Disinformation and Hate Speech Continue to Fuel the Conflict in Eastern DR Congo 

By Nadine Kampire Temba and CIPESA Writer |

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) continues to witness an information war, characterised by spiralling incitement, misinformation, disinformation and hate speech on social media. The state of affairs has undermined cohesion between communities and continues unabated due to various factors. 

Firstly, the country’s long history of political instability has created an environment where misinformation, disinformation and hate speech thrive. Over the past three decades, the DR Congo has witnessed cyclic and indiscriminate violence, and internationalised conflict. These have been fuelled by impunity for atrocities, endemic corruption, poor governance, leadership wrangles and differences over the control of an estimated USD 24 trillion worth of mineral resources, pitting the government against neighbouring countries, at least 120 armed groups and other parties. 

The instability has left at least 24.6 million people (one in four Congolese) at risk of food insecurity and a further six million citizens internally displaced, the highest on the continent. Human rights violations have remained commonplace despite years of humanitarian interventions. More recently, the conflict has escalated in Ituri and Kivu provinces in the eastern part of the country. Violence between government forces and armed groups has led to the death of at least 1,300 people since October 2022 and forced about 300,000 civilians to flee their homes and villages. 

Secondly, divisions among the country’s diverse ethnic groups have contributed to the escalation of tensions and hostility, while disputes with neighbouring Rwanda have led to the deterioration of diplomatic relations between the two states. Congo, United Nations experts and western governments accuse Rwanda of backing the March 23 Movement (M23) rebel group which continues to extend its control in North Kivu – accusations Rwanda and the rebel group deny. 

The Congolese government has labelled the M23 a “terrorist movement” and blamed it for committing atrocities, including summary executions and forced enlistment of civilians. In January 2023, Congo accused Rwanda of shooting down its fighter jet and described this as a “deliberate act of aggression that amounts to an act of war”. Rwanda claimed the jet had violated its airspace on three occasions. This came eight months after Kinshasa banned Rwanda Air from its airspace.

For its part, the Rwanda government accuses the Congolese army of utilising proxy armed groups, such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Les Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR), to contain the M23 offensive and to destabilise Rwanda.

The strained relations between the two countries, coupled with social divisions based on ethnicity, religion, nationality and political affiliation, continue to be exploited by politicians and groups affiliated to both countries to create tension and fuel hate speech and disinformation online and offline. On October 30, 2022, the Congolese government ordered the Rwandan ambassador, Vincent Karega, to leave the country within 48 hours in retaliation for Kigali’s alleged support to the M23. The DR Congo also recalled its top diplomat from Rwanda in a further souring of relations. A day later, on October 31, 2022, thousands of Congolese citizens, mostly in Goma city, attended anti-Rwanda protests to denounce Kigali’s alleged support of the M23, a mostly Congolese Tutsi group and what they called the “hypocrisy of the international community in the face of Rwanda’s aggression.” 

During the protests, names of individuals identified as Rwandans were read out, resulting in attacks and lynching of some individuals. In response, online trolls affiliated to Rwanda have targeted Congolese political leaders, journalists and civil society leaders. The targets of attacks in Congo have included the Banyarwanda (Tutsi) and the Banyamulenge whose citizenship, equal rights and belonging in DR Congo have been constantly questioned. They often face threats, attacks, and dehumanising stereotypes as they are perceived as foreigners or Rwandan implants supporting the M23 rebellion. 

Amidst these tensions is a weak and underdeveloped media environment in both DR CongoC and Rwanda, coupled with low media literacy among the population, which are enabling the spread of false information without being challenged or fact-checked. The situation has been further complicated by the lack of both skills and tools in content moderation and editorial guidance on the part of local media outlets and journalists working from both sides of the border. 

Media houses have to compete with social media platforms where users have found a sense of “community” by connecting with a variety of actors at the national level and in the diaspora who anonymously disseminate and amplify well-scripted radical messages, conspiracy theories and polarising narratives to wider audiences and appeal to ethnic loyalties and sow discord among communities. Some of the rivalling groups have deployed bots and trolls in order to manipulate the public opinion on social media.

