMS) were interrupted in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) on January 20, 2018 ahead of a peaceful protest march organised by the Catholic Church to compel President Joseph Kabila to step down following the expiry of his final term in office. The country remains caught in a cycle of instability since the postponement of the November 2016 elections to December 2017, and then to April 2018.
The first interruption of digital communications in the vast central African nation occurred in December 2011 in the aftermath of general elections, before the announcement of the election results. The shutdown affected SMS, and lasted 25 days.
In the seven years since then, DR Congo has experienced at least five communication disruptions amidst growing concerns about surveillance of the digital communications of opposition leaders, journalists, and activists.

See: The Evolution of Internet Shutdowns in DR Congo

Affronts to internet access hurt human rights, and undermine political stability and economic growth. According to the new framework for calculating the economic impact of internet shutdowns, DR Congo loses at least USD 1,936,911 per day of an internet disruption.
The regular communication disruptions bring into focus the role of intermediaries in advancing internet freedom in the country. Specifically, telecom companies and other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are being challenged to dissociate themselves from censorship, by declining to effect the government’s orders to cut off communications. Such a move would arguably be in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights which require businesses to proactively address all adverse human rights impacts directly linked to their operations, products or services. However, many telecommunications services providers fear reprimand and termination of their licences for failure to comply with directives from the state to interfere or block digital communications.
Government directives to shut down the internet or interrupt communications are usually issued under the guise of “national security” or “public order”. In a letter ordering network disruptions in August 2017, an official of the national communications regulatory body, the Autorité de Regulation des Postes et Télécommunications du Congo (ARPTC), instructed service providers to take preventative measures to reduce the capacity to transmit “abusive messages.”
Internet penetration in DR Congo remains low at 4.2%, supported by a 55.7% mobile penetration. To-date, there are two primary laws governing the telecommunications sector, both of which were passed in 2002: the Framework Law 013/2002 on Telecommunications, and the Law 14/2002 on the Regulations – the law that established the national regulator. However, rather than advance internet access and usage, these laws have often been used against the media and critics of the state. Meanwhile, there are limited meaningful avenues for citizens to provide inputs to proposed new laws related to the telecommunications industry.
President Kabila’s government should boldly work to stop the abuse of rights which the country’s 2005 constitution guarantees . Abuse of free expression and access to information has continued in Congo despite the recognition of access to the internet as a human right by African and International Human Rights instruments. The UN Secretary General has previously called and continues to call upon the Congolese government to uphold her citizens’ freedoms to speech and peaceful assembly.
It is thus imperative that Congo government authorities desist from interrupting digital communications and guarantee citizens’ access to the internet and to the full enjoyment of their digital rights. Further, the Congo government should recognise the relationship between access to the internet and citizens’ livelihoods and work to grow the number of its citizens that meaningfully access and use digital tools and services.

Promoting e-participation in Western Uganda

By ToroDev Staff Writer |
Radio has proved to be a key tool in promoting public accountability and improved service delivery in the Rwenzori region of western Uganda. Toro Development Network (ToroDev), a non-governmental organisation that trains marginalised communities on service delivery monitoring and participation in governance processes, has reached wide audiences by supplementing their radio activities with additional Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) tools and traditional offline engagements.

ToroDev members in an online training session led by WOUGNET in Fort Portal
ToroDev members in an online training session led by Women Of Uganda Network (WOUGNET)

ToroDev is working in partnership with two popular regional radios stations, Hits FM and Better FM, on public accountability radio talk shows focusing on topics such as corruption, politics, poor public infrastructure and health services delivery. ToroDev has enabled wider participation in the radio discussions through the installation of the online polling application Trac.FM at partner radio stations which is supported by pre-paid SMS enabling citizens to share their opinions. Journalist Forums, social media platforms and live call ins further facilitate the debates.
The convergence of these ICT tools has spurred audience participation from 304 monthly responses from citizens in early 2014  to 4,835 responses per month by November 2014, based on aggregated social media responses, radio station SMS and call in figures as well as Trac.FM statistics.
In December 2014, the Orukurato radio talk show on Hits FM discussed the issue of electricity load shedding in the region.  According to the show’s host William Kasigazi, over 5,000 responses through call ins on, Trac.FM and social media were received on the topic, of which 85% of respondents were affected by lack of electricity for a few hours at least once every day.
This unusual influx of responses during the December 2014 load shedding debate led to the regional Director of Umeme (the national electricity supplier) to request for a slot on the show to educate citizens on the cause of the power cuts.
Meanwhile, in order to promote more rural debate and participation (where access and cost of ICT remains a limiting factor), ToroDev also conducts monthly physical accountability meetings as opportunities for communities to directly engage with local duty bearers. The number of citizens participating in these meetings rose from 60 individuals per meeting in December 2013 to an average of 200 per meeting by August 2014. An increase in women participation in these meetings was also registered, from five in 2013 to 50 in December 2014. Half of the participants at each meeting were youths.
Instrumental to the success of the project has also been the use of 15 advocacy forums which were initiated to encourage rural service delivery monitoring and monthly governance deliberations.
Andrew Twesige of the Bufunjo Peoples Forum noted that its lobbying work for improved service delivery at the Bufunjo Health Centre III was a success. Through online and offline community engagements and increased awareness on the state of service delivery at the health centre by the Forum, the issue of low staff levels at the Centre reached the attention of local duty bearers and six additional nurses were recruited for the health centre.
Such outcomes are helping more citizens in communities where ToroDev works to embrace the use of ICT tools in public services monitoring.
“Before the radio talk shows were introduced, leaders were very hard to reach and we used to fear them, beg them, they were taken as special people. But radio talk shows, TracFM and accountability meetings have helped citizens to work hand in hand with both political and technical leaders,” said Jane Ahimbisibwe who heads the Butiti Peoples Forum in Kyenjojo district. She added that through these tools citizens are shedding the fear previously held for duty bearers noting, “we are brave enough to approach any leader because we have been given a good platform.”
Indeed, the increasing popularity of the talk shows, the use of polls on on Trac.FM and the accountability meetings have attracted national and local duty bearers to more willingly engage with citizens on the platforms availed through ToroDev. During 2014, a total of 60 leaders at sub-county and parliamentary level participated in the monthly accountability meetings, and jointly with the advocacy forums drew up action plans for priority public service issues. A notable participant in such engagements was the State Minister for Finance (Uganda), Aston Kajara.
ToroDev’s work is part of the ICT4Democracy in East Africa Network, a regional coalition of civil society organisations coordinated by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). The network is supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

