Sudan’s Bad Laws, Internet Censorship and Repressed Civil Liberties

By Khattab Hamad and CIPESA Writer | 

On December 19, 2021, the third anniversary of the start of the uprising that overthrew former Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir, protests against the current military rulers rocked the capital Khartoum. Yet these demonstrations are only a small part of the north African country’s challenges, as it remains saddled with a slew of repressive laws that undermine civil liberties, with the digital civic space particularly under attack.

Sudan’s 2019 constitution grants citizens the right to privacy (article 55) and to free expression (article 57) and “the right to access the internet” (article 57(2)). As of December 2020, Sudan had 34.2 million mobile subscriptions while internet subscriptions stood at 13.7 million, representing a penetration of 31%. Sudan has the most affordable mobile internet in Africa and is ranked among the five least expensive countries for mobile internet globally.

Despite the constitutional guarantees and proliferation of technology, a new briefing paper by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) shows that the state of digital rights remains precarious, with the cybercrimes law enabling the military rulers to harass dissenters and critics under the guise of fighting false information online. 

Frequent internet shutdowns remain a constant reminder that the government will go to great lengths to control access to and use of digital technologies for mobilisation. In the last three years, six internet disruptions have been recorded, mostly ordered to thwart public protests against bad governance. The disruptions have had significant economic implications and only ended following the intervention of the courts. 

The brief explores the repressive elements of media and technology-related laws and how they have been used to undermine freedom of expression, access to information and press freedom in the aftermath of al-Bashir’s overthrow. Overall, while there have been some improvements since al-Bashir’s ouster, the current government continues to institute regressive measures such as news website blockages and censorship. The latest power machinations that saw the military stage a coup on October 25, 2021 are making matters worse. 

The Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA), which spearheaded the uprising that overthrew al-Bashir, extensively used digital technologies to disseminate news about the uprising and to mobilise citizens to attend protests. The military rulers that succeeded Bashir seem to have realised the power of technology in mobilisation and embarked on continuous disruption of the internet, in addition to instituting other measures to curtail online organising, freedom of expression, and the free flow of information online.

Bashir’s dictatorship initiated internet disruptions in view of public protests calling for his overthrow, but the government that succeeded him has been more prolific in utilising shutdowns to try and shut off criticism and protests. 

The longest internet disruption in Sudan’s history was recorded in 2019 and lasted 37 days. During protests around the time the shutdown was initiated, more than 100 protesters were killed. The latest shutdown started on October 25, 2021 and lasted 25 days. It was instituted after Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan seized control of the government. The shutdown was ended by a court order on November 11.

In July 2021, Sudanese authorities blocked more than 30 local news websites in the run up to protests demanding the resignation of the government, a move that severely undermined the right to expression and access to information.

Meanwhile, the cybercrime law of 2020 punishes publishing “lies” and “fake news” online with a heavy penalty of four years imprisonment, or flogging, or both. This law has been used by the military to silence activists and critical state officials. Even Lt. Gen. Burhan has this year invoked it to bring a suit against a prominent critic. The Press and Publications Law of 2009 equally has repressive provisions and was last August controversially invoked to suspendAlitibaha and Alsayha newspapers.

In 2020, Sudan issued the National security law amendment of 2020, article 25 of which leaves latitude for staff of intelligence agencies to violate citizens’ privacy by giving the Sudanese General Intelligence Service “the right to request information, data, documents or things from anyone to check it or take it” without a court order. Last October, military forces that staged a coup appeared to use this provision to search people’s phones in the streets to delete documentation of human rights violations perpetuated by security forces.

See the policy brief for further details on Sudan’s Bad Laws, Internet Censorship and Repressed Civil Liberties.