According to Congolese journalist Desanges Kihuha, the media that are committed to providing truthful information are struggling to match the speed at which conflict-related disinformation and misinformation are spreading on social media platforms due to limited skills and funding. Thus, any actor intent on spreading false information can publish information online where it can easily gain virality without being fact-checked. “In the current context of war and insecurity in North Kivu province, misinformation continues to spread at a fast rate due to the use of digital and social media. Unfortunately, there is little press coverage of this phenomenon of hate speech and fake news,” says Kihuha.

Related to the above is that a significant part of the population, especially those in rural areas, lack access to accurate, verifiable and reliable information, while at the same time, the youth rely on social media for information. In addition, the social and economic challenges affecting the public, such as high poverty levels and limited access to basic services and infrastructure, create frustration, resentment, anger and distrust of the state, making the public vulnerable to exploitation. 

As a result, politicians, armed groups and their allies exploit these vulnerabilities to create tension by manipulating public opinion to generate support for their extremist political views or groups and channelling the public anger to promote hate speech and disinformation to further escalate the ethnic and regional conflicts. Theogene Magarambe, a Rwandan journalist, describes this as the “instrumentalisation of the M23 insurgency” in order to distract the public from governance shortcomings and the failure to restore peace and rule of law in Kivu. 

The failure by governments on both sides of the border to create an environment to push back against the political polarisation and disinformation online is widely acknowledged. “At the practical level, policies related to content moderation and regulation are currently inexistent, though we are engaging cross-border communities in order to create space for dialogue, hosting workshops and platforms where we exchange knowledge,” says Marion Ngavho Kambale, who is the head of the civil society of the North Kivu province.  Magarambe adds: “Today the true legitimacy test for any credible government is whether it can implement legal safeguards on privately developed technologies and hold platform operators accountable for failure to moderate content.”

Critics point to the challenge of the structural conception of social media platforms, whose business models and algorithms mostly prioritise content based on its engagement value rather than its accuracy or truth. Platforms such as Facebook have been criticised for inaction in the face of online ethnic incitement and massacres in Ethiopia – a potential risk in the DR Congo-Rwanda conflict. As Arsene Tungali, a digital rights and internet governance expert observed, inadequate actions by the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp means “the devastating effects of political polarisation, hate speech and disinformation peddled on  social media remain a problem.”

Louis Gitinywa, a digital rights and technology lawyer, says although the internet has offered citizens and private actors in the two countries a robust civic space for organising and engaging with key societal priorities, the “lawlessness and disinformation online … continue to contribute to fighting and killings”. 

Overall, addressing hate and disinformation in the DR Congo-Rwanda conflict will require a sustained and coordinated effort from multiple actors. Looking ahead, there is a critical need to build capacity and expertise amongst all the stakeholders in order to formulate effective strategies for content moderation. This includes building the legal expertise and strategic litigation to hold liable social media such as Facebook and Twitter for failing to effectively put adequate measures to moderate content in native and indigenous languages.

Further, since media literacy is limited, it is important to build the capacity of journalists, media practitioners and civil society reporting on the conflict to be aware of the complex information environment, relevant skills in fact-checking, professional ethics, content moderation as well as building their own professional networks for sharing credible information with counterparts across borders and avoiding sensationalism in reporting. They can also use the available platforms to promote responsible social media use, tolerance and dialogue between different groups in order to build trust. Moreover, the different actors should desist from propagating hate speech and disinformation. 

Nadine Kampire Temba is a journalist and digital rights lawyer based in Goma city, DR Congo, and a fellow with CIPESA. She coordinates Afia Amani Grands Lacs, an online media outlet that undertakes fact-checking and defends press freedom in the Great Lakes Region. You can follow her on Twitter @nadineKampire

Gear Up! The 2023 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) is Heading to Tanzania!