ICT4Democracy in East Africa: Promoting Democracy and Human Rights Through ICTs

Established in 2011, ICT4Democracy in East Africa is a network of organisations working to promote democracy and human rights through Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Across the three countries, partners are leveraging on mobile short message service (SMS), toll free call centre, FM radio, social media, crowd sourcing platforms and direct community engagement to implement projects that tackle issues such as corruption, service delivery, respect for human rights, freedom of expression and access to information.
The projects are driven by the shared vision of the immense potential that ICTs have in increasing citizens’ participation in decision-making processes and strengthening democratisation.
The partner organisations are: the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance (CHRAGG), iHub Research, Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), Toro Development Network, Transparency International Uganda and Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET).
The network is supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and the Swedish Program for ICT in Developing Regions (Spider). CIPESA is the network regional coordinator.
Read more about the network in the profile publication here.

SMS System Boosts Reporting of Human Rights Abuses in Tanzania

Growing the capacity of citizens and civic groups including human rights networks to use Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to foster free speech, human rights, access to information and open governance is one of the objectives of the ICT4Democracy in East Africa Network. Since April 2014, the Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance (CHRAGG) in Tanzania has conducted a campaign to raise awareness about the SMS for Human Rights system throughout Tanzania.
The system, which was launched on Human Rights Day in December 2012, has made it easier for citizens to report human rights violations to the Commission. In 2013, a total of 173,493 complaints were received through the system. Since then, the number of complaints filed with the Commission has averaged more than 100 per week compared to 10 per week prior to the system’s installation.
Given that CHRAGG has only four regional offices to cover a large country, the system has reduced the amount of time, inconvenience and cost to citizens for submitting complaints and following up on case progress, particularly for those in rural areas. The electronic case handling system has also eased the work of investigators by reducing their travel burden and enabling more efficient evidence gathering. Besides text message, the platform allows for video and image capabilities for complainants and informers.
The SMS for Human Rights System is a mobile phone based Complaints Handling Management Information System aimed at expanding CHRAGG’s case handling and tracking. An individual is able to file a complaint by texting the word ‘REPORT’ or ‘TAARIFA’ to the toll free number:  +255 (0) 754 460 259. The individual receives a text message confirming receipt of the complaint. Thereafter, a follow up phone call is made by investigators at the Commission to obtain further information, authenticate the report and assign the individual a reference number. The same number can be used to track the progress of a complaint by texting the word ‘STATUS’ followed by the reference number.
However, although many complaints are received through the system, many citizens, particularly on the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar, were not aware of its existence.  With an estimated population of 45 million people, Tanzania has about 28 million mobile phone subscriptions representing a teledensity of 61 phones per 100 inhabitants.
The system’s awareness campaign launch in Zanzibar in April was officiated by CHRAGG’s Commissioner Zahor Kharmis. CHRAGG’s Director of Human Rights Francis Nzuki and Wilfred Warioba, the Head of Management Information System Unit demonstrated how the system works and fielded questions from the attendees who included journalists, representatives from civil society organisations and ordinary citizens.
The event was televised live on Television Zanzibar (TVZ) and broadcast on Coconut FM radio station. It was also featured on Zanzibar Broadcasting TV and Radio, Independent TV, Radio Coconut, Radio Chuchu, Radio Hits, Radio Zenj, Radio Alnoor and two local print newspapers.
Since the launch, two public awareness meetings have been held in the North Unguja and Urban West regions of Zanzibar island. Furthermore, five similar events have been held in Mtwara, KilwaKivinje, Pwani and Dar es Salaam regions on the mainland.
In addition to the meetings, over four million print leaflets have been distributed encouraging citizens to seek redress for human rights violations particularly in the areas of poor service delivery, police brutality, corruption and employment rights.
The awareness raising campaign is expected to cover at least 18 more regions in the coming months. It is expected to incorporate nationwide TV and radio talk shows as well as social media as part of its outreach campaign.
Established in 2001 in fulfillment of Tanzania’s national constitution, CHRAGG plays the dual role of an ombudsman and a human rights commission for the protection and promotion of human rights as well as good governance.
CHRAGG is a member of the ICT4Democracy in East Africa Network whose work is supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and the Swedish Programme for ICT in Developing Regions (Spider). The network is coordinated by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).