Building Digital Literacy and Security Capacity of Women Refugees in Uganda

By Ashnah Kalemera |
Statistics on the prevalence of cyber harassment of women in Africa remain scanty. Where some reports of cyber harassment of women in the region are available, the extent to which it affects women in marginalised communities is also not well known. Indeed, the growing proliferation of technology is reported to be facilitating online harassment of women by enabling the anonymity of the perpetrators who could be located anywhere and without physical contact with the victim. In many instances, cases of cyber harassment go unreported and victims have limited legal recourse or resources to  seek justice.
Figures show that in Europe, one in 10 women have been victims of cyber harassment, including having received unwanted, offensive sexually explicit emails or SMS messages, or unwarranted inappropriate advances on social networking sites. While contexts differ, it is possible that women in Africa who use digital communications technologies face similar or greater levels of harassment, given the low levels of digital literacy and poor mechanisms to fight online violence against women.
Interviews conducted in August 2019 with 35 women refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, South Sudan and Sudan, who are living in Uganda, showed that three in four of the respondents had experienced some form of cyber harassment including abuse, stalking, unwarranted sexual advances and hacking of social media accounts. The perpetrators included anonymous individuals, security agents in their home countries, known friends and ex-partners. 
The interviews were carried out as part of the digital literacy and security training for refugee rights defenders. Hosted in Kampala, Uganda by Access for All, the two days training engaged 80 participants and also covered aspects of digital activism and women’s participation in the information society. 
“Due to the rampant online harassment of women in Uganda, we believe that such a project would considerably benefit our members, for whom digital literacy and creative approaches to digital activism are vital in their everyday work and long-term development,” said Asan Juma, the Executive Director of Access for All. 
These online affronts against women refugees in Uganda run in parallel to gender-based violence in refugee camps, at border crossings and resettlement communities. According to the United Nations University (UNU), women refugees are often under threat of physical and sexual violence not only at the hands of fellow refugees and human traffickers but also national immigration administration, security forces and humanitarian staff. In these situations, UNU reports that access to justice and reparation for women refugees is limited.
Indeed, only a quarter of the refugee women interviewed who had experienced cyber harassment went on to report the cases to authorities. Among the reasons put forward for not reporting  was “unawareness of the existing laws that prohibit online harassment” and “distrust of the police.” The mistrust of law enforcement authorities stemmed from self consciousness over their nationality or refugee status, previous bad experiences with authorities in home countries and the perception that “police case handling is often in favour of nationals rather than refugees”. 
Those who did not report the cases of cyber harassment to law enforcement officials coped through support from friends or counselling. A few others stated that they “ignored” the incidents. In one instance where the harassment was perpetrated by a friend, the respondent indicated that rather than reporting the incident to the police, they “talked to the person and settled the matter.”
Other measures taken included blocking the perpetrators on social media platforms or reporting them to platform administrators for violation of user policies. One respondent confirmed that the account of the perpetrator was taken down by platform administrators following an abuse report. 
Beyond online harassment, other digital threats that the participants reported to have experienced included fraud, identity theft online, loss of devices, viruses and malware on their devices. Whereas the engagement provided digital safety skills and knowledge, physical security threats also remain a challenge. Beneficiaries called for more coordinated digital rights advocacy efforts focused on the needs and challenges of refugee communities, targeting both the refugees as beneficiaries but also key stakeholders in the realisation of these rights.  
Access For All was founded in South Sudan in 2016 with an aim to promote the rights of sexual minorities. In the same year, the organisation was shut down by the government. The founders fled South Sudan and sought asylum in Uganda, where they worked on health rights and dignity of urban refugee sexual minorities. 
As part of its work in Uganda, Access for All recognised that urban refugees faced heightened gender-based violence risks due to unmet multiple and complex social, economic and medical needs as well as intersecting oppressions based on race, ethnicity, nationality, language, sexual orientation and gender identity. Moreover, humanitarian programmes were found to focus less on serving refugees in urban areas and even less so on sexual minority refugees.
With a grant from the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF) that is managed by CIPESA, Access for All was among the inaugural grantees in 2019 and carried out the bi-lingual (English and Arabic) interviews and training workshop, which  explored prevailing digital security/protection concerns among urban refugees in Uganda and mechanisms to address them.

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.