Announcement |

The annual Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) hosted by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) will be held in Dar es Salam, Tanzania on September 27-29, 2023. This year will mark a decade of the largest gathering on internet freedom in Africa, which has since 2014 put internet freedom on the agenda of key actors including African policy makers, platform operators, telcos, regulators, human rights defenders, academia, law enforcement representatives, and the media. This has paved the way for broader work on advancing digital rights in Africa and promoting the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance.

In several African countries, it is becoming increasingly challenging to utilise the internet to defend human rights, strengthen independent media, support democratisation, and demand accountable and transparent governance, or to freely access information and contribute content in the diversity of African languages. This is undermining the core principle of the internet as a free and open platform. 

The decision to host the 2023 edition of FIFAfrica in Tanzania is in recognition of the country’s progressive shift to advance digitalisation for sustainable development. Under the leadership of its first female President, Samia Suluhu Hassan, a proponent for civil rights and women’s rights, the country has undergone political and legal reforms aimed at enhancing civic space and digitalisation agenda. Notably, a data protection law has been enacted, the law governing media operations is being revised, and the  Online Content Regulations 2020 were revised to make them more supportive of online speech, privacy and access to information. 

It is upon this backdrop that FIFAfrica 2023 will offer a platform for critical engagement of diverse stakeholders in identifying the most pressing internet rights-related issues and challenges that have to be addressed at national and regional levels. Over the years, FIFAfrica has identified opportunities for bringing the debate on the importance of digital rights to national, regional and global fora. In particular, the Forum supports the development of substantive inputs to inform a wide range of conversations at organisational, national, regional, continental and global levels, including at the African Union, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the United Nations Human Rights Council, the African Internet Governance Forum (IGF), sub-regional IGFs and at the global IGF.

The growth in diversity of participants and discussions at FIFAfrica reflects the evolving trends and concerns in access and usage of the internet and related technologies.  Topics have included access to information, mass surveillance, turning policy into action, internet shutdowns, content regulation, cyber security, digital economy, online violence against women, data protection and privacy, cyber governance, open source investigative journalism, online movement building and civic building, business and big data, building research capacity in internet measurements, innovation and security in conflict territories, as well as gender-sensitive approaches to ICT Policy and decision making. 

Overall, FIFAfrica is helping to grow the community advancing digital rights in Africa, increasing awareness about and advocacy for internet freedom, while forging new alliances that advance digital rights. It elevates new voices including those of often marginalised groups such as the youth, persons with disabilities and women, and enables state and non-state actors to develop evidence-based interventions that guide policy and practice

FIFAfrica has previously been hosted in Uganda, South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia and Zambia, with the last edition attended by up to 1,000 individuals (online and offline) from 47 countries.
A call for proposals and travel support applications will be announced soon. For updates, follow CIPESA social media (@cipesaug) accounts  on Twitter,Facebook and LinkedIn.

Court Admits Expert Views from CIPESA, Access Now and Article 19 on Uganda’s Digital ID 

By CIPESA Writer |

On March 24, 2023, the High Court of Uganda at Kampala ruled to allow experts from Access Now, ARTICLE 19, and the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) to offer their opinions on the human rights red flags around the country’s digital identification (ID) system. 

The ruling followed an application by the three organisations for admission as “Friends of Court” in a case which challenges the use of the National Identification Register as the sole data source and primary means of identification prior to accessing various social services. Uganda’s national digital ID, also known as Ndaga Muntu, is a mandatory scheme for accessing various socio-economic services.

The court admitted the amicus brief submission by the trio despite objections from the Attorney General and the National Identification Registration Authority (NIRA) on grounds that the application was facilitated by bias and partiality of the applicants. The respondents further argued that the applications introduced new, inadmissible evidence – an assertion the court did not agree with. The court, in fact, noted the significance of the arguments raised  by Access Now, ARTICLE 19 and CIPESA, particularly on data protection, digital inclusion, surveillance, and the sufficiency of protection measures and their impact on the right to privacy.

The admission means that the court will consider the opinions of the three organisations in determining the case challenging Uganda’s digital ID system. In his ruling, Justice  Boniface Wamala noted that the matters the three organisations raised did not constitute evidence. Rather, they “constitute legal concepts that are new, unfamiliar, unusual or unique. Such aspects constitute the quality of novelty.”

The organisations made the application as neutral parties and experts to assist the court to be better abreast with novel areas that potentially contribute to the development of the law. 

The joint brief seeks to help court fully grasp the potential impact of the national digital ID program on online and offline rights including the right to privacy, the right to freedom of expression, as well as intersecting economic, social, and cultural rights by providing expert evidence at national, sub regional, regional, and international levels. It also explains how the digital identity system might contribute to excluding citizens from basic access to services, thereby leaving them in a vulnerable state.  

The case challenging the ID system was filed by the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights,  Unwanted Witness, and Health Equity and Policy Initiative, against the Ugandan Attorney General and the NIRA. The NIRA is the body charged with creating and managing the National Identification Register by registering births, deaths, citizens and non-citizens. 

In its affidavit in support of the amicus application, CIPESA argued that as an expert in  advancing internet freedom and governance, civic participation, and data governance, it saw the need to intervene as a friend of court, in public interest and the interest of justice, to promote and protect human rights.

According to CIPESA’s Legal Officer, Edrine Wanyama, the ruling to hear the opinions of the expert organisations could help in shaping new and emerging areas of the law in Uganda on the need to respect privacy and other rights in the deployment of digital technologies in public digitalisation programmes, including initiatives like the Digital ID.

“This is a demonstration of the commitment of the courts to remain open to new and emerging knowledge and jurisprudence and to receive expert opinions on how to protect citizens from potential harms associated with the use of technology,” said Wanyama. 

CIPESA anticipates that the court will draw considerable knowledge from the amicus submissions and reach a decision that ensures that the roll-out of the digital ID system does not serve as a tool for exclusion but as an inclusion tool for all persons in accessing social and economic services.

Access Now, ARTICLE 19, and CIPESA aim to continue offering the court expert views that could help to ensure that the digital ID system is implemented in a manner that respects minimum human rights standards and promotes and protects rights and freedoms.

Building Cyber Smart Women Entrepreneurs in Nigeria

By CIPESA Staff Writer |

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, Nigeria is among the countries with the highest number of women entrepreneurs, most of whom conduct their business online. However, with the increasing prevalence of cyber attacks and fraud, the success of women-owned Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in the country is under threat. In Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, Sophos reports that 71% of businesses were hit with ransomware attacks in 2021.  

In 2021, cybercrime caused an estimated USD 4 billion loss for African economies, equivalent to 3.5% of the continent’s USD 115 billion digital economy. Despite significant threats such as online scams, digital extortion, email compromise, ransomware and botnets, Interpol figures indicate that over 90% of businesses on the African continent operate without the necessary cyber security protocols in place. 

In a bid to counter such threats, Tech Hive Advisory in partnership with Ikigai Innovation Initiative implemented the Cyber Smart Woman project to build a sustainable digital ecosystem for women entrepreneurs in Nigeria. The three-phase project featured 12 focus group discussions on data governance, cybersecurity challenges, and digital security needs of the women-owned SMEs, followed by four knowledge and skills workshops, and the development of a toolkit on data protection and cyber security practices for sustainability and competitiveness.

Tech Hive Advisory and Ikigai Innovation Initiative were one of ten initiatives awarded grants in the sixth round of the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF). The supported initiatives focused on promoting effective data governance in Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal; countering gendered and election-related misinformation and disinformation in Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda; building digital resilience within the media fraternity in Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda; promoting digital inclusion in Uganda and Kenya; and building grassroots-based movements for internet freedom in South Africa.

The focus group discussions featured participants from various online business sectors, many of whom revealed that they lacked adequate digital protection for their businesses. Up to a quarter of the participants had been direct victims of device theft and cyber attacks such as scams and hacking. As a result, their businesses had suffered monetary loss, reputational damage, and, in extreme instances, loss of online assets such as social media accounts and client databases. 

The discussions further revealed that despite the SMEs collecting various personal data, the majority did not include online security or data protection measures within their business strategies. Meanwhile, many clients did not invoke their rights as data subjects, which made their data more susceptible to abuse. Indeed, one participant admitted that she had  shared a client’s contact information without permission. 

Most of the focus group participants believed that with the appropriate knowledge and skills, business owners, just like data subjects, would be able to minimise vulnerability to cyber attacks  and data breaches. Accordingly, four capacity building workshops were convened in four regions – Abuja, Ibadan, Kaduna and Lagos –  benefiting 167 SME owners. Topics covered included data protection rights and obligations; compliance with data protection regulations; and cybersecurity best practices.  

To complement the training workshops, a toolkit for data protection and cybersecurity was developed and disseminated. The toolkit outlines Nigeria’s data protection frameworks as well as the obligations and compliance requirements for business owners. It also provides tips and resources for data subject access procedures, privacy policies, records of processing activities and retention periods. The second section of the toolkit focuses on cybersecurity, also outlining the prevailing legal and regulatory frameworks, common vulnerabilities, best practice guidelines and resources. 

Ayodeji Sarumi, the Co-Founder of Tech Hive Advisory, says the project has equipped female-owned businesses in Nigeria with better approaches to handling data protection and cybersecurity issues,  which could be essential for their survival in a highly digitised world where cyber fraud is rampant.

Pushing Back Against Gendered Disinformation in Uganda

By Loyce Kyogabirwe |

Across Africa, a gender-inclusive digital society remains largely elusive. Beyond the challenges related to the gender digital divide and online gender-based violence, the growth in form and prevalence of online disinformation in Africa is also taking on a gendered lens. Pushback against gendered disinformation is thus critical to  combating online harms against women and attaining gender equity.

In Uganda, there has been a notable upward trend in gendered disinformation, with attacks targeted at organisations working on sexual and reproductive rights. This, against a backdrop of offline attacks such as the August 2022 suspension of the operations of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) on allegations that the organisation had failed to register with the National Bureau for Non-Governmental Organisations.

During the second half of 2022, the activist group Her Internet implemented a project to create awareness and understanding of gendered disinformation including its effects and perpetrators in Uganda. With a focus on sexual minorities and sex workers, the project supported by the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF) also worked to build alliances and networks as support systems for mitigation of impact and countering false narratives.

HER Internet convened an interactive dialogue in Uganda’s capital Kampala to share real life experiences as well as strategies on how to avert the negative effects of gendered disinformation. Targeting 20 individuals from communities of structurally marginalised women, the dialogue also covered aspects of fact-checking and safety online.

Extract from HerInternet handbook on understanding gendered disinformation

The dialogue called for non-discriminatory enforcement of current cyber laws and the need for diverse narratives to eliminate biased reporting, amongst other measures. In addition to the dialogue, Her Internet also conducted a campaign on its social media platforms on the key concepts of gendered disinformation, its manifestations and counter strategies. The project also compiled and disseminated a handbook on understanding gendered disinformation as a go-to guide for communities to understand and further engage beyond the campaign and dialogues.

According to a 2020 report by  UN Women,  women  with  multiple identities, such as sexual and ethnic minorities, are often targeted online through discrimination and hate speech, which often forces them to  self-censor  and  withdraw  from  debates and online discussions. Similarly, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, has stated that some  groups  of  women, including women belonging to ethnic minorities, indigenous women, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, and women with disabilities are particularly targeted by technology-facilitated violence.

Research by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has found that cyberstalking, online sexual harassment, blackmail through non-consensual sharing of personal information, promotes and normalises violence against women and girls who use the internet in Uganda. Her Internet’s project builds on ADRF’s gender and sexual inclusivity portfolio. The ADRF has previously supported digital literacy and safety programmes for sexual minority refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, South Sudan and Sudan, living in Uganda.

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